Poles going to extraordinary lengths to help Ukrainian refugees

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, citizens and aid groups in Warsaw, Poland, have been organizing food, aid and transit for refugees fleeing the violence.

Around 1.2 million people have sought refuge from Russian invasion in neighbouring Poland

Yuri, a volunteer in Warsaw, Poland, packs his vehicle with medical supplies that he is driving to the Ukrainian border. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

Yuri is donating his truck and his time for children in a hospital in the besieged Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. That's no small thing, given that it's a 10-hour round trip.

His vehicle is packed with medical supplies and baby food, and he's driving to the Polish-Ukrainian border. There, he will hand the boxes over to another driver, who will take them into Ukraine.

Yuri, who is Ukrainian, didn't want to give CBC News his last name. He said through a translator that he wishes he was there, fighting for his country. But for now, the 850-kilometre trip to the border is what he can do to help.

Yuri is one of dozens of drivers in Warsaw, Poland, who are donating their time and money as part of an effort to help war refugees. 

They not only bring much-needed provisions such as food, clothing and medical supplies; they provide free rides back to Warsaw for those showing up at the border. Some have made multiple trips.

"A lot of people want to help. They want to do something in this very, very scary situation," said Marta Krzynowek, a co-ordinator with the All-Poland Women's Strike (OSK), a social action group based in Warsaw.

OSK is organizing transportation and basic supplies for the increasing number of desperate people streaming into Poland. To date, the country has received about 1.2 million refugees

Marta Krzynowek, a co-ordinator for All-Poland Women’s Strike (OSK) in Warsaw, packs donated medical supplies into bags headed for Ukrainian fighters. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

According to the UN, it's the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

"It's like a very, very big civilian movement to help people in need," said Krzynowek. 

"We have private, voluntary people who go to the central station when we have trains with refugees, and they help with food and clothes and transport with their private cars."

'It was very scary for the young ones'

OSK was originally formed in 2016 to fight Poland's restrictive abortion laws, but it has since morphed into a humanitarian hub.

The office is a revolving door of people dropping off donations. Refugees, many who arrive in Warsaw by train or bus, are welcome to wander through the various rooms packed with supplies and encouraged to take what they need.

Mila Pryshliak and her four children came to the office to look for clothes and toys. They fled to Poland after spending three days in a church basement in Kyiv when the war first started on Feb 24.

Pryshliak's ex-husband stayed back in Ukraine to fight with the Territorial Defence Forces.

"It was very scary for the young ones," said 15-year-old Solomia Pryshliak in English, as her younger sister and brothers looked through a mound of donated toys.

Mila Pryshliak, who was a teacher in Kyiv, just shakes her head. She says something to her daughter, asking her to translate. 

"She's worried about us," said Solomia. "She wants me to finish school and go to university." 

The Pryshliak family fled Kyiv, Ukraine, and ended up in Warsaw, Poland. From left to right, Nazar, Solomia, mother Mila, David and Eva. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

Like many of Ukraine's war refugees, the Pryshliaks will stay with family in Poland for now. But OSK founder Marta Lempart says family, friends and kind strangers can only do so much.

Poland had a large Ukrainian population to begin with. In 2018, more than 165,000 Ukrainians had permanent or temporary residence permits. It's estimated that an additional one to two million work in Poland.

'I know it's just a temporary thing'

Lempart says Warsaw residents and groups like hers have had to step in because there's been little help for housing and basic necessities for refugees from Poland's government.

"It's only local municipalities, local governments and volunteers doing the work," Lempart said as she juggled calls and meetings in the group's office. "We have to do it because the government is not doing anything … the Polish government didn't prepare even one place for the Ukrainian refugees."

The Polish government has opened a string of refugee reception centres along the border with Ukraine. 

On Tuesday, it announced financial aid for its growing refugee population. It said it will spend eight billion zloty ($2.2 billion Cdn) for food and temporary lodgings for refugees. 

Boxes of apples are among the items that Poles have donated to Ukrainian refugees. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

There are also measures in place to allow them to legally work and access public health care and social assistance in Poland.

"Our priority is organizing effective aid to hundreds of thousands and soon to be millions of refugees," said Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau in a press statement with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on March 5.

Lempart says she's proud of the help offered by average Poles but cautions that if the war drags on, that will change.

"The response shows how civic engagement can basically overcome everything, but of course, I know it's just a temporary thing, and people have jobs and their lives and so on," she said.

"So I'm proud … but I also know [this effort] has to be organized and it has to be funded."