Welcome to Poland. It’s a phrase that hundreds and thousands of Ukrainians hear every week as they flee their war-torn homeland in search of safety – and sometimes it’s said with an Australian accent.
The Russian invasion triggered one of the biggest refugee crises since World War II. In just four weeks, nearly 3.5 million people fled Ukraine, more than a million of whom passed through one of eight border checkpoints into Poland.
There, the United Nations, the Red Cross and NGOs are assisted by an army of volunteers – ordinary citizens from all over Europe and beyond – who have come to help.
In the chaos of Przemyśl station or in one of Warsaw’s makeshift reception centers, languages from across the continent are spoken. In English, some accents are Australian.
The Ukrainian diaspora in Australia is small – the last census recorded 13,000 people. But they are united and passionate about their homeland. Some have gone overseas to help.
Stefan Romaniw, who co-chairs the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations, has just spent a week traveling between Poland and parts of western Ukraine. He met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Mayor of Lviv Andriy Sadovyi.
Romaniw was there to figure out what was needed on the ground so that Ukrainians around the world could coordinate their help.
“We spent time at the border on both sides – if you can imagine thousands of people with a handbag or a suitcase, or young children with a toy in their hands, crossing an area to be treated”, a- he declared.
“Big malls, full of stretchers, 1,000 to 2,000 people sleeping there with nothing more than what they brought. There are field kitchens, medical facilities, play centers for children. The infrastructure is very good. »
Romaniw said the Polish government was doing an “extraordinary job” in handling the crisis, but the grief of those crossing the border was immense.
“When you talk to people there are different reactions. For some it’s shock, for young children they’re tired, they’re dragging their feet. For those who are older you can see despair.
“You wonder how this could happen in 2022.”
Romaniw wants the Australian government to provide more aid – including humanitarian and military aid. He said the situation on the ground was terrifying and that “there was no longer a safe place in Ukraine.”
Viktoriya Nikitina is a dual Australian and Ukrainian citizen who runs a window and door manufacturing business in Melbourne. She heard that families were struggling to get the right help in Germany and, since she speaks English, German and Ukrainian, she booked a plane ticket to help.
“It has come to my attention that some families, mostly women with children, who have arrived in Germany have found it difficult,” she said. “I hope that by using my contacts and my language, I can make a difference.”
On March 4, the European Union announced that Ukrainians would be allowed to live, work and study in EU member states for up to three years.
Nikitina said the language barrier has made it difficult for some Ukrainians to access services. So she contacted government organizations on their behalf.
“There are language barriers; the German government, they don’t want to register them with [the] Ukrainian special status, they try to register them as refugees. So [they] do not have the right to work, [they’re] unable to leave the capital,” she said.
The people she met simply want to send their children to school and earn some form of income before they can return to their own country.
“They’re not friends, they’re not family. [but] they are still Ukrainians. It’s about trying to help.
Not all Australian helpers have a strong Ukrainian connection. Isabelle Robertson, an expatriate who lives in Salzburg, set up “Free Rides West” with a group of friends. They drove six vans to Poland, dropping off supplies and picking up people who needed to be taken back to Western Europe.
“We’re just a group of friends providing lifts to those who need them,” Robertson said. “We saw an opportunity to help.”
Robertson said in places the infrastructure was struggling to keep up. She said one reception center was so full they had to choose who should stay inside and who should make do in Poland’s harsh winter.
“People who are not part of the priority groups are expelled. It is freezing cold and people are only carrying what they can,” she said.
A family of four elderly parents, including one in a wheelchair, struggled to find help before one of the vans picked them up.
“Nobody wanted to take them. Transporting someone with a disability, there are more logistics, it’s so horrible, we put them in a position to give priority to the human.
The group has flown 92 people from the Polish border to countries across Europe – arranging plane tickets for them if it is too far to drive. Every story is different.
“We had dinner the other night with professors from Ukraine, university deans and their children. Another mum spent 5 days in a bunker with a six-year-old and a two-year-old and had to go out for supplies, unsure if she would return.
“Another family from Odessa was in a good mood, we talked about work, football and the beauty of Odessa, we turned on the news, Odessa was preparing to be bombed.”
The vans picked up a 19-year-old girl separated from her parents, a 15-year-old boy who was just young enough to leave and who was traveling with his mother, a grandmother and five children who were on their way to Bologna. The group has translators on the phone ready to answer any questions.
“We can only help a handful. The reality is when there are more than three million [people] it’s a small drop,” Robertson said.