Have you got any ideas how many offence cases a volunteer helping refugees from Ukraine may have for protesting against the government? Why does Why does the escape route from Ukraine go through Belarus? And why the Ukrainian borscht from Warsaw’s East Station has become famous in Vienna?
WE ARE SITTING at one of the tables located in a huge tent. A lady with a very happy dog in his winter gear passes by: “When he came here, he was such a poor thing. All shaggy and wearing a nappy. It took them real many hours to get here” – explains Dominika Przychodzeń.
Where from? From which city?
From the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.
How is that possible?
Well, there is quite a bit of traffic there. You can depart from Russian ‘refugee’ camps – but not to Ukraine. So people travel north, to Moscow or St. Petersburg. And then to Poland, via Belarus. The journey is long and tough. Although the Belarusian border remains open, Belarusian officials are hostile. But these days going across Belarus by bus is simply safer than travelling by train through shell-shocked Ukraine.
Here come the people who have lost everything and really have nowhere to go back to. They are often in utter shock, with no plans at all.
So, after driving for hours into the unknown, the bus stops here at the Warsaw East Station and…
… the travellers spot a large group of volunteers who immediately reach for their luggage and lead them to a large tent. At first, you have to take them in your arms and let them cry. They cry, and we cry too.
And then we help them to get started somehow. This helpdesk is operated by the City of Warsaw together with the Norwegian Refugee Council. So one may either choose to stay in Poland temporarily or permanently, or travel farther.
This is my second encounter with Dominika Przychodzeń. In February, before Putin’s war, I wrote down her account of how she was being persecuted by the Law and Justice state for taking part in protests and happenings organised by Cień Mgły [i.e. Shadow of Mist] group. At that time, there were eleven misdemeanour cases pending against her. And no convictions.
The Police are not making these requests for the court to draw the line on what is acceptable in the public sphere, but to harass. It is an attempt to push citizens out of the public sphere – as they do not share the authorities’ views.
At OKO.press we have dubbed this practice a Polish SLAPP or taking the public at “gunpoint”. SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) is a lawsuit brought against an activist or journalist/scientist to force them into silence.
It is precisely police offence cases – numbering in the dozens per person – that are the most numerous in Poland. The target of this campaign are activists and activists across Poland standing up for the rule of law, women’s rights, refugee rights at the Belarusian border and LGBT+. Most of them are now involved in helping Ukraine fighting Putin’s regime. In fact, it seems that their ability to self-organise, plan and coordinate (gained in street protests) contributed to the fact that Polish society was so successful in helping Ukraine.
Dominika Przychodzeń has been working as a volunteer at the transit centre at Warsaw’s East Railway Station since March. She is in charge of the Open Dialogue Foundation’s helpdesk located in a large tent set up by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Municipality of Warsaw.
“Let’s not fool one another – Poland has clogged up” – she says.
The case of hot tea for refugees
When I call to make an appointment, she doesn’t want to talk about the cases she has with the police, but about helping Ukraine. However, I ask her about this too.
“Well, nothing has changed. I am still flooded with information on cases referred to the court all the time – what I do is just wait until the time the earliest advice notice expires and pick up all that stuff from the post office.
The Police still keep on raiding my Mum, who lives outside Warsaw, because my registered address is still there. This is also part of all that harassment, because they are familiar with my mailing address and know that I collect advice notes”.
How did you find yourself here at the East Railway Station?
“On 24 February, I just came home from work, turned on the TV and saw hundreds, or even thousands of people flocking at the Polish border, trying to get to Poland. So first of all I went to the Western Station, where trains and buses from Ukraine were arriving. And after that I was there every day. I did what everyone else did: pots of soup, hundreds of sandwiches. Hot tea.
There were plenty of protesters among the volunteers. But I met some new people too. And then we all moved to the East Railway Station. Our aid centre was set up by Dominik Berliński from the Open Dialogue Foundation. And I have stayed here with them. Now I am the refugee aid coordinator and a person in charge of this ODF helpdesk”.
The case of the tent designed to hold 50,000 people
And now we meet at the NRC relocation centre at the East Railway Station in Warsaw. The facility is fenced and guarded. You can only go inside with the permission of a kind but resolute security lady, after prior appointment. There is a large heated tent and toilet facilities inside. There are tables on one side of the tent and beds on the other.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) helpdesk is located near the entrance and surrounded by other stalls. The ODF also has its own stall – when I speak to Dominika Przychodzeń, there are three young people sitting there, working meticulously on their laptops.
It is relatively empty – no busloads of refugees have arrived that day and none have just left for Western Europe.
Aleksandra Minkiewicz, NRC: We have been in Poland since the onset of this war, March 7. We have been operating in Ukraine since 2014.
Since 24 March, when the tent at East Station was set up, we have accommodated 50,000 people here. Some of them stayed in Poland, others chose to travel farther. We have created a safe haven for people with a refugee experience. Visitors from Ukraine can stop here, eat warm soup and think about the next step. Stay here for a night, maybe two days.
Over the nine months of war, many things have changed. We have reduced the size of the tent because the needs have become somewhat smaller – so instead of 1,500 people, it can now accommodate 500. But it is still heated and ready for the winter season.
Besides, today the centre not only serves those leaving Ukraine, but also those returning home. We see more and more elderly or disabled people leaving Ukraine. Male Ukrainian citizens from areas “not controlled by the authorities in Kiev” – as we say in the NRC – are also exiting the country. They are at risk of being conscripted into the Russian army.
Transit from Ukraine through Russia and Belarus
“This is the last such transit centre in Warsaw. As Ukraine has been under bombardment, rail transport has become unsafe, moreover, there are not so many people willing to leave anymore. That’s why bus transport is preferred – and buses get here. Including those going via Belarus” – explains Dominika Przychodzeń. – “Now it is a few hundred people a week. Some of the buses are planned, organised by a group of volunteers from the Rubikus. In such case we let NRC know that people are coming. But some refugees organise themselves independently – and they arrive all of a sudden.
And here we are, together, making arrangements for them to stay in Poland or travel on to Norway or Spain. On average, 150-200 people go there per week”.
And the lady with the dog?
Dominika Przychodzeń: She is getting the paperwork done to start her new life.
Aleksandra Minkiewicz, NRC: People who are registered at the centre can continue to come here for meals for one more week – to make it easier to get organised, adapt, get advice and exchange information.
Dominika Przychodzeń: Therefore, the whole trick of successful helping is to gather the right information in the right time: what you need, what your plans are, what you care about. Wishing to stay in Poland? So let’s start looking around to see what the opportunities are. Willing to travel farther? We need some information to help you with your travelling arrangements. Ideally, this should be reported to us before you leave Ukraine – because that
is when we start the preparations.
On calmer days like today, my team sits and enters data from the requests.
But how do people learn they can contact you?
Well, this is what you wrote about at OKO.press. As the war began, we spread the word about our database through all street protesters’ communication channels. That was the mesh of this civic network. And through that, information spread. Through our phone calls and contacts of the protest people. They did not only help us at reception centres. They also travelled to the border and with aid shipments to Ukraine. In this way, our contact network expanded.
And I think that is why the links to the form were getting through and people were coming forward. It’s great that we have that kind of power.
The case of links on Facebook
What kind of application was that?
Dominika Przychodzeń: The same as now. At the beginning of the war, we set up two databases: for the refugees, what help they needed, and for the Poles: what they could offer.
Links were shared on Facebook and the avalanche of aid took off. Our outreach also allowed fundraising for aid to be launched.
No one is born an organiser – it is just a skill like any other. We practised this skill at street protests, where there were many contingencies. Like, for example, when we were surrounded by a police cordon and had to figure out how to get people out. So we are doing the same thigh now. We are taking people out from the inferno of war. Organising aid to Ukraine is done the same way: by acting together, trusting and relying on each other. And looking for new and effective solution.
So what does a typical day look like for a street activist now?
Our Ukrainian helpdesk operates on a daily basis from 10 am to 8 pm, or even longer, if needed. I come here after my “regular” job. I am in charge of the ODF stall. I plan and coordinate what needs to be done. I take care of the volunteers – they are so young, some are under 18, and not all of them have families here. They are all war refugees.
They call me “Matusia”.
And when a bus arrives, or there is a departure to Norway, we are up all night or start early in the morning, depending on the time of departure. I am tired, but not burnt out. I manage to pull myself together somehow.
I am here for them, for my kids. And for the refugees. Interactions with people fleeing the war are very intense. We tell each other our whole lives, and then we separate. But I still keep in touch with many of them. One couple went to Holland, to their son’s place. But now they came back to Ukraine to grab their winter stuff and they stopped by. I love them like my own family. They promised that when the war ends, they will show me their country. We keep in touch with each other via Whatsapp – she says.
The walls of the ODF desk in the Norwegian Refugee Council tent are covered with children’s drawings– scenes from the war in Ukraine, victorious tanks in blue and yellow. There is also a sinking Russian ship. And lots of red and white hearts.
These kids were here for a while, they played and then they left – they found a home either in Poland or somewhere further away.
The young girl, who Dominika introduces as Ilona, pulls away for a while from the computer where she enters data on those who need help: “I am from Mariupol,” he says in Polish. And he adds quickly, so that I don’t miss it: “I really know what it’s like to be a refugee. That’s why I’m useful here. Because I understand.”
Her story was not immediately shared with me. It is not like when you go into the NRC tent they tell you everything straight away. But listen to the story of Ilona from Mariupol – a volunteer of the Open Dialogue Foundation at the NRC centre in Warsaw:
“I spent two months with my mother in a bunker in Mariupol. We went down there on 2 March and came out on 2 May. During this time we had no contact with the outside world. Mobile phone coverage was unavailable. Sometimes we had nothing to eat. There were about 200 people in the bunker, some of whom were dying. The bodies could not be taken out. There were flats above the bunker which the Russians occupied. Every day they came down to the bunker. They would accost me, tell me how beautiful I was. They were abominable.
When we were finally able to go outside, we did not know if Ukraine still existed. It wasn’t until I managed to catch the phone range that messages from friends started pouring in. Everyone was asking how we were doing. Are we alive?
A Ukrainian soldier, who was comforting us and telling us that everything would be fine, gave me a candy. So I promised him that I would eat this candy if Ukraine won the war. This soldier is now dead. Those Russian dumbasses slit his throat.
We tried calling my grandmother, who lived near the Azovstal. The phone was not answering. We walked 13 km to her house. There was no one at home. We were certain she was dead. After a month, my grandmother was found by my aunt. Grandma had been in a shelter all this time.
We returned home with my grandmother and then the Russians set fire to a nearby hotel. The fire moved onto grandma’s house, and we had to go down quickly. But the grandmother was unable to get down because she cannot walk. It would have taken us an hour to come down with it. So we accepted our fate and death. But the fire did not reach us, it stopped below.
My mother and I got to Poland by emergency bus. At that time it was possible to leave Mariupol. Grandma stayed. My mother works in France, and I work here.
And there is one more thing: Please call me Ilonka. I don’t have to be such a stalwart Ilona here”.
The case of the two suitcases
A young boy walks up to our table, pointing at a woman with a small suitcase: The lady left the rest of her luggage at the Western Station. We have to fetch them. Shall we do it now?
Dominika nods her head: OK, if the driver is free to go.
Dominika: “At the beginning the Ukrainian volunteers didn’t speak Polish. But we are learning. They would like to learn so that we understand each other well. The other way is more difficult, because one is familiar with Russian, but Russian is not spoken here.
And there was a problem with the lady with the luggage because we had already booked a place for her in the family dorm, but she turned up a day too late and that place was gone. Now we have to sort everything out from scratch – such things happen too.
The Western Railway Station can only be reached from here by car. The state supposedly organises aid, but it has not taken care of such petty things as free public transport between aid facilities. And such a petty thing for refugees is impossible to manage – that’s why volunteers are needed.
The same is true for the 40+ benefit. The programme was to be extended for older refugees, because it is really hard for this group to start their lives anew. But in practice they keep on denying something to someone all the time and we have to deal with it. These are just such trifles and shortcomings – but they make us really busy”.
And when the bus arrives here at the East Station?
Dominika Przychodzeń: A bus from the East? There are beds here in the tent, and there we carry the travellers’ luggage. First they have to take a rest. Then we start talking to them, asking what they need. What are their plans? Anyone who needs a flat in Warsaw gets a sleeping space from us for 30 days. We were also able to direct them to a Habitat hostel for a fortnight (but that was only until the end of November only). And there is a family dorm at
We help them to get new documents and look for jobs. We do our best to tailor assistance to specific individuals – because that is what good assistance is all about, not the same thing for everyone.
Our procedure is a grass-roots project. We started with feeding them, and then finding space for them in people’s homes. Since the start of the war, we have helped over 7,000 to find housing. This is handled very professionally.
The borscht case
Aleksandra Minkiewicz, NRC: Our partner is the Municipality of Warsaw. And their help cannot be overestimated. They are open and willing to cooperate. They provided us with a site and pay for the utilities.
It is also very important that the centre has become a space for Polish NGOs that specialise in different forms of assistance. Here such organisations can work together and exchange their experiences. The ODF is one of them.
For the NRC, an international organisation, this is a brand new experience too – we create a cooperation platform for our local partners. Because in Poland there was already human capital and the knowledge of how to organise oneself to help. The civil society which has been built for over 30 years has made its mark.
We only support Polish organisations and share our experience of working with refugees during other crises.
On top of this, we also make sure that volunteers are treated properly and receive psychological support. They are, after all, in daily contact with people who have experienced trauma. We train them in humanitarian law and teach them to detect the first warning signs of human trafficking. And of course such trainings are in Polish, with the possible translation into Ukrainian.
Poland provides all specialist assistance: legal (Chamber of Legal Advisers, Society of Friends of Ukraine), psychological (Nagle Sami Foundation – in several languages), finding accommodation and jobs in Poland or organising travel abroad (e.g. the ODF).
The aid is comprehensive and tailored to the needs. For example, our security guards here are ladies from the Ukraine – we thought it should be women, because especially in the early days, women with children prevailed here. Feminine protection makes them feel more comfortable.
The meals are prepared by the Just Cause co-operative, which employs Ukrainian women. After travelling for many hours, people get real Ukrainian borscht here and know that they can really take a breath. They recall this borscht later – we know this from reports from our offices – all over Europe. Most recently in Vienna.
They talk about the borscht and the way the aid was organised with individual needs in mind – she emphasises.
Travelling to Norway
And how do you make arrangements for travelling to Norway?
Dominika Przychodzeń: Through the network of contacts that the ODF happens to have. We organise transports, deal with the paperwork – and the refugees continue their journeys. At first their destination was Denmark, now it is Norway. And more recently also Spain.
Norway is a good destination especially for senior people and all those who will not make it in Poland, because they cannot go to work. Norwegian aid also operates through a network of NGOs and volunteers. They organise local fundraising campaigns (a “penny” for a loaf of bread), and buses to Poland are sent by the Hvite busser 2022 (i.e. White Buses).
The case of reflectors for Drohobych
“Now we are getting ready for winter” – emphasises Dominika Przychodzeń. – NRC also expects more activity at our centre. But it is also necessary to help Ukraine itself. A few weeks ago we were with an ODF mission in Drohobych, Western Ukraine. Apparently this place is far from the war front, but then it was already cold and dark there – because they were sparing the electricity.
We went there with the usual stuff. But it didn’t occur to us that candles were needed too. Torches and candles. Because there were already some blackouts there – they were saving energy. Now we know what is really needed. Sources of light and heat. And besides, sleeping bags and winter tents. And thermal underwear – but we already knew that thanks to our experience of the protests.
We are also now collecting reflectors for children. It’s dark now and we mustn’t forget about the kids: www.zrzutka.pl/PomocUkrainie
The case of the lawn at Wawel Castle
And do the police and the courts that judge you know all this?
Dominika Przychodzeń: I don’t brag about it. The authorities are not aware of my actions. These are parallel worlds for them. And just one for me – because if I have enough time, I continue to protest. Recently, after the ‘Wawelnica’ in Krakow [i.e. closing of the Wawel Castle for ritual celebrations of power on the one-month anniversary of the burial of the presidential couple in the cathedral – ed.] they ticketed me “for treading on the lawn”. The policeman had taken down my registered address, instead of the mailing one – and they were looking for me and Mum again. They don’t feel sorry for wasting money on it…
Several cases have been dropped and I also have convictions, but in absentia [without a court trial – ed.]. I am appealing against these judgments – the cases are due to go to trial but none have yet taken place. Now there was a complaint pending against police action for being taken out from under the Sejm to the police station. The judge ruled that arrests after refusal to identify themselves were unfounded but legitimate. It doesn’t seem logical to me and I don’t understand it. Legitimate but unfounded?
I asked lawyers about this. The courts make the assumption that if a person was not protected by immunity, the detention is, by definition, legitimate. At the time of the detention, you may not know whether it is reasonable – this is verified later. So from a legal point of view the detention may be unfounded, albeit legitimate. Only that this routine practice does not take into account situations where the police officer really knows straight away that there are no grounds for detention. That it is plain harassment…
OK. I receive summonses in bulk. This is also the case for many in the “Cień Mgły” collective.
An activist and volunteer is just a hooligan for the Polish state
We are all “hooligans”. Hooligans who do the work for the state.
And what if the war in Ukraine is over and no more help is needed here?
Then I will go back to the protests. Because a state that wouldn’t need its citizens protesting is hardly one I can imagine. But at the very beginning, I will pick up “my kids” from the station and we will all go to Ukraine to celebrate the victory.