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Poland rolls out welcome mat for Ukrainians

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
March 4, 2022

Poland is warmly welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war in sharp contrast to its treatment of previous waves of refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. What explains the difference?

Refugees in a hall in Poland
Polish border towns like Przemysl have been throwing open their doors to Ukrainians fleeing bloodshedImage: Arafatul Islam/DW

Ewa Godlewska-Jeneralska's house in the small southern Polish town of Czchow is ready to welcome refugees fleeing the bloodshed in Ukraine. The beds are made, the rooms carefully prepared for guests.

"It's natural to do this. The war is raging in our backyard," Godlewska-Jeneralska tells DW in a phone call. She hasn't received any Ukrainians as yet leaving their war-torn country, but she expects it to happen soon.

The town has already seen the arrival of some women with children from Ukraine. They need a lot of things because they often arrive with just a hastily packed bag, Godlewska-Jeneralska says.

"The hardest thing for me is to see them thank us. Sometimes you haven't done anything yet, just talked to them, and they are so incredibly grateful. We all cry with them."

A neatly made bed
A neatly made bedroom for Ukrainian refugees in Ewa Godlewska-Jeneralska's homeImage: privat

Wave of solidarity

The war in neighboring Ukraine has jolted Poland, prompting a huge outpouring of aid and solidarity. There are collection points for donations in kind and advertisements by people willing to take in refugees.

Polish men and women have been traveling to the border in private cars to offer lifts to refugees, holding up signs with the names of cities like Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Wroclaw — nearly every corner of the country is represented.

Just three days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Wojciech Bakun, mayor of Przemysl in far southeastern Poland, wrote on social media that people should stop bringing aid to the city for now. "At the moment we have absolutely everything in large quantities!"

A big hall with beds
A camp set up for refugees in the Polish town of PrzemyslImage: Beata Zawrzel/AA/picture alliance

Huge contrast to migrant crisis on Belarus border

Yet it was not that long ago that Poland produced some very different images to the ones playing out now — migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries stranded in the forests on the Polish-Belarusian border. Referring to the migrants, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak claimed "The open-door policy led to terrorist attacks in Western Europe."

EU migrants at the Polish border

There were reports of Polish border forces carrying out illegal pushbacks. Since the beginning of the year, Poland has been building a fence on the border to Belarus to keep illegal migrants out.

At the time of the migrant crisis, aid groups, medical charities and individual Poles including residents of the eastern border regions helped migrants as best they could. But there was no mass mobilization and willingness to help the refugees.

"From a moral perspective, the current situation is clear: We are not dealing with a manipulative autocrat who drops people who want to go to the West at the Polish border, but with the attack of one state on another," Andrzej Rychard, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw, believes.

Andrzej Rychard
Andrzej Rychard is a sociologist at the University of WarsawImage: privat

His colleague Przemyslaw Sadura is researching how the migration crisis on the Belarusian border affected residents and Polish border guards. Now, he's researching the same issue in Przemysl on the Ukrainian border.

"These two crises mirror each other," Przemysl says. "What stands out, however, are differences in how they are perceived. Everyone is currently involved and helping the refugees. It's like a festival of solidarity, a reflex,” he says. "But will this last when we realize that is about millions of people who no longer have homes to return to and who are staying in Poland?"

Poland united on welcoming Ukrainians

For now, at least, Poland is providing quick and effective help for Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. They are entitled to the same medical care in Poland as locals, with expenses borne by the state health insurance.

"All refugees who come to the Polish-Ukrainian border will be accepted in Poland," said Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau at a meeting of the Weimar Triangle on March 1, 2022.

Andrzej Rychard said political considerations aren't driving the current welcome rolled out by Poland. "This is one of those rare moments when thinking in terms of values is more important than political tactics,” he said.

The war in Ukraine has led to unprecedented political unity in Poland. All parties from across the political spectrum are calling for support for Ukrainian refugees.

A Polish guard in front of a barbed wire fence
Last year, migrants faced barbed wire and armed guards as they tried to cross into Poland from BelarusImage: Viktor Tolochko/Sputnik/picture alliance/dpa

"In contrast, in 2021 it was controversial to even help migrants on the Belarusian border. Perhaps we were subconsciously ashamed of the construction of the fence on the border with Belarus and are now more at peace with our conscience," Przemyslaw Sadura says.

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'You can still control some things now'

Before the Russian invasion, there were about one million Ukrainians living in Poland. Almost every Polish family knows Ukrainians who work in Poland. The countries aren't far apart geographically or even culturally.

In a survey conducted last year by the Center for Prejudice Research at the University of Warsaw, more than 90% of respondents said they accept people from Ukraine as colleagues and neighbors.

But, for Ewa Godlewska-Jeneralska from Czchow, the nagging question of the contrasting treatment meted out to Syrian and Ukrainian refugees remains unanswered.

Ukrainian refugees in Poland
Refugees from Ukraine have been met with an outpouring of kindness and solidarity in PolandImage: Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

"How can it be that Ukrainian children are better than Syrian ones?," she asks.

There is little doubt that the situation in the late summer of 2021 was more confused because no one knew who exactly the migrants were and why they were trying to get to Poland.

At the time, the Polish border service published photos of people posing in front of landmarks in Minsk, and Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski portrayed the refugees as tourists or potential terrorists. But, the fact is that at the same time, families with children were freezing in the cold — without triggering a wave of solidarity.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive in Germany

Godlewska-Jeneralska says she had spoken with a psychologist who brought up another aspect: "Back then, when the refugees arrived at the Belarusian border, it was not a direct threat to us,” Godlewska-Jeneralska says.

"Now it's different: when you feel threatened yourself and helpless at the same time, it's almost unbearable. But when you start doing something concrete to help, you feel you can still control some things."

This article was originally written in German