I couldn’t stop thinking that the Ukrainian refugee women who stood in line for personal hygiene items at Kraków, Poland train station were just like me.
Sometimes all put together, with nails done and mascara on, and sometimes in mismatched clothes, messy hair, and baggy eyes that revealed a few hours of sleep.
Sometimes they seemed confident, committed and relentless, and other times hopeless, desperate and falling apart.
They were often with children and they clearly wanted to meet their needs first, before they thought about themselves. They would ask for a juice box and a candy and then shyly whisper what they needed – a deodorant, feminine pads, a shower gel.
They were travelers and immigrants like me, although not by choice.
I always visit Kraków, my beloved adopted city, when I go to Poland. But this time Kraków was different. The bustling train station now had large signs in Ukrainian, directing refugees to various help sites. Favorite historic buildings displayed Ukrainian flags along with the Polish ones. You can hear more Ukrainian language in the streets.
The view of foldable beds, infant car seats, strollers and giant bags filled with clothing right at the train platform was particularly striking. Just outside the station, huge tents offered hot meals 24/7, as well as clothes and other items. By the afternoon a small crowd gathered in front of each. Inside the station there were additional sites run by different agencies and organizations offering a place to sleep, medical assistance, a warming center with tea and coffee, personal hygiene products, non-perishable food, help in finding short and long-term accommodation or transfer to other cities or European countries.
Over 2.4 million refugees crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border since the war started on February 24, according to the Polish Border Control. By the end of March, 150,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Kraków, second largest city in Poland with approximately 760,000 residents.
One of them was Daria, a 25-year-old data analyst. From a fun-loving millennial, who loves vinyl records, electronic music, drag balls and make-up, she has become a breadwinner, interpreter and often a therapist for her traumatized mother and a grandmother in a strange city. She recalled gathering her things after deciding to get out of the Kyiv suburb of Kotsiubynske, on a bus organized by the company she worked for.
“I felt guilty about taking my make-up. But then I thought, if this is the one thing I love, I have to take it with me. Hopefully my vinyls will be safe and sound once I come back,” Daria said.
By giving the Ukrainian refugees citizen-like status, which includes free health care, education, social services and transit, Poland has become a European and world leader in the humanitarian crisis, considered the biggest one in Europe since World War II.
Politicians and TV personas in Poland now wear yellow and blue ribbons, municipal and national buildings display Ukrainian flag, restaurants serve Ukrainian dishes, cinemas start showing cartoons and movies in Ukrainian, some churches introduce services in Ukrainian and schools add bilingual or “transitional” classes with some Ukrainian language.
The help started from the bottom up, with the people opening their homes and hearts long before the government and local administrations stepped in with proper legislation. Most activities still concentrate around social media, in numerous Facebook groups, where no post announcing a specific need or offer waits for a reply longer than a few minutes.
The solidarity with Ukraine is demonstrated not only in big cities. Ustroń, my hometown of 16,000, some 80 miles southwest of Kraków, has received approximately 1,500 Ukrainian refugees. The hotels and health resorts usually filled with guests gave way to the Ukrainian orphans evacuated from the war zones. They stay for days and sometimes for weeks before they are resettled to more permanent locations, including other European countries. Residents also took refugees in and everyone knows someone who is hosting a Ukrainian family.
The refugees who try to establish temporary new life in Polish towns and cities and the Ukrainians who stayed in their country to fight Russian aggression need our continuous help. I realized that even more after volunteering and visiting help sites in both Kraków and Ustroń. At one Caritas assistance point, within a few hours, we were out of shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, laundry detergents, towels, combs, juice, water and cookies. The women kept coming.
In Ustroń, every other day a group of local seniors make approximately 5,000 sandwiches which are driven to the border some four hours away. “Do they eat them?” one woman, who didn’t miss a sandwich-making day since the beginning of the war asked the driver. “If they were not needed, you wouldn’t be making them,” he responded firmly.
I also witnessed how the workers in the small cultural-center-turned-food-pantry in my hometown rationed the cans of meat and bags of pasta, rice and flour to make sure every refugee woman in line gets something. I saw how women in a church building desperately sorted through racks of old winter clothes in search of dresses and shorts for upcoming warmer months.
The women were like me but not quite like me.
When the air raid sirens go off in your town and you have no basement to hide in, when you have to drop everything and run as you are with children in your arms, then I guess, if you are lucky, you may end up standing in line for a free shampoo. Hopefully the people who give it to you are welcoming, generous, and kind.
Ustronianka i chicagowianka, na emigracji od 2000 roku. Ciekawa świata, złakniona wiedzy, nieustannie szuka przygód, guza i dziury w całym. Szczególnie wyczulona na ludzką krzywdę i niesprawiedliwość na świecie. Zainteresowana tematami społecznymi, imigracyjnymi, kryminalnymi oraz niezwykłymi historiami zwykłych ludzi. Absolwentka Wydziału Dziennikarstwa Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego oraz Visual & Communication Department w City Colleges of Chicago. Od 2016 r. z dumą piastuje stanowisko kierownika działu społecznego „Dziennika Związkowego”.
Photos: Joanna Marszałek