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Poland welcomes Ukrainian refugees with open arms

Government agencies, nonprofits and volunteers band together to offer services


A Ukrainian woman and baby girl in Krakow's Main Square celebrating Ukraine's Independence Day. Getty Images/Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto

Poland welcomes Ukrainian refugees with open arms

KRAKÓW, Poland—On Feb. 23, Christians from several different denominations gathered in Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral to pray for peace in Ukraine.

“After the sermon everyone was in high spirits; we were pretty sure nothing bad would happen,” said Diana, the administrator for the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation. “But then the war began.”

Russian troops invaded Ukraine the next day. Since then, over 8 million people have fled the country, some with only the clothes they were wearing. Another estimated 8 million are displaced within Ukraine, making it the largest and fastest forced population movement since World War II.

Poland, like other EU member states on the border with Ukraine, opened its doors immediately to receive refugees. The Polish government and state organizations provide financial assistance and social support, but volunteer organizations give Ukrainians the care government institutions can’t provide, including round-the-clock counseling. Pastors and church members are finding daily, tangible opportunities to love their neighbors.

Diana, who didn’t give her last name, studied international law back home in Ukraine. She began a second degree in Poland, then found a job managing a foundation that helps refugees. That was in 2021. When rumors of war began last year, Diana and her colleagues made a worst-case scenario plan for what they would do if Russia launched a full-scale invasion. Then they tucked it away, hoping they would never have to use it. On Feb. 24, they got the plan out and began implementing it.

“I woke up and started to read the news,” Diana said. “They were full of alarming messages about the war. I was shocked, but there was no time to cry or panic. I had to help others to be strong.”

That day she and her colleagues went to Kraków’s main square to protest against war. Then they got to work. Some foundation volunteers went to the railway station to meet Ukrainians at Platform 4, others went to makeshift shelters set up on school grounds or at malls. Still others helped find hosts and provided psychological first aid.

While Diana and her friends worked to help the first wave of refugees, other Ukrainians were weighing their options. Katya Kukhtiak lived in Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, and had not planned to flee. The 26-year-old wanted to stay in her city and church and help alleviate suffering there. The first night she awoke to air raid sirens, she thought she still had the courage to stay. But when they woke her again the next night, she feared for her life and decided she had to leave.

She bought a train ticket, telling herself she would return when things calmed down. Still, she saw herself as a coward. “I am weak, and I am a quitter. I should have stayed,” she told herself.

She remembers crying from the guilt and shame she felt at leaving her country behind. “Leaving Ukraine felt like escaping because I thought I could be more helpful there,” she said. “But God had a different plan.”

On Feb. 26, she boarded the train to Kraków and became a refugee.

More than 1.5 million Ukrainians are now registered in Poland for temporary resident status. Kraków, a city of 765,000 people in southern Poland that sits on a main east-west highway leading to Western Europe, has welcomed 150,000. Refugees continue to arrive by car and by train to Platform 4 of Kraków’s main station. The influx has changed the face of the city: Some street signs are now in Ukrainian as well as Polish, and finding housing has become a challenge. One local church went from supporting 200 refugees initially to 1,000 today, and its annual budget likewise rose from $700,000 to $5 million.

Ukrainians living in Krakow and their supporters during the candlelight vigil on the eve of Ukraine's Independence Day, in Krakow Market Square

Ukrainians living in Krakow and their supporters during the candlelight vigil on the eve of Ukraine's Independence Day, in Krakow Market Square Getty Images/Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto

When Kukhtiak arrived, a Polish friend took her in. Through connections with her home church in Lviv, she found Krakow’s Christ the Savior Evangelical Presbyterian Church and co-pastor Mikael Römer. She immediately wanted to get involved. “God brought me here, and He gave me a responsibility,” Kukhtiak said. She now believes God led her there to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Since then she has volunteered at the help-and-homeless shelter the church started. For some refugees, it was the first point of contact after crossing the border.

“Within three months almost 300 people were coming in and out of the center,” Kukhtiak said.

Calls for help to the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation come through a call center where Diana’s friend Eugenia works as a customer support representative. Eugenia is Russian and has lived with her family in Poland for 2½ years. The day the war started, her husband woke her with the news. She couldn’t believe her ears. “I was crying for two days, but then decided I should do something,” she said.

First, she helped find and sort clothes. Then, she helped with buying and delivering food to volunteer centers. On Facebook, she saw a request for translators. She wanted to help but worried how people would react to her being Russian—a representative of the enemy nation. She took the risk and focused on showing everyone she helped how much she cared. Within weeks she was promoted to work on the hotline.

In the foundation office, at a table covered with notes on colorful paper, Eugenia switches on her computer, makes a cup of coffee, and waits for a call that could change someone’s life. Six months ago, she started with a four-column table drawn on paper. Now she has a huge database containing information about all the organizations and people offering help. The hardest thing? Hearing about a need with no easy answer. Those moments leave Eugenia feeling helpless.

In addition to housing and financial help, the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation also provides refugees with integration and recovery activities: Polish language courses, employment counseling, children’s activities, and art therapy.

One of those art classes meets in the imposing red brick Kraków Barbican, part of the old city wall near central Krakow’s railway station. The quiet inside offered a respite from the bustling city streets, and a small sign announced a Ukrainian painting lesson. Around a wooden table sat three children: 14, 8, and 6 years old. The youngest drew her own picture, but the older two attentively watched a woman drawing flowers in the traditional Ukrainian drawing style of Petrykivskiy, her hands smeared with green paint.

Before the war, the art teacher, Anna, led a chemical company in Kyiv and traveled across Europe for her work. On Feb. 22, she and her two children came to Kraków to visit her husband, who was working in Poland. The war caught them by surprise. From the beginning, she helped buy supplies to ship into Ukraine for the military. Since jobs in Poland are scarce and she couldn’t find work in her field, she now volunteers to help her fellow Ukrainians feel welcome in their temporary home.

Other foreigners living in Poland have also stepped up to help. Leonardo and Sofia began on a small scale but quickly widened their efforts as the need ballooned. Originally from Italy but living in Poland for work, the couple first decided just to open their home to refugees. They shared their experience on social media and requests started pouring in. More people needed a place to stay, and others were looking for a way to help.

“When the needs are so great, differences disappear,” Leonardo said. “It’s not about being nationalistic, but about humanity.”

So in February, they started the Agape Foundation. Sophia and Leonardo aren’t Christians. But they chose to name their organization with the New Testament Greek word that describes God’s unconditional love for mankind and the love Christians should have for one another. With money raised through an online campaign, the foundation rented a three-story building close to Kraków’s main train station. It offers daily hot meals for free and has up to 36 beds available for arriving refugees.

On a Thursday in late August, the rooms were empty, but Leonardo was waiting for volunteers who were bringing new, more comfortable Ikea beds for the next wave of expected refugees. The foundation welcomes them with temporary housing, then helps them find a more permanent place to stay.

The last group included 22 children and two teachers. After making a lot of phone calls, Sofia and Leonardo found a place for them at a Catholic institute in Italy. Through cooperation between the foundation and local Italian authorities, the children will start school in September. Sofia rented a bus and rode with them from Poland. After they arrived, she called Leonardo to tell him the children were safe and doing well. He had his own news to share, but it wasn’t as good. A mother and child who had been in their shelter for a while had just died in a bombing in Dnipro, Ukraine.

That underscores another dilemma of this drawn-out war: Many Ukrainians are now going back to their country, not because the situation has improved, but because they miss home. They don’t want to live as refugees forever and are willing to take the risk.

Leonardo tries to convince everyone he meets not to go back. He struggles to balance the fear of sending women and children into a dangerous situation with their right to return to their homes and the land where they were born.

A young Ukrainian draws hearts with the words Poland and Ukraine while waiting for a bus to Ukraine at Krakow bus station.

A young Ukrainian draws hearts with the words Poland and Ukraine while waiting for a bus to Ukraine at Krakow bus station. Getty Images/Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto

“War is a word that should have no meaning,” Leonardo said, discouraged. “Because these are the consequences. Lonely women and children leave the country and feel lost and alone, but if they return they risk their lives for no reason.”

In the stairwell of the shelter, children’s drawings hang on the wall, many colored in the blue and yellow of Ukraine’s flag. In the second-floor kitchen, Polish and Ukrainian women sorted supplies of pasta, cookies, medicine, and even dog food. One of them was Tania. When Leonardo entered, she showed him the latest photos of her husband dressed in military uniform. Every night he calls or sends photos of his battle group. Tania only speaks Ukrainian, and Leonardo speaks Italian and a little English. But they’re able to communicate and show each other that they care. Tania has stayed at Agape Foundation for several months and has decided to stay there to welcome other Ukrainians when they arrive in Kraków.

Back at Christ the Savior Evangelical Presbyterian Church, pastor Mikael Römer is leading a Bible study for the refugees. The Finland native met his Polish wife while they were both studying at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, but from his teen years, he felt a call to preach the gospel and plant churches in Europe. When the war started, Römer, 33, and his wife felt that call intensify, and two months later they moved to Kraków.

There he met Piotrek Taborski, a 19-year-old questioning his Roman Catholic upbringing and looking for assurance of salvation. Taborski learned more about the evangelical faith through a Facebook group, then heard about the church from an online friend. Since he has been a part of the church, his faith has grown radically. “Now I know from Scripture that God saves people. People don’t save themselves,” Taborski said.

He now joins Römer, Katya Kukhtiak and others for weekly Bible study to learn more about God. Kukhtiak attributes her spiritual growth to the church’s Biblical teaching. She now leads a Bible study for women and creates church activities for kids.

“In Ukraine I was always afraid to share my faith. But today I am braver, and I have more courage,” she said.

—This story was reported by students at the World Journalism Institute Europe course in Kraków, Poland.


Priscilla Dei-Riebe

Priscilla is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute Europe course.


Chiara Lamberti

Chiara is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute Europe course.


Brittany Raymer

Brittany is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute Europe course.


Mariia Sinchuk

Mariia is a graduation of the World Journalism Institute Europe course.

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