Russia-Ukraine: ‘Helping refugees is easy now. It may get harder’ | Russia-Ukraine war

Sonia Nandzik-Herman, 39, is a Polish humanitarian employee who manages ReFOCUS Media, a basis that teaches media and journalism abilities to refugees and marginalised communities to assist put together them to work within the European job market. She works primarily in Lesbos, Greece, however went to the Poland-Ukraine border to help Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. 

She discovered a “spirit of serving to” amongst Polish volunteers, however, as occurred with the 2015 refugee disaster in Greece, she warns that Poland will not be prepared for the subsequent step of its refugee response and solidarity might wane. That is her account.

In early March, my husband Douglas, who co-founded ReFOCUS with me, and I first arrived on the Poland-Ukraine border to supply fast assist, do a wants evaluation, and make a brief documentary about what situations are like on the bottom in Poland and Ukraine.

We first arrived within the small city of Przemysl, about 10km (6 miles) from the Ukrainian border, within the first week of March.

Przemysl, a really outdated and quiet city, is without doubt one of the most vital factors within the area as a result of trains coming from Lviv in Ukraine arrive on the railway station there. There’s a reception centre the place refugees can get a meal, some assist, and data on what to do subsequent. Individuals additionally come from Lviv by bus, taxi, or on foot. (As of March 11 the city mayor Wojciech Bakun stated about 350,000 refugees had arrived within the city of about 60,000.)

We labored in a really unusual place: the reception centre is in an outdated Tesco superstore which went out of enterprise and has been become an assist centre. Simply think about that you simply enter an enormous retailer, and as a substitute of various items on the market, you discover totally different assist: right here is medication, listed here are blankets, right here is meals.

It is stuffed with individuals however understaffed. Some refugees keep for a number of days within the outdated retailer. The help employees and volunteers attempt to discover them lodging some place else so they don’t stay there lengthy, however many individuals are simply so confused about what to do subsequent that they keep there, sleeping on this massive warehouse.

A photo of a line of people and a child sleeping on the floor next to them.
Sonia Nandzik-Herman describes the temper in Przemysl as “organised chaos” and says the city is crammed with refugees and volunteers [Photo courtesy of Sonia Nandzik-Herman, ReFOCUS Media]

It looks like everyone in Poland is in Przemysl. However it isn’t like in most locations the place now we have labored earlier than, the place all the things was at the least a bit coordinated – right here, everyone is simply doing no matter they imagine is true, whether or not it’s somebody who was working a small store someplace in southern Poland who determined to come back to distribute meals, or this spontaneous motion of people that present up and volunteer to drive Ukrainians to Warsaw and Krakow. It’s completely loopy. It appears like the entire nation is volunteering proper now.

The temper is a form of organised chaos: everyone is working from one place to a different attempting to assist or get data, and there’s a lot of assist right here. Individuals arriving are a bit confused, however there isn’t any crying. The police, military and firefighters are serving to, too, giving out data, blankets, and scorching meals. And everyone is extraordinarily good – the spirit of serving to could be very a lot current.

Douglas and I entered Lviv (about 80km or 50 miles from the border) in Ukraine on Tuesday, March 15 with a Polish navy convoy to ship humanitarian assist akin to insulin and hygiene provides to a hospital and to doc what is going on for ReFOCUS Media to point out how persons are responding to the disaster. We wished to assist the convoy ship provides and our basis additionally desires to organise an assist convoy so we wished to see the way it capabilities.

A photo of a tent with a red cross and a sign.
Medyka, Poland is a key street border crossing on the Ukrainian-Polish border [Photo courtesy of Sonia Nandzik-Herman, ReFOCUS Media]

I had not slept the evening earlier than, so I fell asleep as we have been coming into Lviv, however Douglas noticed the Ukrainian navy digging deep trenches across the metropolis. It was very surreal to be on this metropolis as a result of, on the one hand, life there appeared prefer it may in some other metropolis in Europe. We went to town centre, and there was music in bars, in eating places, after which the waitress led us to our desk and stated, “OK, I’ve a desk for you, removed from the window” in case of bombing.

As we have been consuming, a buddy who knew we have been in Lviv messaged us from Poland: “There’s an alarm proper now, try to be within the shelter.”

We stated, “Actually? We don’t hear any alarm.”

She stated, “That’s as a result of the sound of the sirens doesn’t attain each nook of town, so everyone in Lviv has an app on their telephone that tells them when there’s a possible bombing. I’m trying on the app now, and in Lviv, try to be in a shelter proper now.”

It is rather unusual, however individuals’s attitudes are a bit like what we noticed with COVID: some individuals deal with it extraordinarily significantly and when an alarm goes off, they instantly run to shelters. And a few persons are like, “We don’t imagine it’s going to achieve us, at the least not but.” In order that they proceed life as regular.

However then the bombing of the airport close to Lviv final Friday morning was very near us. Solely 4km (2.5 miles) away. We heard it and noticed smoke from the home windows.

In Lviv, the practice station is stuffed with individuals. There’s one platform the place individuals go away for Poland, and people trains are extraordinarily full. You do not want a ticket or something. On trains, everyone sits wherever they will, together with on the carriage flooring. It’s not a cushty experience. The practice firm releases a tentative schedule every morning. I noticed a current one – out of eight scheduled trains, three obtained cancelled and two have been rescheduled. And it isn’t like a 10-minute delay or one thing; typically it’s an hour, typically three.

Earlier than all this, it took 2.5 hours on the practice from Lviv to Przemysl. Now it takes 4 to 10 hours. The earlier week it was 20 hours. This delay is partly as a result of the officers on the border verify your paperwork, and it isn’t simple to do because the trains are so packed. Two sources advised me that there have been some males dressed as ladies who have been attempting to flee the nation (males between 18 and 60 are forbidden from leaving Ukraine in case they’re known as upon to struggle), so they’re additionally checking for that.

The hospital right here was tremendous proud of the $150,000 value of insulin that we delivered, donated by the Polish authorities. That was essential for them as a result of additionally they have many individuals from jap Ukraine, not solely individuals who have wounds however individuals with diabetes or most cancers or different ailments who’ve been moved to this hospital. However the hospital is big, and I have no idea how lengthy the insulin goes to final them.

The hospital employees requested us to not take extensive pictures of the hospital for our documentary, as a result of they’re very afraid that if the pictures present sufficient traits of the power and its environment, they might be situated after which focused. (The World Well being Organisation has verified 43 assaults on well being care together with sufferers, services and employees.)

The hospital wants all the things. Nearly all the things besides for garments. Everyone is saying, “We’ve already obtained so many garments.”

Most individuals managed to pack suitcases and haven’t even had an opportunity to alter garments whereas travelling to the border. And most of the people are going additional, deeper into Poland, so sending garments to the border will not be vital. Some heat blankets, sure, however not garments; most individuals simply don’t want this type of charity.

However they want all the things else, from gloves to masks and all hygiene gadgets: bathroom paper, moist wipes, pads, diapers, cleaning soap, and so on. In addition they want meals for the sufferers. And medicines, most of all.

The mayor stated Lviv has an additional 200,000 individuals proper now. Many have discovered lodging with common residents.

You will discover QR codes [posted around town] saying “residence for just a few days”. You scan, it takes you to a map, and also you simply name and go there. These are good gestures of solidarity.

A photo of a line of people in the street at night.
On the Zosin border crossing households wait on the Polish aspect to gather their family crossing over from Ukraine [Photo courtesy of Sonia Nandzik-Herman, ReFOCUS Media]

Again in Poland, there’s quite a lot of goodwill in direction of Ukrainians. A lot of the nation is satisfied that the Ukrainians are combating for us as properly, that presumably Poland is the subsequent goal for Putin. Many individuals imagine he’s not going to cease at Ukraine, as a result of when he sees the West will not be making a really decisive step to cease his invasion, they imagine we may very well be the subsequent goal, or if not us then possibly Moldova. Many suppose his ambitions are merely greater than Ukraine.

Nearly each individual I converse to in Poland is in favour of navy intervention. Many individuals are speaking about how we should always already be in Ukraine combating alongside Ukrainians.

The individuals coming to Poland are primarily ladies and youngsters, like 90-something p.c, and aged individuals.

We have now greater than two million refugees proper now. I don’t imagine that Poland will be capable to carry this weight. We’re not ready for the subsequent step.

The primary response is straightforward. Anyone can distribute blankets, make sandwiches, direct individuals to centres. That isn’t tough.

However it is going to be an enormous burden for the labour market. It’s all ladies and youngsters, and the lads are of their 60s. It has already began – there are such a lot of affords of babysitters and nannies by Ukrainian ladies attempting to earn money, which usually is nice, however there are just too many. With the arrival of so many Ukrainian refugee ladies, the market has fully shifted. My sister couldn’t discover a babysitter half a yr in the past. Now she will be able to select from 25.

For certain some individuals will benefit from the scenario. Individuals will likely be determined and can find yourself working with out advantages, with out paying taxes, with out insurance coverage.

Everyone goes to the massive cities like Warsaw and Krakow, so housing is already an issue there. It’s not like we had a whole lot of 1000’s of obtainable flats for individuals within the cities. And in cities like Warsaw, the price of lease is big. Persons are prepared to host Ukrainians proper now, however only for just a few weeks, not months or years.

Greece, the place I work usually, has already provided to take Ukrainians and stated they’re going to put them in a camp near the Macedonian border. It’s not going to be a pleasant place the place you’ll be able to reside your regular life, ship your children to highschool day-after-day. These camps are normally very removed from metropolis centres. It’s going to be tough for them.

On Lesbos now, the refugees arriving are predominantly Afghans. I can’t even discover phrases to make a comparability between their scenario, and the response to their disaster, versus what Ukrainians are getting proper now. It’s unbelievable. After what we noticed this winter with refugees caught on the Poland-Belarus border and experiences of unlawful pushbacks by Polish border guards, it was onerous to imagine that Poland would reply to the Ukrainian disaster with open arms.

Sadly, there’s xenophobia occurring right here. It appears it’s simpler for a white individual to see themselves in a blue-eyed Ukrainian mom than a teenage Syrian boy, regardless that they’re each escaping from unimaginable violence.

Allow us to additionally keep in mind that again in 2015, in the beginning of the Syrian refugee disaster, the Greek islanders stepped up. Lesbos had a humanitarian response; individuals have been going to sea to assist those that have been drowning. Restaurateurs would prepare dinner meals for them, make them tea; native individuals responded with all the things they’d, all their assets – individuals at present neglect that the fishermen have been even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. However that was earlier than the native individuals obtained bored with this disaster and the dearth of assist from the European Union. And so now, years later, the scenario is totally totally different. The far-right and the fascists have grow to be vocal.

We have now forgotten the way it was on the very starting, and we have to bear in mind this as a result of it will probably go the identical method in Poland. Now, sure, individuals open their homes, they bring about assets to the border. But when this assist will not be coordinated well, and if good legal guidelines usually are not put in place to carry Ukrainians – particularly and particularly Ukrainian ladies – into the job market, then Polish society might also find yourself turning its again on refugees. Simply as elements of Greek society did.

As advised to Delaney Nolan

This account has been edited for readability and size.

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