Ukrainians are reluctant to seek refuge in small towns. They are afraid of the lack of work opportunities and modern amenities. And large cities are overloaded with more than 2 million refugees. So any day now, a project will be launched to convince emigrants that they can live well in the Polish countryside
“IN UKRAINE, if you get sick in the countryside, you have to go to a big city. There is unemployment and lack of civilisation there too, there are no sewage systems and people do not have the support of local administration. Schools, if they exist, are of poor quality and far away,” the Ukrainians say. Poles need to start explaining to them that it is different here.
Anna Poliukhovych, with her husband and four children, fled Rivne on 6 March. The day the Russians bombed a nearby airport. “I was in shock. I wrote on the Internet that we are looking for a place to stay in Poland and we would go wherever they offered us. As long as it’s peaceful and there’s no war.”
Łukasz Puławski, a volunteer from the Open Dialogue Foundation, wrote to her that they had room. At a school in the countryside. Anna was afraid of the relocation. The activists took the family from the border, brought them to the village of Przytuły in Podlasie and placed them in a teacher’s apartment. Two rooms and a kitchen. Small, but enough.
“They got us all the necessary documents in a week. That was fast – in large cities it takes about a month. Local residents offered us help for children, brought food, clothes, even prepared a bed for our dog,” Anna recalls. Her husband got a job in carpentry, and Poles drive him to work. Anna and her children stayed at home because work starts at 6 A.M. and the children have to go to school later. In the village, they have a supermarket, a school and some exotics as well – the children have already grazed cows and ridden a tractor.
Three more Ukrainian families found their place in Przytuły. “People here know us, they come and ask us what we need, how they can help. They are able to arrange everything we need. It’s as if the Poles welcomed us into their own family,” adds Anna. Three families live in similar teacher’s apartments, and one family – six people – in Przytuły-Kolonia. They got the whole house there from the owner, whose mother passed away last year.
Anna: “It is much better to end up in the countryside. I don’t know what else to say so that refugees are not afraid to settle in small towns.”
Village in Ukraine = no work and civilisation
Viktorija Radulović – a Polish woman with Croatian roots living in Norway – remotely arranged housing for refugees in Poland for the first month of the war. “They chose only large centres, cities. They didn’t want to go to the countryside at all. Even when I found them a place 20-30 km from the capital, while Warsaw residents rack their brains to live there – in Milanówek, Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Podkowa Leśna.” If the volunteers could not offer them anything in the city, the refugees decided to search on their own.
The fear of living far away from an agglomeration is enormous.
A Ukrainian family once came to the village near Olsztyn, where they were to live in a large house – Viktorija arranged it for them. When they saw how small this village was and that it was among the forests, they returned to Warsaw with their baggages.
Artur Wierzbowski, the mayor of the Piątnica municipality, who was very involved in helping refugees, told us how on February 27 they went to Medyka by two coaches to take about a hundred refugees to their municipality.
“We showed them we were from Podlasie, from Piątnica. Do you know how many of them got on the buses? 20 people, 7 of whom got off in Warsaw,”
he recalls. They never went again to pick up such a large group because they knew they would not find people willing to go with them. Many times they carried humanitarian aid to the border – sometimes even by nine buses – taking the refugees on their way back. But in total, only about 50 Ukrainians decided to live in their municipality. The rest were only transported to large cities where they stayed or went further – to Germany, Italy, France.
Why are the Ukrainians worried about going to the countryside?
“In Ukraine, if you get sick in the countryside, you have to go to a big city. There is unemployment and lack of civilisation there too, and people do not have the support of local administration,” Viktorija lists the reasons given to her by dozens of Ukrainians. And that is exactly the same Anna Poliukhovych said. Schools, if they exist, are of poor quality and far away.
“Our countryside doesn’t even have sewage systems,” adds Olha Churkina from Kharkiv, who currently lives in Poland.
The population of Rzeszów increased by as much as 53 percent
The research carried out by the Paweł Adamowicz Centre for Analysis and Research of the Union of Polish Metropolises and described in the report Urban Hospitality: Great Growth, Challenges and Opportunities – Report on Refugees from Ukraine in the Largest Polish Cities shows that three main factors determined which places the refugees chose to live:
- knowledge of the town,
- knowledge of the people living in it,
- spontaneous choice.
Ukrainians know a lot of cities in Poland, they often have relatives there, friends who already work here, so it was there that they directed their steps. And that was the case in large majority of them. As of April 1, more than 2 million refugees have settled in large cities or their metropolises. In large cities, i.e. in Wrocław, Gdańsk and Katowice, Ukrainians already accounted for 23–25 percent of the population. The number of residents of Wrocław increased from 640 thousand to nearly 830 thousand, Gdańsk – from 470 thousand to almost 630 thousand, and Katowice – from 290 thousand to almost 390 thousand people. As of April 1, Warsaw had the most refugees. As a metropolis, with neighbouring municipalities, it was over 469 thousand. But in proportion to its size, Rzeszów, the capital of Podkarpacie, was unrivalled. One million refugees passed through this city, and its population increased by as much as 53 percent! Currently, Ukrainians account for 35 percent of its population.
This is important data, because the report, published on 25 April, is the first document in Poland presenting such precise estimates of the number of Ukrainians who are staying in Poland and showing their place of residence. The company Selectiv has prepared this data on the basis of the geotrapping method – aggregating information from mobile devices, which allows to determine the number and location of adult Ukrainians in Poland. These data were compared with PESEL numbers, which in turn allowed to estimate the number of Ukrainian children living in Poland.
Large cities are so full of refugees that finding a place in apartments/houses has been extremely difficult for a long time. And thousands of refugees are still staying in huge centres/halls. Such a massive increase in population in such a short period of time also generates other problems: places in schools, as well as capacity of health centres and offices that prepare documents for refugees, etc.
At the same time, small towns are relatively empty. Often with job opportunities. “We have a lot of community centres and fire stations. We prepare them all the time so that refugees have decent living conditions. Within a month, we are able to give a roof over the heads of 100-110 people,” Wierzbowski said.
“It is so great here that we don’t want to go back to Ukraine.”
These stereotypes of a poor Ukrainian village are so strong that Viktorija managed to persuade refugees to live in the province only when they “noticed the hopelessness of big cities.” For example? “For some time, a family had only one bed for 4 people and it was prepared temporarily in the kitchen of a motel just outside Warsaw. It was only after some time under these conditions that they agreed to move to a village near Olsztyn. When they moved, the woman was delighted. “She said: it is so great here that we don’t want to go back to Ukraine at all,” Viktorija recalls. Most of those who she managed to persuade to live in the province appreciate it very much. “In general, refugees in the countryside have a much better reception, care, and even get jobs faster,” Viktorija points out.
Olha Churkina with her child and father first lived in Dębica for a month. They were looking for a place in a big city for the entire time. The volunteers finally told them that they would not succeed. It’s full.
With great resistance and concern, as a resident of the second largest city in Ukraine, Olha finally agreed to move with her family to the countryside. A woman from Kharkiv, who married a Pole, helped her find a place. They reached Bogumiłów, a village near the German border. “There’s a school, a bus, and you can find a job. It’s a complete civilisation. We are very grateful that we got here,” she said in an interview with OKO.press.
The mayor of Piątnica says that those who were only given a ride to large cities when the buses went back from the border in March and April, and who went to the West, now want to come to them. “They can find jobs here. There are plants that produce doors, furniture fittings, there are many gardening companies and seasonal work. More than 20 people want to come back to us,” Wierzbowski said.
To strengthen the demographic and economic potential of the ‘regional’ Poland
These problems are known to Open Dialogue – the foundation has been helping refugees find housing since the beginning of the war. Thanks to the work of 34 volunteers, they were first able to help more than five thousand Ukrainians in Poland, but almost exclusively in large cities or metropolises. “These places were quickly exhausted and we found ourselves in a no-win situation,” describes Łukasz Puławski, who takes care of the foundation’s project “ODF Relocation – Regional Poland”.
Then they started helping refugees to go abroad, but the transfer generated a lot of problems. During the two months of the war, they managed to find places only for 982 people. “Then we thought that we could try to break this reluctance to settle in small towns in Poland. Because we have positive experiences – Ukrainians can make their own lives, gain independence and find work,” he said. In the introduction to the project, Puławski wrote: “There are still great opportunities to relocate to smaller destinations: medium-sized cities, towns and villages where the available resources are not fully utilised.” They also want to take advantage of the constantly increasing and undeveloped enthusiasm of people from smaller towns and their willingness to help. “People are still rushing to help, because they often have not had a chance to do so before,” the activist explains.
Seasonal work began in the spring – so the villages have more to offer. But even without it, according to the ODF, it is now easier to find jobs for 5-50 people in a small or medium-sized town than for 100 thousand in Warsaw. This solution also creates the potential for stable, long-term self-reliance of refugees. According to the ODF, such a change would also strengthen the demographic and economic potential of the ‘regional’ Poland.
In the second half of April, the Foundation decided that a campaign was needed to change the perception of small towns in refugees and their attitudes. It will consist of a clip with Anna Poliukhovych in the main role, and other Ukrainians who have arranged their lives in the Polish countryside. The campaign will be carried out in social media, on ODF and related websites, as well as with the use of leaflets and folders informing about the possibility of relocation. These materials are meant to show what really small towns have to offer. The relocation proposal will be addressed not only to the residents of the refugee centre on Modlińska, which is under the care of the ODF, but also through the ‘Safe house’ online form (on the Foundation’s website) which will be updated to make it more attractive to refugees. Because so far, such databases have quickly become outdated. There will also be a helpline and a campaign aimed directly at Ukrainians at temporary reception points such as Expo halls.
Accommodation to be included in the ODF’s databases will be provided by local governments willing to cooperate. The ODF also wants to bring in other NGOs and volunteer groups.
Union of Polish Metropolises: relocation is necessary
ODF was not the first to come up with such an idea. Only after two weeks of war, the authorities of the country, namely Paweł Szefernaker – Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration, wondered how to convince Ukrainians to settle in villages.
On 9 May in Wrocław, during the Local Government Round Table ‘Help for Ukraine’, another idea was hatched on how to encourage living in smaller towns. “It turned out that relocation was necessary, because still 70% of our guests choose large cities and suburban, metropolitan areas. One of the forms of action may be an information campaign encouraging refugees to choose smaller centres,” said Tomasz Fijołek, Director of the Office of the Union of Polish Metropolises, announcing further actions in this direction.
This is important because in addition to the Union of Polish Metropolises, the Union of Polish Cities and the Union of Rural Municipalities of the Republic of Poland also took part in this Round Table. The Union of Polish Metropolises also initiated contact with the Open Dialogue Foundation. “We will continue the talks in Warsaw,” says Fijołek.