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As refugees flee into Poland from the Russia–Ukraine war, stories emerge of small and sometimes illegal kindnesses. By Alinka Carmichael.

Small kindnesses at the Polish border

Refugees leaving Ukraine on their way to Poland earlier this month.
Refugees leaving Ukraine on their way to Poland earlier this month.
Credit: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images News

Białowieża, eastern Poland: August 2021

In August, Bogdan and Agata Jaroszewicz started noticing refugees walking through the Białowieża Forest. Bogdan is a professor of exact and natural sciences at the University of Warsaw and director of the Białowieża Geobotanical Station.

In the weeks following his initial sighting of refugees in the forest, Bogdan’s botany students found a young man in the forest. “He was badly injured,” Bogdan says, “with barbwire cuts across his face.” The students attended to the man’s wounds and tried to take him to a nearby town to get medical attention. “He didn’t want to get arrested by border guards … So he stayed in the forest.”

The Białowieża Forest is located at the continental divide between the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. Because of this, marshlands and rivers run through the forest. European bison roam in the town’s backyards and rare birds fly overhead. The forest is considered one of the best preserved in temperate Europe.

“The refugees were completely unprepared for this environment,” Bogdan says. “Belarusian regime companies, involved in the action of attracting these people to Belarus, told them that crossing the border will be ‘piece of cake’: a two- to three-hour walk through the forest and they will be at their destination.

“Many of them were wearing clothes for a city walk, sneakers on their feet and carrying tourist cases … After a few days of walking in wet shoes many people had so-called trench foot. They were not able to walk … they were suffering.

“It was clear by September that our government was not going to help these people … and in fact it was pushing them back to the border … instead of starting an asylum process for them.”

Agata is one of many who started to create backpacks full of supplies, which other volunteers would take to the forest and leave for refugees to find in the trees.

“The volunteers often spend hours going through the forest searching for people,” Agata says. “The food needs to be made at very short notice … and it must be high protein.”

In the villages that scatter the Polish– Belarusian border, residents light green lanterns in their windows. These lights act as signals to refugees that they will be welcome in these homes.

 

Białowieża: October 2021

Some of the work these individuals do to help the refugees puts them at risk of prosecution. On the condition of anonymity, one such individual spoke to me.

“I help in the forests … but it should not be my duty … it should be the duty of our government,” they said.

“These people are from everywhere … Many are Kurds … [They] are being used as weapons in politics.”

 

Kyiv: February 24, 2022

Valentyna Krasnoshchok woke in the early hours to the sound of bombs.

By then she had received numerous text messages. “Wake up!” they read. “The war has started!”

Her story is short. Having already sent her daughter to stay with her brother in Poland, Krasnoshchok got out on the third day. “You will hear more dramatic stories and miraculous rescues, but the start of it was the same almost for all – with the bomb explosions in the early morning and calls of scared and caring friends and relatives.”

She never thought she would live through war. Her grandmother had told her it was the worst thing that could happen to humanity. “For all of us it was very difficult to grasp that the war was real and about to stay. We all hoped to wake up the very next morning to the life we had before.”

Krasnoshchok drove for 12 hours on small roads to Lviv, where she finally boarded a train. Her husband had to stay behind. For the first few hours she stood. After that, she sat with other people’s children on her lap. At one point she fainted because the carriage was so overfilled and the air became so thick.

“Nobody expected this train to go this long, so people did not have enough water, food, baby milk, diapers,” Krasnoshchok says. “So this journey was possible due to the great efforts of the volunteer’s groups on our way as every time the train stopped for several hours the volunteers brought water, food, baby milk with boiled water, sandwiches – everything to help all survive this journey. At one stop there was even the little kitchen on fire cooking hot soup, baking potatoes, even making coffee, and we were really thankful for those hard-working tremendous people who managed to provide for so many people – more than a thousand. Arriving in Warsaw we also got into hands of the volunteer groups that organised everything upon arrival. They are like saving angels flying with us on the way.”

 

Warsaw: March 2022

It is hard to capture the scale of the refugee situation facing Poland because of the invasion of Ukraine. As Klaudia Nowak, a student from the University of Warsaw, recounts, “the number of refugees entered suddenly”.

The initial help for these refugees came from civilians. It came from people such as Dominika Kuna, a student ombudsman in the student union at the University of Warsaw. From the morning of February 24, she assisted in the establishment of a psychology resource centre for Ukrainian students. “It’s important they have someone to speak to in their own language.”

It came from people such as Sebastian Szuban, who was contacted by Nigerian students who were living in Ukraine and needed accommodation in Warsaw. He now leads efforts to help house displaced international students.

By chance, I managed to get in contact with these students, and between studying and organising solidarity events, they shared with me the work they are doing.

“When we heard about the outbreak of war, the first thing we decided on was a clear and simple message to all our [University of Warsaw] Ukrainian students – ‘We will be with you!’ ” Kamil Bonas says. “It is a small gesture, but it shows how important this topic is for all of us.”

Students organised donation stations, fundraising initiatives and blood drives. They got the University of Warsaw to offer financial support to Ukrainian students, legal and psychological counselling, translation services, helping international students studying in Ukraine get home, and organising assistance with external organisations to facilitate helping Ukrainian students in bringing their family members to Poland.

“It is hard … We still must live our lives … We still have to study,” Dominika says. “Of course, we remember the stories our parents told us about the war … But this is different … We feel a mission to help and support these people … It is the most important thing for us.”

 

Warsaw: March 5, 2022

Barbara Kusińska is a master’s student in biology, living in Warsaw. Like many families across Poland, the Kusińskas invited a Ukrainian family to stay in the apartment next to theirs.

“What else would we be doing?” she says. “I am proud of the help Poles are showing to the Ukrainian refugees. At the same time, I feel ashamed about how [our] society [treats] the refugees trying to cross the Polish–Belarusian border.”

 

Białowieża: March 2022

“I am often tired” says the anonymous person helping refugees in the forest. “If you see someone who is hurt or hungry … and you meet them in the forest … what can you do? Call the police and soldiers … and be uncertain [of how they will be treated]? You cannot pass them by and go to work.”

 

Melbourne: March 2022

The Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska wrote in a poem titled “Gratitude” that:

They themselves do not know

how much they bring in empty hands.

“I owe them nothing,”

love would say

on this open question.

When I asked Dominika Kuna why she was motivated to help these refugees, she responded simply. “It should be our vision of the world to help everyone … Even if they are not of [our] origin.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Walking through forests".

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Alinka Carmichael is studying politics at the University of Melbourne.

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