One year on, volunteers in Poland are still doing all they can for Ukrainian refugees
Volunteer known as "Our Lady of Krakow" is among many concerned citizens in Poland who continue to show solidarity with refugees from neighbouring Ukraine.
Agnieszka Szyluk (40) organizes help for Ukrainian refugees at the Łagiewnicka Point support centre in Krakow, Poland.
© UNHCR/Anna Liminowicz
A delivery truck arrives at the distribution point on Łagiewnicka Street in Krakow, Poland, and Agnieszka Szyluk approaches even before the driver stops. She wrenches open the back door and grins at the sight of a pallet heaving with bread. “We did it!” she cries, beaming with pride, as she starts unloading.
When, on 24 February 2022, 40-year-old Agnieszka found out that the war had started in Ukraine, she immediately began organizing humanitarian aid for refugees. Today, almost a year on, she runs two popular help points in Krakow. At ‘Soup for Ukraine’, refugees receive hot food, and at ‘Łagiewnicka Point’, which resembles a shop, but where everything is free for those who need it, refugees can choose from donated clothes, food, hygiene products, and prams and cots.
Agnieszka’s kindness, commitment, and organizational talents have earned her a nickname among the Ukrainian refugees who visit daily: "Our Lady of Krakow".
“You have to take care of guests," says Agnieszka, referring to the refugees. "I can't ignore their suffering. I just must help. That's in my nature," she says smiling as another delivery truck arrives. Like the bread van earlier that day, the new pallets loaded with clothes will be moved to the warehouse and made available to those in need, free of charge.
In the first months of the refugee influx, ordinary Polish citizens such as Agnieszka rushed to help. In April 2022, close to two-thirds of Poles said that at least one person from their household helped refugees from Ukraine without receiving any remuneration, according to public polling institute CBOS.
Agnieszka notices fewer volunteers in Krakow these days: “At the beginning, the outpouring of help was massive. Now, only the most determined to help remain”.
Nevertheless, says Astrid Castelein, head of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Kraków, “The emergency response in Poland has been a whole-of-society effort, from citizens to the highest level of the Polish government. The civil engagement has been, and remains, significant in Poland and UNHCR is glad to be able to cooperate with so many motivated humanitarian actors and volunteers.”
Agnieszka works for a foundation called ‘The Good Always Comes Back’ and is no newbie to volunteering, having helped others for 25 years already. Despite that experience, she says she’s been surprised how willing people are to pitch in, and how quickly things can be arranged, often with “a single phone call”. But demand is high, and some items run out very quickly, she says.
Help does not only come by the truckload. People stop by Łagiewnicka Point with whatever they can share. On a recent morning, a Polish woman with two young daughters arrives at the centre, their car packed to the roof with toys, winter clothes, and food. They come from Wieliczka, a town half-an-hour's drive south-east of Krakow, and together mother and daughters help unload the car.
"I have helped from the very beginning,” says the mother, Anna. “Once every two months I deliver whatever I am able to collect among my friends and the good people in and around Krakow. I help these people because I just feel sorry for them. When I think about these children, what else can I do? I support as much as I can. I bring gifts and help financially."
Łagiewnicka Point is visited by around 200 people each day, but lately, on winter days when the whole city is covered in snow, up to 350 people turn up. Inside, there is constant movement: volunteers sorting items, refugees choosing what they need.
“Now it is winter, we see more people are coming for assistance,” says Agnieszka. “They are mostly new arrivals for whom it’s even harder to find accommodation and jobs. They need support to help them stand on their feet.”
“When I ask them what they need, they always say, ‘To go home’.”
According to registration statistics, 90 per cent of refugees from Ukraine in Poland are children, women and older people. While many refugees have found work and no longer need support, others continue to struggle. Finding jobs is a challenge for single mothers with small children to look after, while older people often lack the family support they relied on at home.
Among the visitors to Łagiewnicka Point is 27-year-old Olha, who came from Ukraine in November, and is looking for diapers and powdered milk for her eight-month-old son Mykhailo. "When the war broke out, I was pregnant. It was very dangerous in Dnipro, where I lived. But I didn't want to run away. I was afraid that I would give birth on the way to Poland," she says, cradling her child.
"I stayed, but the living conditions became terrible. I lived on the sixth floor and due to power cuts, the elevator did not work, so I couldn't even carry the stroller down to take the child outside. Anyway, how do you take the child outside, if rockets may fall any time?”
Olha finally decided to leave when explosions shattered the windows in the stairwell and the heating shut down.
Identified as eligible for cash support from UNHCR, Olha is still in a difficult situation: she came to Kraków from the city of Wrocław, two hours away by train, hoping to find new accommodation after her previous rental agreement expired. Olha accepts that she and her son may now have to live in a collective shelter.
Olha and Mykhailo’s plight upsets Agnieszka, but also motivates her, and other volunteers. "Sometimes I cry when I hear such stories," she says. "And I am touched by the commitment of those who still want to help.”
For now, Agnieszka and the many other volunteers continue, but they hope that as more refugees find jobs or gain access to state support, their help may eventually not be needed.