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.
© Emmaus Lublin