#EUSolidarity – Polish association multiplies efforts to support refugees

People and civil society organisations are moving heaven and earth to support those fleeing from the war in Ukraine. This is visible across Europe and in particular in Poland, where solidarity has taken over almost every town. Jakub shared his testimony of what it is like to work in a nongovernmental organisation in Poland, and the challenges to readapt facilities and activities to support Ukraine refugees

Jakub is a project coordinator at TRATWA association in the city of Wroclaw, Poland. At the time when he joined the association, the focus was not on humanitarian aid - the initial reason why the association was founded - but rather the collaboration in EU projects to promote culture and education. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to have a centre for natural disasters and catastrophes resurged, and Jakub’s tasks have changed. However, not as much as now, with such a humanitarian crisis, as the war continues in Ukraine.

TRATWA association took a major role as a welcoming centre for refugees. ‘We just opened the whole centre. There is only one other centre that can “compete” with our capacity’, says Jakub, proud of the solidarity efforts the association managed to gather. ‘We started to prepare the infrastructure for donations and soon we started receiving the first refugees’.

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That’s your 21 hour-life: losing your house, moving to a new country, sleeping next to random people and not having anything except your sleeping clothes and coat. So that’s the people coming to us’.

As refugees arrive in Wroclaw, the effects of the conflict take further shape and become a concrete reality in the life of volunteers. Jakub describes the randomness of the attacks and the route that many refugees have taken: ‘Imagine that your house in Kharkiv had been bombed. Your neighbour would have placed you on a train, and you may be an old grandma just in your pyjamas because the attack happened during the night. The only thing you have is your coat. You have to travel 12 hours to the Ukrainian border and then the authorities decide to take you to Warsaw, Krakow or Wroclaw, or another city, which has an emergency place to stay. You will only arrive in Wroclaw 7 hours later. That’s your 21 hour-life: losing your house, moving to a new country, sleeping next to random people and not having anything except your sleeping clothes and coat. So that’s the people coming to us’.

One of the first actions the association took was to convert an enormous tram depot into a warehouse to store essential goods. As people across Europe were sending goods, many were stored here and then sent to Ukraine.

Finding proper accommodation became a priority too. TRATWA has been collaborating with regional and local authorities and has been in permanent contact with hosting hotels and facilities, to ensure that there are enough beds for the people that are arriving.

Another crucial facility created was an improvised “shopping mall”. Many refugees need to wait for the necessary documentation, thus relying on the solidarity of people and civil society organisations for basic needs, such as food. To this end, TRATWA created a “shopping mall”, where people could freely access essential goods and clothing. Every day, the supermarket welcomes 2500 to 6000 people, having received over 60 000 visits until the end of March.

Managing the "shopping mall" entails a large volume of work: ensuring essential goods have arrived, restocking shelves, providing assistance to people collecting goods and cleaning and organising all actions for the next day. To carry out these tasks, several teams of volunteers are deployed with different schedules.

‘Our "shopping mall" is sustaining people since the beginning of the war’ shares Jakub, further adding that ‘at the beginning it was a very hard picture: you would see mothers with babies running to find food… Now it is less chaotic, but still a very difficult scenario’. Every day, when opening the doors of the “supermarket”, they count out loud the number of days since the supermarket has opened and they all applaud everyone’s effort.

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Photo of some of the baby food available at the TRATWA "shopping mall". Both essential goods and clothing are available in this warehouse for Ukrainian refugees. © TRATWA

“We heard that Ukraine would fall in two days, that didn’t happen. We also heard people’s solidarity would be over in two weeks, that didn’t happen either.”

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the association has helped many hundreds of thousands of people. Volunteers of all ages have been joining the efforts of the association to answer to the challenges they are facing. About 1 000 people all over the world (namely from Poland, Ukraine, Brazil, France, Germany, Argentina) have engaged in volunteering.
The association has a triple programme of volunteers, which includes Corporate Social Responsibility, with companies such as Bosch, IBM and 3M volunteering some of the time of their employees; children from nearby schools; and individuals dedicating their time and effort, including through the EU Solidarity Corps programme.

Jakub shows an incredible sense of pride with all solidarity that surrounds him, without losing the focus on those who need further support: ‘In 38 days we managed to improve so many things… I feel like I am in this game where each day there is a new mission to improve something! And volunteers are constantly telling us what they are going to improve: “I will make you a logo” or “I will build you a bench” or “I will organise clothes in different categories, because I have been working in a company that was taking care of second-hand clothes”’.

The physical and emotional toll is high for all volunteers: ‘It’s hard to take a break. After some time, we need to send people home and tell them not to come and help for two days, because it is too hard on everyone. But of course, it is rewarding’. He further reflects on the solidarity in the entire country: ‘We set ourselves as a nation that would host people in our houses. So an added responsibility we have is to also assist these altruist families who are hosting people with difficulties in mobility or kids with down syndrome, for example. Those people need special care. And we need to provide support as well’.

Jakub ends with a message of hope and empathy: ‘We want to go back to organise cultural events and music. We have an incredible flea market and we want to enjoy peace times. In the meantime, we will be here to help those who need it most’.

What can people do to help?

For TRATWA, it is important that the humanitarian crisis will not be forgotten. Millions of people are arriving in the EU, and support needs to be ensured during this very difficult period of their lives.

Therefore, people can contribute by:
- Sharing the activities of the association and giving further visibility to the solidarity actions they are carrying out
- Contribute with financial support

For people in Poland:
- Contribute with goods and essential items
- Join volunteering activities of the association

All information available on TRATWA Facebook page.