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Zuzanna's story: Helping the refugees fleeing war in Ukraine

08 April 2022

When the Russian army invaded Ukraine, thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in search of safety, with many of those crossing the border into Poland. Moved by the plight of the refugees and compelled to help those seeking shelter in her home country, ZUZANNA KURSKA returned to Poland to help an army of volunteers helping those in desperate need. Here, Zuzanna, a member of the education team in the School of Politics and Economics, tells the story of her experience so far…

I flew to Warsaw on 6 March. After an evening of organising myself and handing out the donations that I flew with, I was ready to begin volunteering.

I did most of my volunteering at Torwar, which on a normal day is an events venue and sports stadium. The reason was simple: Torwar is around the corner from my flat and this meant I was able to maximise my time spent there.

I’d work my day job at King’s remotely and then I’d come down to Torwar at about 19.00 and usually stay until midnight. On two occasions, I needed to stay into the early hours of the morning… thank goodness for the late start and the remote working. This allowed me to maximise the time I volunteered, but also meant that I got to know the place well, I knew the other volunteers and all the rules and processes.

ZuzannaTorwar

Torwar is what I call a ‘sleepery’. There were 500 camping/army beds (see picture below) set out in the main hall. This means, naturally, refugees were stripped of any privacy. Imagine fleeing your home with one suitcase to your name, traveling through cold and exhaustion for 30 hours or more, which includes being stopped and searched by the army, waiting in a three-hour queue at the border, hearing explosions all around… You then catch a train on the Polish side, your ticket is free when you show your Ukrainian passport, you make it here and, well… you can’t really rest. Yes, you’re safe, but you’re also sharing the room with 499 other people, which includes crying children, barking dogs, coughing adults and so on. It’s not exactly a haven. We tried to make it the best we could but there was only so much we can do. People usually stayed for up to three. Hence, why I called it a ‘sleepery’. Good on those who managed to fall asleep - some did - But a lot of people were just lying down with their eyes open, scrolling their smartphones, waiting for their next connection.

I’ve been asked by many: “where the people distressed?” “Was it difficult for you? “Was it stressful?” The honest answer is ‘no, not really’, and I believe this is because Torwar was a transit point in most people’s journeys. Yes, they stopped for a moment; had a breather; picked up what they needed; ate and drank; showered and rested; but that was just a short stop and not a final destination.

ZuzannaBeds

The volunteers all wore high-vis vests and some of us also had lanyards showing the languages we could speak. All co-ordinators wore lanyards when they attended a shift in their shift co-ordinator capacity.

Being familiar with the venue and its staff is extremely important when volunteering. One could jump around between places, thinking they are more helpful the more places they reach, but the truth is that introducing a new person takes up the precious time of the experienced volunteers. You will be of more help if you know what you’re doing, and you come in and get to work immediately.

This is what I did – I showed up with donations on my first day, said I had some free time and offered to stay for as long as I was needed. I’d then repeat this every afternoon, and, with each shift, I learned new jobs and met more people. By the end of the week, I was very familiar with everyone and everything. What happened then is I ended up guiding the new volunteers. Since knowing the place and the job pretty well, I ended up taking initiative. I suppose this is how I became a shift co-ordinator for one of the sectors – the clothing section, which was alway chaos.

ZuzannaClothes

We were based in the basement, so most days I wouldn’t even see the light of the day! As you can see, many of the clothes were organised in cardboard boxes on the floor – unfortunately, being private people funding everything from our own pockets, we didn’t have the resources to put up fancy shelves or anything like that. A lot of the time, the only way our refugees could find exactly what they wanted, was by asking us. Spending hours sorting these clothes, we knew exactly what was available.

ZuzannaBadge002

Ukrainian is very similar to Russian, but not Polish. However, with a bit of good will, lots of hand signals, and a general common-sense understanding of what people might need, we managed to understand each other and help our refugees. I do intend to learn more of the language though – I’ve already signed up for Russian level 1 at King’s MLC.

The clothing section was mostly a mess, so the major job was sorting, organising, folding, and putting things away. We always needed a lot of volunteers, as there were such huge amounts of clothing donations and hundreds of refugees coming through the place every day, often mixing the previously sorted clothes, which naturally required more sorting, and so on.

But my duties were not limited to the clothing section. I worked in the warehouses – receiving deliveries and sorting goods, doing the inventory and giving things out; I attended to the refugees in the sleeping hall – usually when they needed something (a towel, some soap, toothbrush, toothpaste…) or needed to be directed somewhere (the psychological, linguistic, or legal help; information about staying in Poland or traveling abroad; where the showers were or where they could find food and clothes; etc); I also helped with some simple technical/maintenance tasks, like drawing a map of the venue and the directions to the medical point.

The one odd job that gave me unexpected amounts of pride was hanging up posters and arrows with information about where things were. This was my longest shift, which stretched well into the night, but ever since after that, I walked with pride and joy, seeing my posters looking beautiful on the walls.

ZuzannaSign

Weirdly satisfying, I know – but just look at them, aren’t they beautiful? I was lucky to make amazing friends among the volunteers, so working with them well into the night was no issue whatsoever. And then seeing the results of my work for the days to come just filled me with pride and satisfaction.

I was quickly ‘promoted’ to shift co-ordinator – which was not unusual, seeing as people who went there a lot and knew what to do were generally promoted co-ordinators all the time. We needed everyone and anyone who could think independently and fast- there was so much going on all the time, with hundreds of refugees and volunteers. I found it very stimulating, very exciting, and very right for me. I will miss it, no doubt. Getting the badge was definitely a big moment for me.

ZuzannaBadge

I enjoyed being at Torwar very much. Always on my feet, always running around doing useful things, helping people, co-ordinating the many tasks and the many volunteers at our venue. I didn’t interact with the refugees that much, because for the most part they wanted to be left alone. On some occasions, they’d ask us for help, but they didn’t really look for company – they either fled with family or made friends on the way, so we provided them with things they needed, rather than hang out with them. Although I did make some friends among the refugees too, spent a bit of time chatting to them and trying to help in other ways.

For example, I befriended a young woman traveling alone with two cats. I started chatting to her because I’m a huge cat person, and that was how I found out that she was all alone. I was very concerned, as she didn’t know where to go and didn’t have anybody abroad. I gave her all the safety precautions and safe contacts we had access to. Her only plan was to get on the first train she can catch, which happened to be going to Prague. She was lucky to end up in Brno and I follow her Instagram story every day. She is safe and sound, made friends with refugees and locals in Brno and sometimes posts happy picture of her new ‘family’ sightseeing and having lattes.

Fortunately (for the refugees), Torwar will cease to serve as a reception point from 8 April. This is because we experienced a big drop in the number of refugees coming to us and the few who remained were transferred elsewhere.

I do miss Torwar every day though, I miss being needed and being able to help, and I miss the wonderful atmosphere. The trust and co-operation, the ever-present selfless willingness to help, the friendship sprouting everywhere naturally and effortlessly and the gratefulness from our refugees… but of course I am happy that we no longer need to run this place. This means that we don’t have as many people in need anymore, which must be a good thing. Let’s just hope it stays this way.

In hindsight, I do realise that I was lucky, and my job was easy. Both because I worked at a transit point/reception point/or a sleepery, as I call it, but also because the first wave of refugees was made up of those who, as we say it, had somewhere to go. They either had the resources or the connections abroad, so they could afford the luxury of fleeing. The real disaster will hit when the poor and the hopeless will flood Poland – the refugees running away having experienced the war, as opposed to running away before it.

This is not to undermine the tragedy of what ‘my’ refugees experienced. There were some dramatic cases in there too. But luckily, the vast majority of people I worked with, managed to safely escape and moved on elsewhere. I am so grateful that we could help them and that they are safe and sound now and I hope things will stay this way.

I leave you with a picture I took on my last day, when I walked around the venue to say goodbye to it and all the memories made there. I hope to visit Torwar some time again soon, hopefully in completely different circumstances.

ZuzannaTeddy

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