Gdansk, Poland – People rushing and lining up in front of help centres, crowds at the main train station, and yellow-blue flags popping up everywhere: Polish cities like Gdańsk have opened their arms to Ukrainians escaping the war.
The solidarity and mobilisation of Polish volunteers have been instrumental in managing the first weeks of one of the worst refugee crises on the European continent in decades. But as more people cross the border, Poland struggles to accommodate everyone in need.
The refugee crisis has gained extraordinary speed. More than three million people have fled from Ukraine since the start of the invasion, with over two million of them coming to neighbouring Poland. Apart from the country’s two largest cities Warsaw and Kraków, many choose Gdańsk and nearby Polish towns on the Baltic coast.
Ekaterina Horn, from the Ukrainian city of Chornomorsk, is one of them. A couple of days after the war started, she fled with her young son and daughter to Gdańsk. Her husband accompanied them to the border but had to stay in Ukraine. Her only remaining belongings are what she was able to carry with her, mostly clothes for children.
“When we came, volunteers hugged us. They gave us a lot: food, diapers, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, we didn’t have any of those,” she told Kafkadesk. During our conversation, she shows us her boots, saying she got them from volunteers as well, because she only had sneakers, not suited for the cold weather.
She now stays in a one-bedroom flat with her sister, who lives in Gdańsk, but children have to sleep on a floor for lack of space, and Ekaterina started saving up to afford renting a flat. She has already managed to find a job in the beauty industry.
“Many people left their homes and came here. I am grateful to people who live here and who accept refugees,” she said.
Volunteers in Gdańsk work around the clock to help refugees, mostly women and children fleeing the deadly conflict, with transport, accommodation, basic products and necessities, or any other type of support they’re able to provide.
“I’m all the time on the phone,” said Kateryna Urbanek, a Ukrainian translator who lives in Gdynia, part of tri-city urban area with Gdańsk and Sopot. She was able to find accommodation for her sister and cousins and is in touch with her friends and other relatives, all scared and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. When she can, Kateryna also does translations free of charge.
Friendship and solidarity on the frontline
Deputy-mayor of Gdynia Katarzyna Gruszecka-Spychała highlights the unprecedented wave of solidarity that has swept the country. “When I brought my Ukrainian family to the restaurant, the staff did not allow me to pay, not only for them but also for me,” she told Kafkadesk. Once, she said, a random stranger bought a sack of burgers for all those waiting at the reception point.
As many as two-thirds of Poles are willing to support refugees from Ukraine and 88% are proud of how the country reacted so far, according to a survey by a research and consulting firm TGM Research.
But as more people flock to safety, Polish cities are starting to be overwhelmed in multiple ways, from a lack of available flats to an insufficient number of healthcare workers or teachers, Gruszecka-Spychała admitted.
“It is clear that this chaos needs to be brought under control and that these are tasks for the government administration […]. If we neglect the systemic challenges, we can get ourselves into serious trouble,” she commented.
Warsaw and Kraków have already warned that they are reaching their limit and may not be able to take new waves of refugees. Mayors of both cities appealed for support from the central government and the European Union in what the UN has described as “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II”.
The Polish government has recently approved a law allowing Ukrainian refugees to stay legally and work in Poland for 18 months, with a possibility of extension. Polish citizens hosting refugees will receive 40 zloty per day (around €8.5), and Ukrainians fleeing from the war are eligible for a one-off payment of 300 zloty (about €64).
Still, providing accommodation for everyone in need could become an uphill battle. Available rooms in hotels and hostels are now scarce, says Olga from the Association of Belarusians in Pomerania. From the first days of the Russian invasion, its members provided humanitarian aid to Ukrainians, picked up people from the border, and found shelter for them.
“There is a huge problem with housing. There are no places anymore to accommodate people who come from Ukraine, but we try to help everyone,” she said. Another issue is supplying people with essential goods.
“Now we receive many people who first went to centers in Gdańsk or Gdynia but could not get help with groceries, hygienic products, or clothes,” she said. “Some people come and say: we have tried here and there, but have not received help”.
A looming “refugee disaster”?
Volunteers help refugees to survive the first days, but their goodwill is not enough to tackle challenges in the long run. Polish President Andrzej Duda warned that, without international help, there would be “a refugee disaster”.
Apart from accommodation, Ukrainians also need access to health care and education. “One of the main challenges for local governments is to secure places in schools for children from Ukraine,” Rafał Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, wrote on Twitter.
Speaking to BBC Newsnight, he called for a system to cope with the waves of refugees, saying Poland “cannot improvise anymore”.
In addition to basic aid, social support is crucial as many refugees left families in Ukraine and have to deal with trauma, Klaudia Gołębiowska, a doctor of social sciences at Adam Mickiewicz University said. “We do not know what mental and physical condition these people are in today or how they will feel,” she said.
Even though many other EU countries, such as Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, gave a hand in helping Ukrainians, there is a need for the expertise of international organizations with extensive experience in providing humanitarian aid and crisis management, according to her.
“We may not be able to handle alone another one, two or three million people who will soon flee their homes in Ukraine,” she warned.
By Anna Rzhevkina
A former Reuters reporter, Anna is a freelance journalist based in Gdańsk, Poland, who covers topics ranging from business and economics to human rights. She is a regular contributor to other media outlets, including Notes from Poland and the Warsaw Business Journal.