Yesterday we witnessed it with our own eyes. It was a heart-breaking experience, seeing exhausted and confused Ukrainian people arriving to Poland. Many of them, mostly (pregnant) women with children, had been traveling for days, without much food and with limited to no access to sanitary facilities, with waiting times in front of the Ukrainian/Polish border crossing amounting up to about a day. Once they had managed to enter Poland, they were welcomed by an amazing army of Polish volunteers. It was heart-warming to see what the volunteers managed to achieve, but the volunteers were not supported in a professional way, structural support from the government seemed to be missing. Knowing that the biggest refugee wave might still have to come, additional measures will be needed to facilitate the increasing demand.
We decided to act and not to wait
Hearing the needs for basic/essential goods and transport from the Ukrainian/Polish border, we decided to act and to join the voluntary aid efforts. Through social media we had invited our friends to support us in filling our van with the essential goods people were in need off. We were pleasantly surprised, that in just a few hours our van was rather full, which illustrates how involved the Polish people currently are. And not only the Polish, as we had received donations from friends abroad as well.
On Saturday around 7 am we departed from Gdańsk for a 750 km drive to the Polish-Ukrainian border and along the way we picked up a few more things in Warsaw. On the road we noticed a lot of military operations, in every direction. Late in the afternoon we arrived at the border crossing Zosin – Ustyluh. It was very crowded, as we understood from the locals, even more crowded than the days before. Many people were waiting for relatives/friends who were supposed to cross the border, not knowing for how long they would have to stay there. The refugees were welcomed by a group of volunteers, who had built a little village out of nothing in just a few days’ time, and were offered immediate care, food, warm drinks, a place to warm up, and were provided with additional information regarding then next steps, before being taken to the registration centre in Hrubieszow.
Heart-warming effort by many volunteers
Before setting off for our journey we did not really know what to expect, and it was surprising to see how light-heartedly the volunteers were (trying) to take it all. The village now included a field kitchen, where the cooks were continuously preparing food for both the refugees and the volunteers. Our van with goods quickly got unloaded by a group of guys who seemingly had appeared out of nothing. The goods were sorted efficiently and stored at the appropriate location. A small part of the goods they receive are being used on the spot, but most of the products are being transported by trucks into Ukraine, where the need for everything is increasing, since they do no longer have sufficient supply of basically anything.
Things step by step being organized
Our next stop was the registration centre at HOSiR in Hrubieszow, a sport hall that had been turned into a large refugee hostel and now served the role of a central warehouse for the region, where even more goods than at the border were being delivered, sorted, packed, and temporarily stored. Many private drivers had come here over the past week to deliver goods and to pick up refugees for a ride further into Poland, either to a place where they could (temporarily) stay or to a railway station where they could go for free on the train.
Our van got filled up with water and blankets that we delivered at the border. Meanwhile, we got matched with a family of 6, parents with 4 children, who we were supposed to drive to Warsaw. We left around 10 pm and arrived at 2 am, delivering the family at their temporary “home” in Warsaw, unaware of what their future might look like and what the situation of a second family, they were traveling towards the border with, was.
The current situation is dynamic
The situation, both at the refugee centre and the border is dynamic. The refugee flow is unpredictable and the demand for specific goods changes continuously in reaction to the developments in Ukraine. This might be another cause for the seemingly chaotic organisation, which is further amplified by a lack of central coordination and information management. This demands from the volunteers to be flexible, creative, and patient.
Impressive volunteers’ dedication
At the border crossing and at the registration centre we met many people who were spending their free time supporting the refugees. Many of them took unpaid leave or even quite their job to provide help and were running shifts night and day. During the past week, there has been quite a lot of support coming from all over the country, the question for the upcoming days and weeks is whether this enthusiasm will last, as the biggest refugee wave is likely still to come, depending on how the war in Ukraine develops.
Poland cannot handle this crisis alone
Poland has already absorbed over 1 million refugees in about a week time, mostly thanks to spontaneous support of the Polish citizens. According to the UN about 1.5 million Ukrainians have already left the country making it the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since WWII, and more are still to come.
More than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighbouring countries in 10 days — the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
— Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) March 6, 2022
Over the past days I have read and heard that about 5 million refugees are to be expected. Both the government and volunteers are setting up larger refugee care centres across the country, where people can stay for a while. Houses are being made available, people welcome refugees to their own homes and office space is being turned into living space, but these solutions are temporary and far from optimal. If the war does not stop soon, more structural, European wide, support will be needed.
Offering a little bit of support during this weekend provided for an impressive experience. We are now considering how we can offer even more support. Should we gather enough goods this week, we will for sure drive there again and offer a ride to another family, yet this is just a drop in the ocean and a lot more is still needed.
 To prevent discussions: I realize the world is facing and recently has been facing may be even larger humanitarian challenges, that might not have got a similar level of attention. There is a multitude of reasons why things have gone as they have gone, whether this was fair or not. The fact this crisis regards our neighbors, and includes family and friends, for sure makes it a more personal crisis than others, besides it is easier to help in this case as well, but I understand that other (former) refugees might feel left alone.