Three weeks ago, Father Marek Machala, deputy rector of Przemysl seminary in southeast Poland, led a quiet life. He rose early, at 5.30am, to pray in the seminary’s chapel. After a day spent teaching young men studying for the priesthood, he would eat a simple supper, and rest.
Now, after finishing his religious duties, Father Machala throws an orange hi-vis vest over his black cassock, and rushes to one of the largest refugee centres on the Polish border with Ukraine. There, he assists hundreds of people every night, his robe swishing at his ankles as he strides around the centre switching between Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and other European languages.
“This was the first response: there is a crisis, there are people who need help, so I go, automatically,” Father Machala says. The question is how much longer this response can last.
The quiet city of Przemysl is less than nine miles from Medyka, Poland’s busiest border crossing with Ukraine. It has become a major reception and transit point for refugees fleeing the war there. Some cross at Medyka by car or on foot, while others disembark from trains at Przemysl station, the first stop in Poland after Lviv in Western Ukraine, where evacuation trains funnel in from across the country.
According to Przemysl’s mayor, between 450,000 and 500,000 refugees arrived in Przemysl in the first two weeks of war, while Poland as a whole has now welcomed more than 2 million.
Father Machala is one of hundreds of Polish citizens who jumped into action after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caught the world off guard. Rushing to provide refugees with food, toiletries, medicine, and accommodation, the humanitarian response in Poland has been lauded the world over.
But nearly a month later, the situation at the border is still largely grassroots, a chaotic jamboree of international aid: private and non-governmental organisations, local municipalities, religious groups, and volunteers from across the world.
At an old shopping centre in Przemysl, now the main refugee reception point, maps of the centre are tacked up on the wall, handwritten on paper and cardboard. Volunteers register with local Scouts, while well-meaning individuals of different nationalities organise waiting rooms for those wishing to travel to their country. Firefighters load people onto buses heading into Europe, and charities run stands offering everything from pet food to power banks, medicines to meals.
“This is the first stage of the response: the NGOs, the civilians, they are faster,” says Father Machala, his cheeks cupped by the slim arm of a microphone protruding from his bluetooth earpiece – a recent purchase to help field the endless calls he now receives each day.
The herculean grassroots effort is overwhelming in its humanity, but hovering over a jigsaw of aid that has no long-term strategy and relies on the goodwill of strangers is that looming question: how long can it last?
At the border and in Przemysl, the absence or minimal presence of international agencies is palpable. The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, says it is “planning to scale up at Medyka”, but still does not have a permanent presence there.
Other UN organisations respond along similar lines: the International Organisation for Migration is still, spokesperson Jorge Galindo admits, “in the midst of ramping up our presence”. Like many others, the agency is scrambling to recruit Ukrainian speakers.
Unicef’s tent, meanwhile, only appeared at Medyka on the evening of 15 March – and despite the Unicef logo, the tent is actually run by local Scouts, in partnership with Unicef.
Joung-Ah Ghedini-Williams, spokesperson for UNHRC, explains that as Poland is a European Union country with the necessary existing infrastructure, the agency is “respecting the authorities that are in place”, leaving the reception of refugees to the Polish state. (In other non-EU countries that border Ukraine, such as Moldova, UNHCR is likely to provide more support.)
But those same authorities are calling for help. Mayors in Warsaw and Krakow have said they cannot cope any longer; Warsaw’s mayor, Rafał Trzaskowski, has directly called on UN agencies and the EU to come and set up a proper system to receive the millions more expected refugees.
Vulnerabilities leak into the gaps in this jigsaw of aid. Families’ decisions about where to rebuild their lives are often made arbitrarily, dependent on the advice of the volunteer or organisation they encounter. There is no centralised monitoring of who is travelling where, with whom, raising serious concerns about human trafficking, as cars with numberplates from all over the world pitch up to offer rides.
“I hope there are more people and more organisations that want to help,” says Father Machala. In the meantime, he knows his own schedule is unlikely to change soon. “One night, I spent all my time between the railway station and the refugee centre. At six in the morning, I thought, yes, I’ve spent all the night here, but after work, many young people spend the night in the discothèque dancing. So this is my dance.”
Ukraine’s refugee crisis