When Russia invaded Ukraine, Iwona and Agata immediately started helping out at one of Warsaw’s train stations. Later they became volunteers at the Ptak Warsaw Expo hall. All the time, however, they felt that they wanted to do something more. That’s why they decided to support women who had abandoned their former lives across the eastern border to save their own children. Two Polish women have created the Home for Independent Mothers.
Iwona admits that in the first days after the war broke out, she did not know how to help people fleeing the terror. She knew that she could not just stand and watch what was happening. Agata Dziopa almost immediately went to the railway station to distribute food and help confused Ukrainians who had managed to get to Poland. When Iwona saw Agata’s coverage in social media, she knew she had to help her. They have been working together ever since.
One house, many stories
Jakubowizna is a small village located just outside Chynów in the Mazovian Voivodeship. The area consists mainly of orchards and meadows. This is the place that has become a safe haven for refugee women and their children.
Initially, the two Polish women helped out at the train station – Agata even took unpaid leave from work.
“Agata took me to the train station. I went there with my son and we saw what was happening. It made me understand how we could help these people. Agata told us how she placed people in nearby night shelters. The demand was enormous,” recalls Iwona.
It was at that moment that they concluded that such assistance did not make any deeper sense. Money spent on single nights could be better spent – in a way that would help refugees in the long term. This is when the idea of creating a home for single mothers near Warsaw was born.
“We decided that we wanted to help women that were on their own. If there is a man in a fleeing family, this automatically gives more options to handle the situation. However, when a woman flees alone, with a small child, without money or prospects, she becomes a part of the most vulnerable social group that needs help and shelter,” explains Iwona.
The founders stick to certain guidelines all the time. The Home welcomes refugee women who are willing to work, take care of their home, support the other women staying here and, in the future, get back on their feet. They both highlight the involvement of the local community.
“We were very lucky. The surrounding community has been very supportive. Mr Piotr, who made the building available to us, agreed to keep the rent low enough so that the ladies would be able to pay for it when they became independent,” explains Iwona.
A safe haven for refugee women
The house has been adapted to accommodate several families. The ground floor is currently being renovated and will eventually be available to additional people.
However, this is not the end of the project. In addition to accommodation, the Polish women ensure psychological support and Polish language courses. Refugee children were given places in the local school and kindergarten. Agata and Iwona are also involved in finding jobs for the residents, checking every offer so that the Ukrainian women can have decent conditions.
After some time, they decided that they could not afford to finance each woman’s stay by themselves. Then they started cooperating with the Open Dialogue Foundation, and Agata became the coordinator of the project.
Marina comes from Donetsk. She fled in a passenger car along with ten other people. She arrived to Jakubowizna on March 8, which was virtually a week after the invasion of Russian troops. Marina’s husband stayed in Ukraine. The couple maintains contact by telephone. Alina, another resident of the Home who became friends with Marina, admits that these conversations are very stressful and emotional. It is evident that the couple is bravely trying to bear the separation, although it is not easy for them.
“They were sitting literally on top of each other. They arrived at the train station in Warsaw, where they were spotted by Nina, who works for me. Nina is Ukrainian and from the very beginning she was very active as a volunteer at the train station. One day she noticed a group of very stressed women with children. From this group, it was Marina who decided to live here with her daughter. The rest of the group continued their journey”, recalls Iwona.
Marina appreciates living in an organised home. She comes from a similar small town. The woman managed to find a job at a local market. After a request and a phone call from Iwona, Marina went for an interview. Despite not knowing the Polish language, she presented herself very well and got the job.
She came to Poland from Zaporizhzhia. Her parents and grandparents stayed in Ukraine. She used the first money she earned to send food parcels to her family.
“Right now, they would have to pay $15 for a loaf of bread. No matter how many people a family has, they can only buy one loaf and at that price,” she explains.
Before the war, she worked in a kindergarten. Nowadays she grabs every casual job she can find. She has a six-year-old daughter who quickly adapted to her new environment and is already beginning to speak Polish. Alina’s journey to Poland was long and full of unexpected twists and turns. At first she did not know whether to leave the country at all. Until the second of March.
– On that day, massive bombing began. We had to go hide in a shelter. My daughter was very scared. I was up all night wondering what to do. It was then that I realised we could not stay there. We had to leave the house, but my parents didn’t want to leave. They cry every day, but they understand my decision,” Alina Duhonchenko recalls.
The woman separated from her husband eight months before the outbreak of the war. From that moment on, she took care of raising the child herself. After deciding to go to Poland, she packed a single bag, took her documents and set off. She recalls that there was a huge crowd of shocked people at the railway station. It was snowing, it was cold. She and her daughter waited many hours for the right train. When it arrived, people rushed to get seats.
– It felt like the last minutes of life. Everyone started running in panic. Some people boarded the train with no personal belongings; just to find a seat and leave.
The journey took 24 hours. Alina had only one small bottle of water for herself and her daughter, and she had to save it – there was no telling when there would be an opportunity to get something to quench their thirst. Upon arrival in Lviv, her plan was to go by taxi to her ex-husband’s brother, who was to help her find a safe place. But then another surprise was waiting for the woman. The taxi driver demanded two thousand dollars for the ride. The next day she arrived in Lviv again to leave Ukraine. She got to the Warsaw West Railway Station and was transported to a hall in Nadarzyn, where she spent five nights with her daughter, during which she worked as a volunteer.
– People behaved like monkeys. They literally threw themselves at the food. I hid my bag and my daughter’s food in a garbage bag that I placed under my knees. I slept sitting up because it was safer that way. There were plenty of people in the hall. I remember that one night a man near us died in his sleep. It was here, in Nadarzyn, that Alina met Agata. She now refers to the Polish women who took her to the Home for Independent Mothers as her “Polish family”. She has been in Jakubowizna for two months. I asked Alina if she would like to return to Ukraine one day. She replied that he did not know. What she does know is that she wants to become a translator and help women who come from Ukraine and speak neither English nor Polish.
Little Kseniya’s mother came to Poland from Zaporizhzhia in the ninth month of pregnancy. She went into labour virtually as soon as she got to the East Railway Station. Volunteers quickly transported her to a hospital.
“She would not let anyone touch her. Kseniya was finally born after a few days. Her mother waited for the interpreter Ola until the very end. When Ola arrived, Viktoriia gave birth after ten minutes. This also proves something,” explains Agata. The woman’s husband, when he found out he had become a father, burst into tears on the phone with joy and relief that his family was safe. He himself stayed in Ukraine.
Kseniya is a tiny baby girl who is less than a week old. Iwona and Agata estimate that she weighs about three kilograms. Viktoriia is under constant medical care. Medics have recommended that the brave mum should, for the time being, spend as much time lying down as possible – her body needs to regenerate after giving birth.
“We can’t sleep because we have to help them”
The stories cited are just a few of many. Since the outbreak of the war, many more women have arrived at the Home for Independent Mothers. Some of them were just passing through. One such person was Dasha, who came to Jakubowizna with her mother and two daughters. To get to safety, they fled through a minefield. The younger child was only a few weeks old. She was born in a bunker on February 28.
“At one point, Dasha’s four-year-old daughter stopped and was unable to move. They thought they wouldn’t make it to the bus. The women recounted how the Russians had pointed guns at them, how they had shot their neighbour in front of them. Fortunately, they got through. For the first two days they slept all the time, they didn’t leave the room,” said Iwona and Agata.
After regaining strength, they continued their journey. Iwona and Agata emphasise that listening to the stories of Ukrainian women is very difficult, but at the same time it gives them motivation to help.
“We want to give these women a fishing pole, not a fish, so that they can become independent in the future. I firmly believe in women’s strength,” adds Iwona.
They both dream of creating several more of these homes, which involves raising more funds. For this reason, they set up a fundraiser that anyone who clicks on this link can support.