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Residents on German-Polish border helping Ukrainians

Monika Stefanek
March 1, 2022

As refugees from Ukraine arrive at the German-Polish border, residents are rushing to help provide accommodation as well as donate supplies to Ukrainians in the area who are leaving to fight Russian forces back home.

Locals have been enthusiastically donating in Slubice, Poland.
Locals have been enthusiastically donating in Slubice, PolandImage: Monika Stefanek/DW

Olena Pankiv-Bola's clothing store in the Polish town of Slubice, near the border of Germany and Poland, hasn't closed its doors for days.

Ever since the Ukrainian business owner posted a message on social media last Friday asking for help for Ukrainian men from Slubice heading to the war front, locals have been bringing supplies almost continuously — from bandages, cans of food, medicines, power banks and blankets to sandbags and much more.

Sometimes there are unexpected donations. "I have 10 liters of diesel here," a middle-aged man tells the puzzled store owner. "Where should I put them?" He begins to stack them in front of the clothing store.

Slubice, with a population of around 16,000, is in western Poland and more than 800 kilometers (497 miles) from the Ukrainian border to the east. But the town feels like it's in the midst of an emergency.

People are so keen to help that last Saturday, the local pharmacies ran out of painkillers and first aid kits. Some of the pharmacies don't even ask customers what they want to buy any more. They simply find out how much money they are willing to spend and put together an appropriate package to donate.

The boutique Olena Pankiv-Boła (pictured) runs has in Slubice stayed open to accept donations.
The clothing boutique Olena Pankiv-Boła runs in Slubice has stayed open to accept donationsImage: Monika Stefanek/DW

Volunteer fighters leave with donations

Some of the donors have come from far away. Marcin is from Poznan, a town almost 200 kilometers away. The young Polish man has brought new cell phones with him to donate and also plans to send two vans to the Ukrainian border to pick up refugees and bring them to Poland. He's already organized the vans through friends.

A German-Polish couple have also travelled here from Berlin with donations after they found out online about the aid campaign in the clothing store. 

"I didn't expect that my appeal would trigger such a huge wave of willingness to help," Olena Pankiv-Bola says. She's been touched by the generosity. "Some people bring things to donate, others bring cash. The trust is enormous, I am infinitely grateful."

Some of the donations have already gone to Ukraine over the weekend. The supplies are being transported by a group of 15 Ukrainian men who had decided to return home to fight the Russians.

Volunteers wait in line to join the Ukrainian Armed Forces at a military commissariat in Rivne, Ukraine.
Volunteers stand in line to sign up to the armed forces in Ukraine Image: UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES via REUTERS

One of them is Andriy, who doesn't want to give his full name or have his picture taken. He's been working as a  truck driver in Poland for the past two years and is visibly upset. He hasn't slept for days.

He says his wife and two children are in Ukraine, close to the capital, Kyiv.

"So I decided to return immediately," Andriy explains. "My Polish boss agreed right away."

Andriy doesn't know what to expect on the journey. The group's first stop will be in Kyiv, if possible, to hand over the donations to hospitals and medical clinics.

"I can't talk about my feelings right now," Andriy says. "It's just too hard."

Housing for refugees in place

Since Saturday, there have been more vans in the town square loading up with supplies. The next group of Ukrainian volunteers is leaving this week and will take further donations with them. The organizers of the aid drive have said that the campaign will continue and will also try to meet the needs of refugees arriving in the German-Polish border area.

On Monday, the municipal authorities set up a camp for the new arrivals. The first refugees from Ukraine actually arrived in Slubice on Saturday morning.

"We have already accommodated a family of six," local resident Mariusz Dubacki says. He is coordinating the the housing plan for refugees in town. "I am now looking for a room for three young Ukrainians who are on their way to us. At the moment we have about 40 places available with private individuals," Dubacki says.

"Most of them want to take women with children. I think that the housing prepared by the municipality is not needed for now. But of course, everything could change very quickly."

Slubice has about 60 housing facilities to accommodate refugees.

Donations were collected in a square in the Polish town of Slubice.
Donations were collected in a square in the Polish town of SlubiceImage: Monika Stefanek/DW

Beata Bielecka, a spokesperson for the mayor, also pointed out that  Ukrainians who have been in Poland for a long time might also need support. There are estimated to be more than 3,000 Ukrainians living and working in the area.

"We have had information from schools in Slubice that children of Ukrainian workers are also under a lot of stress," Bielecka explains. "Their parents are torn. They don't know what to do. Should they go to Ukraine to get the rest of their family, or stay here where it's safe? These are dramatic decisions. That's why we've focused on providing psychological support to the Ukrainian students here."

Plans to set up hotline in Ukrainian

On the other side of the Oder river, in Germany, preparations have begun in the eastern city of Frankfurt to take on refugees.

The first refugees from Ukraine arrived here on Friday. Most of them went on to stay with relatives elsewhere in Germany. In Brandenburg, the German state that borders Poland, authorities have set up 800 housing facilities. In the long term, officials plan to expand the number to 10,000. So far though, there hasn't been much demand.

Infographic Top 5 destination for refugees from Ukraine

In fact, the refugee reception center in nearby Eisenhuettenstadt was helping just 11 people from Ukraine. Many more — an estimated 400 — have arrived in Berlin, according to Berlin's Sate Office for Refugee Affairs. Between Sunday and Monday, 85 people arrived there. Some are staying with friends or relatives, others have already applied for asylum.

The first Ukrainian refugees have also arrived in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Around 20 women and children have found refuge in the state's capital, Schwerin, and further accommodation has been prepared in Rostock, Neubrandenburg and Stralsund.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive in Germany

Katarzyna Werth, a local councilor in Loecknitz, a town of around 3,000 residents just a few kilometers from the Polish border, suggested building a reception center nearer the border.

"The current reception centers are too far away," she told DW. "I also hope that a hotline in Ukrainian will be set up soon. Most information is only available in German at the moment."

An anticipated flow of arrivals from Ukraine has also prompted German federal police to step up checks along the German-Polish border. Trucks and buses coming from the east are being stopped and inspected near Frankfurt (Oder), on the way to Berlin.

This article was originally written in German