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How one border shaped another. Polish volunteers on the parallels in refugee aid

In 2021, thousands of people from the Middle East and North Africa crossed the Belarusian border into EU countries such as Poland. Polish activists who offered support say that emergency prepared them for the next refugee crisis, from Ukraine in 2022. While the Polish state’s approach dramatically shifted between the two situations, NGOs and volunteers leaned on the same skills and resources to help people on the move.

December 15, 2023 - Katie Toth - Articles and Commentary

Migrants gathered around a logistics centre on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland in November 2021. Photo: Djordje Kostic / Shutterstock

When Kraków-based community organizer Karol Wilczyński of Grupa Granica heard that the war in Ukraine had begun, he already knew who he could call on.

About a year prior, Wilczyński had spent weeks in Poland’s Bialowezia region helping refugees with the country’s biggest actors — Maja Ostaszewska, Marek Kalita, Mateusz Janicki, and Aleksandra Popławska to name just a few. They were part of the same team, visiting people in detention and trying to prevent migrants from being pushed back to Belarus. It was a harrowing and a life-changing experience, one where you had to rely on the people there with you.

By January of 2022, Wilczyński and other activists felt that most of their work was done. Migrant traffic through Belarus had slowed after a series of behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations. Humanitarian aid points at the Poland-Belarus border were down to only three. Wilczyński returned to Southern Poland. He was pivoting back towards his media career, teaching courses on Islamophobia at Jagiellonian University, and writing about migration crises elsewhere. The worst of it in Poland was over, he figured. Time for business as usual.

Weeks passed, and war returned to Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were on their way to Kraków from the border, only four hours away.

Wilczyński still had a group chat going with the film stars. He dropped them a message, and everyone got to work. Six hours later, Kraków’s 19th century Słowacki theatre was transformed into a shelter that could fit 120. Women and kids slept in cots in the rehearsal room — not far from the grandeur of the auditorium, with its red velvet curtains and three-and-half metre chandelier.

Wilczyński says it is “the level of trust” between him and the celebrities from their time in the forest that allowed them to move in unison. “Without this connection, we wouldn’t have this building. And without this building, we couldn’t set up a shelter and act so quickly.”

Stories abound in Poland of these kinds of lessons learned. A chef, who had once made mason jars full of soup for migrants at the border with Belarus, fired up the stove one more time. Activists called phone numbers already gathered on Google Forms after the fall of Afghanistan of people ready to welcome someone into their home. Workshops designed to train new volunteers about how to support someone in shock or a victim of sexual assault were ready to repeat. And communication strategies had been refocused just in time for the scale of operations to explode.

Kalina Czwarnóg is a board member of the Ocalenie Foundation, which helps refugees and immigrants start life in Poland. She says that at the beginning of the crisis on the Belarusian border, the flood of interest from supporters “really bit us in our bums.”

“We had so many calls with everyone asking, ‘how can I help? What should I do? I will send you this, I will give you that,” she remembers. “And it wasn’t helping. Because we were in this hell.”

When the war in Ukraine began, there was an exponentially bigger pool of Poles racing to help. But this time, her organisation was prepared. “We were very clearly communicating what’s needed. Where. Who to call, where to go, who to talk with. So it made our work easier – and it made it easier for people who wanted to get involved.”

Czwarnóg is often confronted with similarities between the work that she did at both borders. She remembers the first weeks of the invasion as she drove to Korczowa, a Polish border village of less than 600 people. Suddenly, a warehouse on the outskirts of town had become a refuge for thousands of people who had just fled the country next door – each exhausted and figuring out their next move. When Czwarnóg opened the door to the industrial space, she was transported to the crunching leaves and petrichor of the Białowieża Forest, by a familiar scent in the air. “It’s hard to describe…but I believe it’s fear,” she says. “The people were in such different circumstances, but it struck me – it was the same.”

But the reactions to her arrival couldn’t have been further apart. Suddenly, instead of chasing her away or treating her like a criminal, officers with the Polish border guard were clocking her ID and asking how they could help. “I felt almost schizophrenic,” she says. “You know, I’m in the same country – talking to the same people – and I couldn’t believe how different it was.”

While the Polish state was quick to embrace Ukrainian victims of war, it has actively hostile to refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa through Poland’s northeastern border with Belarus. And although public opinion was more nuanced, the same contrasts were still visible: For the network of activists who found themselves helping save lives at both borders, the public response has come with some whiplash, a not-so-small amount of irony. After all, so much of what they learned about how to tackle this latest humanitarian disaster came from fighting the authorities in the last one.

“The forest can suck you in and not let go,” says Czwarnóg. It can be easy to get into a saviour mindset as you fall asleep, she explains. Why should you be in such a cosy, warm bed, when others are dying on damp leaves as the snow falls? Isn’t it better to forgo food, forgo sleep, when someone out there probably needs your help right now? “It’s a very destructive way of thinking.” Because Czwarnóg knew about those risks, she also could advise on how to manage them. When the invasion of Ukraine began, the Ocalenie Foundation brought on new workers and volunteers – many of them Ukrainian themselves. Mental health was top of mind. The foundation provided group and solo counselling for the new recruits, and advanced training to help them anticipate difficult emotions.

What was different was the scale of the crisis: people fleeing to Poland in the millions, rather than thousands. That has forced local organisations to grow in ways they didn’t plan for.

For more than ten years, Anna Dąbrowska has been running a local organisation in Lublin called Homo Faber that focuses on refugee and migrant integration. After February 24th, budgets became bigger and more complicated. She went from a team of 3 to more than 300 volunteers (today, they have a staff of 62). Politicians swept in, seeking clout and credit. In only two months she had more than 120 visits with NGOs from around the world.

Dąbrowska was confident that she knew her city: she used these meetings to push for the things Lublin would need to be a welcoming place. She opposed copy-and-paste solutions from other crises, in favour of plans that used local knowledge.

“I don’t want to be a part of their agenda, or have them resolve our problems for us,” she says. “We feel we should be a leader in these processes.”

Dąbrowska’s authority to handle their sudden presence was in part, a result of these agents’ prior absence. Lublin isn’t too far from the Belarusian border, where she had also volunteered. International aid groups were few and far between while Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka sent refugees from the Global South towards the EU’s borders – using people as pawns in his own geopolitical chess match. “We asked them for help,” she says. “But no one wanted to be involved because of the political reasons.” Right-wing president Andrzej Duda has called the Polish volunteers there “fools and traitors”, and as recently as September 2023, a 48-year-old humanitarian worker was criminally charged for her efforts to stop human rights abuses at that border.

To what extent the public shares this disdain is harder to pin down. At the height of the refugee crisis flowing from Belarus, almost three quarters of Poles supported humanitarians’ right to help people at the border. But Wilczyński says despite the numbers, his work there felt like a target on his back – to the point where he would even avoid talking about the crisis in corporate meetings about diversity and inclusion.

The irony is not lost on Wilczyński that while his work in the forest had been unpopular, the same experience, networks and tools were briefly crucial in a Polish society eager to give back to Ukraine. That’s changing now, too. Public support in Poland for Ukrainians is waning, and the opposition coalition expected to form the new government has not said anything substantial about reversing the outgoing government’s plans to halt aid to Ukrainian refugees by 2024. But for a while, he says, “it was great not to be lonely.”

Katie Toth is a senior reporting fellow with New Eastern Europe and an Erasmus Mundus scholar with the Vaclav Havel Joint Master Programme in European Politics and Society.

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