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Emmaus Lublin: solidarity continues at the border with Ukraine

In Poland, this group located close to the Ukrainian border has been rallying round since the start of the conflict. Zbigniew, the founder of Emmaus Lublin, explains to us how the situation is developing as the conflict is becoming entrenched.

Hi, Zbigniew. Can you give us news about the current situation? How are things in Lublin and at the Ukrainian border at the present time?

The war goes on. Fighting continues and is concentrated in the East and South of Ukraine, but missiles are also hitting Kyiv, the country’s capital. Nobody can feel safe in Ukraine.

In Poland, things have changed since the start of the conflict, and initiatives to help refugees are no longer off the cuff. This stems from improved organisation with the public services. At the start of the war, we witnessed an extraordinary wave of solidarity from Polish society: spontaneous, massive support from citizens and NGOs, the value of which was estimated at over €10 billion. Thanks to this movement, over 5.5 million people from Ukraine were housed by close to 500,000 Polish people, without any government aid. Our community welcomed its first refugees on 26 February, two days after the start of the conflict.

Thanks to the efforts of the authorities, the situation stabilised after six weeks. Nowadays, the Ukrainian refugees living in Poland can access employment, healthcare and education, and receive a €100 support payment per month per person. Over half of the refugees are in work. Host families have been entitled to roughly €8 per day per person from the government. This aid – which will be stopped soon – enabled refugees to be housed during the first months of the war.

Nowadays, reception hubs managed by local councils have taken over from host families. Moreover, since May and fighting becoming concentrated in Eastern Ukraine, a number of refugees have been returning to Ukraine.

On 29 August, 30,000 people left Poland for Ukraine, and 25,000 crossed the border in the opposite direction. The flow of refugees is now controlled, and the border with Ukraine is no longer overstretched.

What is the general feeling in Poland about a war that is dragging on? And within Emmaus? Do you think that feelings have changed compared with the early days?

The only change is that provision is better organised. Support for refugees has not dropped, whether among the political class or civil society. There is no nationalist rhetoric and nobody is taking a separatist stance, even after six months of war. Full employment in Poland may be helping the situation, but this form of national unity should be applauded. Shelter and support are unconditional, just like in Emmaus!

I wish to emphasize that this situation – the support given to Ukrainian refugees – is really remarkable, and will have a lasting effect on relations between Poland and Ukraine, which had been tense due to the acts of violence committed during World War II.

Regarding our community, the companions took the easy decision to house refugees in their homes, despite the potential sacrifices: greatly increased workload and making space to double our accommodation capacity. Our companions, Emmaus and the whole of civil society have welcomed the refugees with open arms.

What is the situation of non-Ukrainian refugees?

Just like in other countries in Europe, we have sadly seen that foreign residents who were also fleeing conflict were treated differently. Some were even detained in camps in the first instance. They are now entitled to the same provision as the Ukrainians and the same government support funded by Europe, but unfortunately still not the same status.  It is tragic to compare the welcome given to the Ukrainians with that afforded to refugees from Africa, the Near and Middle East, who crossed the border between Belarus and Poland as of August 2021. These refugees were used by the Belarus president to destabilise Poland and Europe. And it worked. This crisis triggered a disgraceful reaction by the Polish government: push-backs, which are banned by the Geneva Convention; introduction of a state of emergency in the border areas; building a wall along the border. Dozens of activists and public figures (actors and artistes) who helped these refugees were treated as criminals or people smugglers. While the number of arrivals from Belarus has now dropped, there are still families detained in camps.

You swung into action right from the start of the conflict; can you describe the grassroots solidarity work that you are undertaking?

We held a community meeting two days after the conflict began. We asked ourselves what we could do to help. We took several decisions: create accommodation places for refugees in each of the four community houses (25 places created), support and assist 30 Polish host families by handing out food, household linen, furniture, hygiene products; and facilitate the transfer of refugees to other European countries, to France and Belgium.

And of course, we have become a humanitarian aid storage and shipment hub for the Emmaus groups from across Europe. I wish to take this opportunity to thank all the Emmaus groups who helped us in this way. In the space of two months, we sent five trucks to Ukraine and Emmaus Oselya, in addition to vans to other Ukrainian communities, and to other areas of Poland. The refugees living with us helped us to sort and load the trucks. They contributed to the collective effort and really integrated well into our community.

We are now only housing two women and four children. Most of the refugees have gone back to Ukraine, and we have kept in touch with some of them. Once again, by donating to the Ukraine Fund, the Emmaus groups have enabled us to fund proper support for these families for several months.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I wish to stress that this war affects us all: it is being waged against us, and against European civilisation. Russian imperialism is oppressing us, and will not stop until it has demonstrated and cemented its hegemonic position in the world. This is why our support for Ukrainian refugees is of key importance. Action was needed, and we still need to act.

Ukrainian families hosted by Emmaus Lublin.

© Emmaus Lublin

Two young people from Emmaus Satu Mare unloading a container.

Two young people from Emmaus Satu Mare unloading a container from Emmaus Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, May 2022, Romania - © Emmaus Satu Mare

Container loads – solidarity that goes beyond donated goods

Meeting with Jean-Philippe, the leader of Emmaus Satu Mare, Romania. He tells us about how container loads are arranged, but above all, reveals what underpins these initiatives to share donations between the Emmaus groups who receive a lot of donated goods, and those who receive less.

Can you give us a quick overview of Emmaus Satu Mare?

Our community is home to 25 young people aged 18-30. They are care system leavers. They are particularly vulnerable, and most of them have experienced trauma during their childhood and teenage years. They come to us with major interpersonal, educational, inclusion and other issues.

We are therefore at a crossroads between a community and a social enterprise. On the one hand, the community: the companions learn to live independently, take care of themselves, etc. All of this is linked to in-depth educational work: getting back into education, individual discussions and support groups on certain topics (managing emotions, relationships, etc).

And on the other, the social enterprise: two furniture shops, bric-a-brac…which give the young people work experience, and enable Emmaus Satu Mare to cover its costs.

Where does the stock for the two shops come from?

Just like most Emmaus groups, we collect locally, but this is inevitably limited: there is no culture of giving in Romania, and we receive poor-quality donations, and even waste… There is a real risk of waste being sent to landfill when it is dumped in wheelie bins, as recycling facilities  have not been developed here.

Most of our stock is therefore supplied by solidarity container loads, sent by Emmaus partner groups with whom we have forged strong links.

What underpins this type of partnership and connection between Emmaus groups?

While the financial support provided by the solidarity container loads is vital, these partnerships are also the chance to forge real relationships with the other groups in Europe via companion exchanges, group visits, etc.

Many of our young people undertake internships in our partner groups. They spend several days or weeks there, preparing the next load, and also learn a lot about life outside their community. They “fly the nest” as it were, and find themselves in a new yet protective setting, which turns upside down their habits (new language, rubbing shoulders with older people, etc.). Most of the young people come back more mature, with increased self-confidence. These exchanges are truly beneficial. They have been referred to as a “companion Erasmus scheme”, and that definitely rings true!

And when difficulties arise during their time at a partner community, it constitutes an opportunity for them to learn about their limits, and gives us ideas on how better to support them. We are lucky enough to have trusted partners, who are willing to “give it a go” alongside us.

From a logistics perspective, what does “sending a container” actually involve?

First things first: it isn’t difficult to send a container! There is a little bit of admin, which is relatively easy to complete. We find a haulier at our end.

The challenging part is the “content” of the container: the quality and quantity of donations. A truck that is only 70% full will have an impact on the profit generated, and on our economic model. Likewise, a load of poor quality goods is very likely to end up in the bin, with the risk of being sent to landfill. In both scenarios, the environmental impact will also go against the values that we champion at Emmaus.

The new issue is the rising cost of fuel, and Romania has not been spared. Currently, a container load generates turnover of €7-9,000 for Satu Mare, while transport costs amount to roughly €3,000 (as opposed to €2,200 last year). The quality and quantity of donations are therefore crucial to making a profit from the load and in order to be in keeping with our principles.

What is an ideal load then?

One that combines interaction, quality and quantity! One option is for the young people to travel to the sending group to select the contents of the container, help with loading, and motivate everyone to load the container as well as possible. Although this costs money, it is really important for forging long-term relationships, and as stated above, it is a great experience.

Another good practice (for the sending group) is to carefully study the receiving group’s needs. The idea is for the goods to be what our local customers actually want to buy. Last year, we met two groups, and together we drew up a detailed list of our needs: furniture style, knick-knacks, type of crockery, without even taking into account how items are packaged, “knocked about” during loading, shipping, and unloading. All of these issues are important!

We have longstanding links with other groups who are up to speed with our needs, and we feel “at home” when we take part in loading a container.

What would you like to say to a group that wants to get more involved in international solidarity and in container loads in particular?

Container loads are a very “Emmaus” way of undertaking and receiving solidarity. They are tangible, as they involve the companions, employees and volunteers in the sending group; this generates a real and palpable benefit for the receiving group’s companions. Container loads are not just another activity; instead they are part of Emmaus’ DNA:  donations to Emmaus are shared, providing work for an entire community, and bringing it alive. And it’s a wonderful adventure!

Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you would like to add?

There is always more to say! We are very grateful to the Emmaus groups who have been supporting us for a long time. And we recommend that those who are still unsure do embark on the adventure, with us or with other European groups who also need donations, in Romania, as well as in Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in the Baltic nations!

Emmaus Oselya’s daily life has been turned upside down

The group has been supporting people fleeing the fighting right from the start of the conflict. Emmaus Oselya has provided support, handed out food, offered accommodation, counselling, and so on. Natalia, leader of Emmaus Oselya in Ukraine, tells us about the community’s daily life, which has been turned upside down since the beginning of the conflict.

How is your community involved in supporting displaced people?

In April, around 50 people came every day to our social support centre in Lviv to take a shower, get their hair cut, do their washing and change their clothes, get something to eat, receive medical care, or simply relax and chat. This makes for a total of over 600 meals handed out, around 100 loads of washing, over 500 items of clothing donated, and close to 200 showers. All of these services are delivered by the community’s companions, who know all about the difficulties of life on the streets. This creates a rapport with the beneficiaries, who are forced to seek help because of the war.

However, our social centre is small – two small rooms and a bathroom. Since the start of the war, the number of people coming to the centre has continued to rise, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to welcome them properly and provide them with support.

Our Emmaus charity shop, located in Vynnyky in the Lviv suburbs, is close to our community house, and reopened in April. However, the air raid warnings and risk of being bombed force us to take refuge in bomb shelters and close the shop regularly. This is having a major impact on our income-generating activity, which is so important for our community and our customers. Once again, thanks to the funding provided by the Emmaus groups, via the Emmaus Europe Ukraine Fund, we are able to maintain our community life and help the displaced people and war victims.

The Lviv charity shop only opens three times a week. On the other hand, the furniture restoration workshop is practically back to normal, and people are placing orders once again. We are delighted about this.

In April, we received a container of humanitarian aid from the Emmaus groups via Emmaus Lublin (the third since the start of the conflict). We are working with a range of associations and volunteers across Ukraine to provide support where it is needed most. In April, we helped the children’s hospital in Chernihiv and Buda Hospital in the Kharkiv region. Much-needed humanitarian aid was delivered to Ovruch, Kharkiv and Chernihiv.

Your community supported the homeless before the war. How are you organising your solidarity work at this time?

Our day-to-day solidarity work continues despite it all, and we are helping everyone who needs it. We distributed around 800 lunches on the streets in April, in addition to the work done at the social centre.

We are also helping the residents of Lviv who are hosting displaced people by providing bedding, mattresses, pushchairs, etc.

We were unable to organise our traditional Easter events for homeless and vulnerable people in the Lviv Region because of the constant threat of air strikes. However, we did hand out 250 food kits in the city centre. We are also meeting the needs of war victims and displaced people: clothing, shoes, toys, and books for 50 children from Mariupol who are now living in Vynnyky.

What do you currently need?

The social support centre premises and equipment are old. We haven’t currently got enough washing machines for all the displaced people to wash their clothes. We are therefore eagerly awaiting the start of the new building reconstruction work so that we can set in motion this initiative.

We also have a major fuel issue in Ukraine, we have to join long queues to buy 5-10 litres of fuel, the maximum authorised amount. We also still need a lot of humanitarian aid to help the regions that have been liberated, and those where violent fighting is continuing, and where people need daily assistance.

How are the companions dealing with the situation?

We currently have 30 companions living in the community. As ever, we are continuing with our everyday work (collecting donated goods from donation drop-off containers, sorting the goods, etc.) This year’s celebrations for Orthodox Easter were not festive. We got together for a breakfast, and we arranged a ceremony to commemorate our community’s founder, Olesya Sanotska, who died six years ago in April 2016. She lives on in our hearts.

An additional companion has joined our three companions who had already enlisted in the armed forces. They are dear to our hearts, and we respect their desire to defend Ukraine.

Our companions are working hard. Air raid warnings are very frequent and often the companions do not want to make their way to shelters, because the raid is far from the community. It is tough for everyone, both physically and mentally.

Nevertheless, the Oselya community’s work is important and enjoys a high profile in Ukraine. A US journalist showed great interest in our work and visited the community to make a report about our daily lives.

How do you see the future?

The situation in Ukraine is very tense, and the war is intensifying. The war, with numerous crimes perpetrated by the Russian army, is calling into question the future of democratic values.

We do all our work with great faith that Ukraine will emerge victorious, and the hope that our country will soon experience peace, and that we will be able to resume a normal way of life.

We express our profound gratitude to all the Emmaus groups for their help and support for our work, and for our struggle for the European values of solidarity, justice and friendship.

© Emmaus Lublin

© Emmaus Europe

European Social Economy Summit in Strasbourg

Emmaus Europe held a roundtable with its circular economy partners to coincide with the release of the European Action Plan for the Social Economy presented at the 5-6 May summit.

With RREUSE, Emmaus France, ENVIE Federation, City of Paris and Les Canaux, Emmaus Europe reiterated the vital role played by social economy stakeholders in the circular economy. As reuse pioneers, our organisations create more jobs than all the other stakeholders in the same reuse sector, according to a French study by Ademe.

However, they are now facing competition from the second-hand market, partly because of European waste sorting regulations, but primarily because of unremitting global overproduction and the abolition of import quotas in the early 2000s. We stressed the importance of developing European regulations to limit overproduction and overconsumption, notably by working upstream on product repairability. We also suggested carving out a bigger space for social economy stakeholders and moving away from the ethos of competing with non-social enterprises.

The French participants also shared their experience of implementing Extended Producer Responsibility through producer responsibility organisations (PROs), and the fact that this experience has spurred them to call for reform of their governance. PROs are currently solely managed by producers, and must make more room for social economy stakeholders and public institutions so that funds are shared out in a more social and environmentally-friendly way.

The roundtable participants all praised the progress made in the action plan, which is the first of its kind. However, they stressed the need to go further at individual Member State level for its upcoming implementation, notably by linking up with environmental and circular economy regulations, and by securing state or producer funding, so that local government does not shoulder all the burden.

The recording of the meeting and other information will be available over the coming weeks by clicking here.