Ukrainian UNHCR workers in Poland offer help and solace to refugees
Like the refugees they help, Dmytro and Svitlana are both originally from Ukraine. In Poland, they work as protection monitors for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, collecting information that helps guide the agency’s work and offering advice to refugees on how to access vital services such as health care, legal support and cash assistance.
They and colleagues like them are the human faces of UNHCR’s response to the arrival of millions of refugees from Ukraine to other parts of Europe since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. Since the beginning of the crisis, Poland has been among the main host countries of refugees from Ukraine, and most have moved to big cities such as Kraków.
In addition to gathering and providing information to the refugees they meet, Svitlana and Dmytro are always ready to offer comfort and a friendly ear. Their sympathy is born of shared disbelief at what is unfolding back home in Ukraine.
“When the war started, we were in shock,” Dmytro, 34, explained. “For a week at least no one could believe it, and everyone tried to somehow rationalize it.”
Dmytro is a history graduate who worked as a sales manager in Ukraine before moving to Poland to start his own business a month before the outbreak of the war. His wife Oleksandra, 37, daughter Yeva, 10, and mother-in-law Irina had remained in Kyiv and were due to join him in May last year after Yeva finished third grade. But when bombs began falling on the city, they fled immediately to Poland.
When the war started, we were in shock.
His own family’s experience helped spur Dmytro to move his career in a different direction and gave him an insight into the trauma faced by those he now helps in his role with UNHCR. “The people you meet cry a lot. It's hard for them to go back in their memories to the past, to the moments when they lost their loved ones, home, or possessions,” he said.
The work provides Dmytro with a sense of purpose, but he admits the mental strain sometimes takes a toll. “I like to help people. I put my whole heart into this work and am open to those who need help,” he said. “It is hard. Sometimes I come home and I don't want to talk. That's why I try to do something after work. Go for a walk, spend time with my daughter, with my wife.”
“It takes almost superhuman strength to do this job,” agreed Svitlana. The 38-year-old came to Kraków eight years ago with her husband Aram, 35, who works in the IT sector, and they now have a four-year-old daughter, Emma.
At the start of the war, Svitlana did what she could to organize donations and assistance for refugees arriving in Krakow. She heard that an organization was looking for Ukrainian speakers to help with the response and began working for UNHCR as a protection monitor.
“I meet refugees in humanitarian centres and collective shelters, and I provide UNHCR with information on the most pressing needs of refugees,” Svitlana said when asked to explain what her job entails. “Another key monitoring function is to coordinate and disseminate information among refugees on how they can solve their problems on their own. I also support refugees by listening and showing sympathy, which is also important.”
Among those she has helped are 50-year-old Tatyana and her 12-year-old daughter Masha from Dnipro in central Ukraine, a city that was heavily shelled during the first weeks of the war. For Masha, who has epilepsy and Down’s syndrome, the experience was particularly difficult.
The mother and daughter are currently living in a collective shelter in Kraków. Masha reads children’s books in Polish to try to learn the language, and with no end in sight to the war Tatyana knows that she will have to make a similar effort. “I need to know Polish [too]. What if I don’t go home? That’s life, [but] I should learn Polish.”
Svitlana described Tatyana’s practical stoicism as typical of many of the refugees she has met. “Many people are only just realizing that their lives have changed forever and maybe this is now home,” she said. “Many people here don’t have homes to return to. Some towns no longer exist – there is nothing left.”
Svitlana, Dmytro and other UNHCR protection monitors working in Poland have so far conducted over 50,000 interviews with refugees in the country. The insights they share provide UNHCR with an accurate picture of the current situation and needs of refugees from Ukraine, resulting in practical tools such as the Refugee Accommodation Sites Mapping and Monitoring report.
“Protection monitors are our eyes and ears, reaching out to the community,” said Christine Goyer, UNHCR’s Deputy Representative in Poland. “Their work makes a huge difference. It allows humanitarian organizations to understand the needs of refugees and the risks they face. It helps them to respond effectively in many ways – for instance through prevention, advocacy, or delivery of assistance. We also share the results with authorities, to help them adjust their policies.”
While Dmytro has been safely reunited with his family in Poland and found a rewarding job that makes a difference in people’s lives, his main hope for the future is that the work he does now will no longer be necessary.
“My biggest dream, like the dream of any other Ukrainian in Poland, is that the war ends, ideally today. So people are not suffering and children won’t suffer, and so people can return to their usual way of life, including me.”
Many people are only just realizing that their lives have changed forever.