Poland opens its car doors to Ukraine as volunteers pour in to support fleeing refugees

About 150,000 people have fled Ukraine for Poland where they are greeted by crowds who want to help

People offer transport for Ukrainian migrants in Przemysl, south-eastern Poland. EPA
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“Warsaw, Warsaw,” shouted the yellow-jacketed man to the crowd outside the train station in Przemysl, a town 10 kilometres from the Ukrainian border in south-eastern Poland.

“Do you have two spaces?” he asked someone who had raised their hand, one of many who arrived in Przemysl on Sunday to offer a lift those escaping to Poland, after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

The army of volunteers has rapidly gathered to support those fleeing the conflict next door. Most are Poles or Ukrainians living in Poland, but some have come from the Czech Republic, Germany and elsewhere.

Informal reception centres have quickly sprung up across the Polish border, where people are given medical aid and help to process asylum papers.

Many of the 150,000 people who have fled Ukraine for Poland arrive in Przemysl and, after getting through customs, they are greeted by volunteers and piles of food, water, toiletries and other essentials that have been pooled together.

German railway operator Deutsche Bahn said on Sunday that it would offer, free of charge, trips from Poland to Germany for refugees from Ukraine.

While many who have fled Ukraine are met by family and friends for tearful reunions in Poland, others can count on free journeys to other cities from private citizens.

Food, water and other essentials are available for those who arrive. Jamie Prentis / The National

Drivers hold signs or placards declaring where they are going and how many spaces they have.

One of those is Pawel Slawski, 43, from Warsaw, who is offering seats in his car for the 400km drive back to his home city.

“It’s very far from Warsaw but it’s the weekend," Mr Slawski said. "We changed some plans in our family. My family said, ‘OK, yes, this is very important. Go to the border'."

Pawel Slawski from Warsaw was searching for opportunities to help the Ukrainian people. Jamie Prentis / The National

The father of two was trying to find opportunities to help the Ukrainian people, but was unsure of how best to do it until he heard about the number of people seeking refuge in Poland.

“Now this is not just a Ukrainian problem. This is our conflict, we must help,” Mr Slawski said.

“We know many Ukrainians in Warsaw. We know these people from our normal lives — the shops, working with us."

The UN’s refugee agency said on Sunday that about 368,000 people had fled Ukraine because of the conflict.

Days-long waits to cross borders have been reported, and its expected to be the start of an influx of people leaving Ukraine for its neighbours.

Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 have been stopped from leaving Ukraine, amid a conscription drive to defend against Russia. For now, almost all of those arriving are women and children.

In Przemysl, they arrive in packed trains and queue along the platform to go through customs, with little more than the backpacks on their shoulders.

Arrivals from Ukraine line the platform before customs control. Jamie Prentis / The National

Oksana Potelchak, a translator from Kiev and mother of two, said that aboard the train, upon seeing all that had been done in Poland to support those arriving, “we cried".

“It’s unbelievable, it’s great. I made videos, I posted on Facebook so that Ukrainians see. I didn’t expect it,” she said.

Krzysztof Koeppel, from Silesia in southern Poland, was asked by a friend to help move supplies to the border.

“We have three places in our cars. We can bring them to whatever place they want,” he said.

Mr Koeppel said milk, napkins, batteries, coats, towels and blankets were some of the things that were taken to the border.

“My family suffered a lot during the Second World War," he said.

The Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in 1939 and brutally repressed the population.

The UN has warned that as many as four million people could become refugees if the situation deteriorated further in Ukraine.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had received pleas of help in the country amid shortages of basics.

Many of those arriving in Poland are from western Ukraine, which has been hit by comparatively less fighting, or left home after Russian President Vladimir Putin officially ordered the military operation.

But as the conflict continues in Ukraine, and long queues form as people flee the country, this is just the start.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 3:24 AM