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Volunteers in Poland are setting up Ukrainian refugees to survive the coming days

Jason Manley is helping connect refugees with transport and hotel when they arrive into Poland.
Patrick Wood
/
NPR
Jason Manley is helping connect refugees with transport and hotel when they arrive into Poland.

PRZEMYSL, Poland — As Ukrainians continue to flee the war at home and pour over the border into neighboring countries, a makeshift system of supplies and volunteer aid has sprung up in the Przemyśl train station in Poland to help.

It's a pop-up patchwork of goods and services that aims to address the most basic needs as more than 1.5 million people are believed to have entered Poland from Ukraine.

And it begins the moment refugees arrive at the terminal.

It starts with getting them access to a phone and some food

The first thing they'll see is a cluster of kiosks offering free SIM cards with unlimited calls and data. Kamil Rybski, who works for a communications company, helps some of the refugees set up the cards so they can have cell service in Poland.

A cluster of companies are offering free call and data to incoming refugees.
Patrick Wood / NPR
/
NPR
A cluster of companies are offering free call and data to incoming refugees.

"I see it in peoples eyes, it's a very long, long ride from Ukraine to here," Rybski says. "Many people must straight away call their family in Ukraine."

Once set up with basic communication, people can then make their way into the terminal where a kiosk has been overtaken with donated food. Packets of candy for the kids and canned food are handed out as those in need gather at the window.

Crowds of refugees line up to get basic food.
Patrick Wood / NPR
/
NPR
Crowds of refugees line up to get basic food.

Volunteers then help refugees with transport and basic supplies

From there, the refugees move to the next window for train tickets — also free — that can take them further west and away from the border.

If trains aren't an option, they will then see Jason Manley, who came to Poland from England to help. He uses a handwritten sign to offer rides to other waypoints like Krakow, Lublin or Rzeszow. Manley says he's been here for 11 days straight and is trying to connect refugees with drivers who can take them on further or at least to a nearby hotel.

Manley is registered at the nearby aid center, which has issued him a wristband with a serial number. The drivers he works with must do the same. He is aware of the faith that refugees are putting in him.

"It's difficult, because to these people I'm just a strange man from a different country with a high-vis jacket on," he says. "They don't know me, so they're putting their trust in me to get them somewhere safe."

Once the refugees have organized their phones, food and travel, they'll find a table outside of the terminal with medicine, diapers and hygiene products. From there, a bus will take them to temporary accommodations to plan their next steps.

By the time they take their seats, less than 100 yards from where they got off the train, they have food in their stomach, a working phone to call family and transport to their next destination.

Poland has asked for help with the refugees

As with much of the response in Poland's border towns, the operation in the Przemyśl station is a volunteer-run system built on faith and with little official oversight.

The UNHCR has raised concern about possible exploitation of refugees and the potential for human trafficking. Children who have crossed the border without family or their legal guardians are at a higher risk, the agency says.

Essential supplies — and candy — are on offer out the front of the Przemyśl train station.
Patrick Wood / NPR
/
NPR
Essential supplies — and candy — are on offer out the front of the Przemyśl train station.

And earlier this week, Poland's president said his country is seeing a crisis.

President Andrzej Duda said during a news conference that he spoke with the United Nations' secretary-general and warned that it would become a disaster without international help.

Duda and Vice President Harris also discussed the issue during her trip, with Duda asking for help from the U.S. The Polish president said he asked about help for Poland as well as expediting the entry of Ukrainian refugees who have family in the U.S.

At least for now, Ukrainians entering Przemyśl don't leave without the basic supplies to weather the next 24 hours.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.