Poland braces for a long war in Ukraine

From free medical care to helping Ukrainian businesses relocate, Poles stand shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours

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The signs of solidarity with Ukraine are everywhere in Poland.

Blue-and-yellow flags flutter beside red-and-white Polish colours outside museums, businesses, offices and on public transport.

Nato leaders say the world must prepare for a Russian offensive that could last for years.

The response in Poland is that they are ready for the long haul. It is settling hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children in its schools and finding homes and jobs for the displaced.

For us the important thing is to help other human beings, to help our neighbour in need – that is the main message for us through this Ukrainian conflict with Russia
Grzegorz Piechowiak, Poland's minister of economic development and technology

“We are prepared if more Ukrainians decide to come,” Grzegorz Piechowiak, Poland’s Minister of Economic Development and Technology, told The National in Warsaw.

“Of course, it will cost us financially, we are aware of that and are planning strategically, but we will do it irrespective of anything.

“For us the important thing is to help other human beings, to help our neighbour in need ― that is the main message for us through this Ukrainian conflict with Russia.”

Jobs for refugees

Poland has taken in the largest number of Ukrainian refugees.

Of more than five million who fled after the Russian attacks on February 24, more than two million have crossed into Poland.

The government has extended free medical care to refugees and opened up access to education. People have opened up their homes to refugees or given them space in apartments that would normally be leased.

Poland has asked the EU for support to build new housing, schools and medical facilities.

But the government said it was committed to stand by Ukrainians regardless of the aid.

Grzegorz Piechowiak, Poland’s Minister of Economic Development and Technology, meets Ukrainian families who fled their country after Russia attacked. Photo: Ministry of Technology

“This crisis is not only a challenge for Poland, but for the whole of Europe, so we are expecting, hoping and pushing the European Union to give us some funds ― this is happening in the background,” Mr Piechowiak said.

“But for us, it’s important Ukrainians feel at home. More than 200,000 women from Ukraine have found employment here so we can see that they want to be established here for a longer period of time.”

The focus is on integration, encouraging people to learn the Polish language and helping lawyers, doctors and workers in specialised trades from construction to logistics to gain local certification that will allow them to practise in Poland.

City of solidarity

Efforts to assimilate the refugees stretch across the country.

In Gdansk, a 1,000-year-old northern port city, the Museum of Gdansk and at least nine other institutions allow refugees free entry, teach Polish to Ukrainian children, hold gatherings to include them and fly the flags of both countries.

“Public institutions like ours are committed to create great conditions for Ukrainians who came to our city,” said Alicja Bittner, from the information and promotion department of the Museum of Gdansk that displays the city’s treasured amber gem collections.

“Gdansk is a city of solidarity, this is in our heritage for over 40 years so we try to do our best for the people who suffer from war.”

Marek Kaminski, a Gdansk-born Polish explorer who reached the north and south pole in the same year, meets Ukrainian children enrolled in a Polish school. Photo: Marek Kaminski

The city has a strong understanding of the horrors of war.

This is where the Second World War began when the first shots were fired by a German battleship as it attacked the city on September 1, 1939.

Marek Kaminski, a Polish explorer who reached the North and South poles in the same year, said lessons from history encouraged people to help Ukrainians.

“There are families, women and children, escaping the war and we should save their lives,” he said.

“This is our duty to help them.

“After the Second World War, Polish people went around the world and found refuge in the US and Canada. It’s the same this time, we cannot leave Ukrainians alone. We must help them as long as they need our help.”

He is working with more than 200 Ukrainian children in a group of about 700 from Poland, as part of a Life Plan Academy programme.

The training teaches children mental strength to motivate them to achieve their dreams.

“It is very important for young people to build mental resilience,” he said.

“I want to transform young people who don’t believe in themselves so they never lose hope.

“It is about teaching them tools to build their confidence.”

Ukrainian national Svitlana Genina travelled for four days with her mother of 82, pictured, and sister with little food and no place to sleep save for the car. Photo: Svitlana Genina

More schools for refugee children

Leszek Bonna, the marshal of Poland’s northern Pomerania region, said city authorities organised transport to transport people from Lviv and Odesa.

He spoke frankly of the challenges in teaching 17,000 Ukrainian children who now live in the region.

“In a perfect world, approximately 17 new schools should be opened to give the proper education system for teachers and children,” he said.

“We feel the war will be long lasting and there has to be co-operation between our local government and the federal government.”

Summer camps will be organised this year for Ukrainian children.

The northern region alone found houses for 88,584 refugees, of which 37, 436 homes were opened up by citizens and 40,016 provided by the government.

“Women are watching each other’s children when they go to look for work and teachers spend their free time teaching Polish to Ukrainian children,” Mr Bonna said.

Co-working spaces

In Warsaw, co-working spaces have been set up to assist Ukrainian businesses relocating to the city after the February attacks.

The firms are given rent-free space where they can work and meet clients.

The Polish Investment Trade Agency is among groups that connect Ukrainian businesses with local networks and guide them on working with companies overseas.

Svitlana Genina, 52, co-ordinator of the Cowork Ukraina space, helps companies and nongovernment organisations set up their business in Warsaw.

She fled Ukraine with her sister and mother, 82, days after the Russians arrived in Obolon district, north of Kyiv, the area the family had called their home.

Ms Genina sobs and shudders recalling the day she saw Russian soldiers take over the neighbourhood.

“The Russian soldiers started shooting. They ran over one person with a big tank. They shot two people. I saw this happen,” she said.

The three women and their dog are traumatised by the brutality they witnessed.

They survived on very little food for four days and slept in their car before crossing into Poland.

Friends in Poland have given them a place to stay.

Listening to companies discuss their plans to revitalise business by moving to Poland holds some promise amid the despair.

“It gives me hope,” Ms Genina said.

“The stories people share bring tears to my eyes. But I keep to the bright, positive side. We have to keep going no matter what is happening ― it must be spirits up.”

In Warsaw’s bustling Old Town tourist centre, a street performer surrounded by children wears the flags of Poland and Ukraine as a cape.

Singers on street corners break into Ukrainian songs with their country’s flag firmly by their side.

Other vendors sell magnets showing a determined Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, driving a car with the words Bucha and Mariupol to the International Human Rights tribunal.

One kiosk owner name Anna said she sold mementos to show her allegiance.

“Ukrainian children come and kiss their flag and they cry. I always support Ukraine,” she said.

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Updated: June 27, 2022, 2:18 PM