Warsaw Is Stepping Up for Ukrainian Refugees

More than 2 million refugees have fled the war in Ukraine for Poland in the last month. In Warsaw, a solidarity movement involving thousands of volunteers has greeted them.

Volunteers unload some of the donations given to the Ukrainian refugees outside the Warsaw Central Railway Station. (Ty O'Neil / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Warsaw’s ugliest building — the Central Railway Station — is now the most beautiful place in town. The station has become the heart of Grupa Centrum, a spontaneous citizen movement helping refugees from Ukraine. The volunteers here are demonstrating the power of true solidarity — and encouraging others to join in.

It’s noon at the Warsaw Central Station and Karolina, twenty-four, briefs a new shift. This former teacher, one of Grupa Centrum‘s founders, is unmissable in her neon orange vest and hat. “Any questions, worries, problems — come to see me,” she says to twenty volunteers of various ages who will be under her supervision for the next six hours.

The first thing to master: the station’s new topography. Even those who know the place well have to learn the new functions of its particular areas. Two central service islands in the main hall that used to sell food and drinks are now information points. “Refugees come here to find transport and accommodation, get a free SIM card, and receive some basic medication,” explains Karolina.

She adds that those with more serious health problems can see a doctor, who works from an improvised office in a former luggage room. Next to it, mothers and children can find a quiet space in what used to be a waiting room. The outside area, formerly a car park, now hosts a row of tents with free food and basic hygiene supplies.

Karolina briefs volunteers before they start their shift. (Courtesy of Kasia Piasecka)

“You need to know the train station like you know your own pocket” Karolina tells the volunteers as she guides them around the post-communist hall. “Where is the toilet, where are the platforms, where can I eat something, where can I buy cigarettes — these are the questions that you’re going to be asked constantly. And don’t worry if you don’t speak Ukrainian, Russian, or English,” she adds. “Just speak Polish, but slowly, using only nouns and verbs. They will understand.” Before the volunteers disperse in the effervescent crowd, it’s time for the last blessing: Karolina asks them to join a Facebook chat, which will be their communication channel for the shift.

As we walk to the transport island, I ask Karolina about the origins of Grupa Centrum. “They’re as organic as you can imagine,” she replies. “A friend posted on Facebook about refugees at the Central Station who had just arrived and needed diapers. An hour later, a bunch of his friends brought several kilos of diapers and stayed as volunteers. Their friends and friends of friends joined, and now here we are — a couple of thousand volunteers; two hundred coordinators, translators, communications people; and a large community of donors who respond to the needs constantly updated on our website. We are here 24-7, and do all this pro bono on weekends and in the evenings. I have never seen such a well-organized spontaneous movement in my life.”

Neither have I. The volunteers’ involvement is as impressive as the situation was unpredictable. When I leave Karolina, she is approached by a refugee father who asks for help with a baby carrier. “I will have to watch a YouTube tutorial for this one,” she says, winking at me.

In other parts of the station, volunteers bend over backward to make sure refugees get their tickets, find their train, and can access information, food, and accommodation. “But sometimes, a simple smile is enough,” says Monika, who along with her daughter, Maja, I meet in the main hall. In hoodies and jeans, they look like sisters. They tell me that it’s their second day of volunteering, and that yesterday was tiring both physically and emotionally. “But our tiredness is nothing compared to their [the Ukrainians’] toil,” Monika adds.

Monika helps out at a food tent. (Courtesy of Kasia Piasecka)

As we speak, the duo are approached by a group of three Ukrainian women with a Yorkie dog asking for assistance buying tickets for Katowice. Maja’s English and Monika’s Russian combined, they manage to guide the group to the ticket desk. Next, Maja is assigned to taking care of refugee children upstairs, while Monika goes to one of the gastronomic tents to help distribute food. She will stay there for five hours, giving out bottles of water, cakes, and sandwiches to refugees passing through the station.

The volunteers of Grupa Centrum are supported by firefighters, rail employees, and scouts. Ordinary citizens also come to put their best skills to work helping refugees. In the crowd of disoriented travelers and their suitcases, I see a bunch of people dressed as Disney characters, the already-famous Dinosaur of the Central Station, and a couple of clowns, who treat refugee children with candies.

“I’m actually a teacher at the American School of Warsaw,” says one of the clowns, whose name is David. “But I come here as often as I can, recently with my new French friend — also called David.” He laughs and points at a man talking to a refugee boy. “I came here from Seattle, where I work as a farmer,” says David Two. “Talking to you now is the longest time I’ve taken for myself in a week.”

If you zoom out on a map of Warsaw, you can see spontaneous help initiatives mushrooming everywhere. Volunteer groups similar to Grupa Centrum are active at all major train stations. Every neighborhood has food and clothing collection points, and organizes free Polish language classes, psychological support hotlines, and face-to-face sessions. Private inhabitants have been opening up their houses to host refugees.

The city hall also helps out: it has organized temporary shelters for around twenty-five thousand refugees, as well as free vaccination points and spots where refugees can get a personal ID number [PESEL], which opens doors to health services and makes it easier to find a job. Public transport has been made free for Ukrainian citizens, too.

David and David. (Courtesy of Kasia Piasecka)

At the time of writing, more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed into Poland since Russia’s invasion on February 24. The Warsaw city hall says over three hundred thousand of them have been sheltered in the capital, increasing its population by around 17 percent. Warsaw’s mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, has echoed his counterparts in other cities by warning that the city has reached its limits, and calling for more support from the national government and international organizations.

Volunteers say they would welcome structural support, as the situation is likely to extend in time. At the Central Station, meanwhile, this shift comes to an end, and a new group of volunteers gather at the briefing point to take over. I check on Monika in the gastronomic tent: all smiles, she says she made new friends among the volunteers today. “But I’ve lost Maja somewhere,” she laughs.

A civil servant by day, Monika explains that being here with her daughter means a lot to her. “I am here also for Maja. I want to set an example for my child, so that in the future, she is not afraid to engage, to help.” When I ask if she’ll come here again, she exclaims: “Of course! Tomorrow is the first day of spring [March 21]; Maja is ditching school, as is Polish tradition. She will spend the day volunteering here, and I’m going to join her after work.”

This is the beauty of the action that has bloomed here. Leaving the Central Station, I think of those I met today and of the refugees who felt less lost thanks to their work. This place is unlikely to ever look the same as it used to: once an anonymous point of transit and consumption, the Warsaw Central Station has now become a historic site of the revival of Polish solidarity. For the sake of my city, I hope it’s here to stay.