Strona główna/EASTERN EUROPE. Noble impulse of logistics

EASTERN EUROPE. Noble impulse of logistics

Author: Marcin Skrzypek,, +48 603 714 532
Translation: Wiktoria Nowak, Barbara Zielonka

Noble impulse of logistics. Grassroots aid for refugees from Ukraine in Poland

In the first month of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Poland took in 2 million refugees from Ukraine. After two months, this number exceeded 3 million. What lessons can we learn from these experiences, unprecedented in post-war European history?

Migration challenges

The humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees deserves attention in the context of current migrations to Europe from Africa and Middle East, as well as prospective climate migrations. In Europe, there have been debates for many years about who should take refugees in and in exchange for what benefits. It turns out that respecting human rights is not that easy if many people need help at once.

What happens then is resources begin to run out or you grow afraid you will have to share them with others. The consequence is a competition between the groups that need these resources. And so a natural reaction of the majority is to deprecate the needs of the minority, even if the minority is objectively small and in a much more difficult situation than the majority, as in the case of immigrants or refugees.

In extreme cases, minority groups are deprived of their subjectivity and human rights. This is what is happening on the Polish-Belarusian border, where foreigners pushed to the Polish side of the border are treated as Lukashenka’s “hybrid weapon”, not as people in a desperate situation. There is a real danger that if we fail to prepare today for the worst-case mass migration scenario, in the future we will end up isolating refugees in “temporary” camps in inhuman conditions or even shooting them like zombies in a computer game.

Moral challenges

This is the moment that reveals the true face of morality and ethical norms proclaimed in a given country, region or city. For it’s necessary to prove with our actions that these norms exist, and indeed shape our lives in these specific circumstances. And they require dedication, doing some extra work or giving up on something in order to do something good for others.

The dynamics of those behaviours and the character of the problems vary depending on the scale, dynamics and stage of the destabilisation process that is affecting people’s lives. Preparing for a crisis in the unspecified future requires certain actions, but something else is demanded from us by a rapid influx of refugees over a short time, and other actions still are required for the stabilization of a longer-term stay of foreigners in our society. Ultimately, it’s highly possible that we may have to prepare even for the transformation of our country from mono-ethnic to multicultural.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it came as a surprise that the humanitarian crisis could be avoided simply through spontaneous, self-organizing volunteer work of residents, grassroots actions that have been possible due to the cooperation of many actors from all sectors. The example of Lublin and the Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine, operating since 24th February, shows just how this came about.

Lublin experiences

The scale of Lublin aid for refugees from Ukraine and the Committee’s contribution is evidenced by the data below. By April 2022, 1,200,000 citizens of Ukraine had passed and stopped in Lublin (population 320,000), including 130,000 who had spent at least one night in the city. At the end of March, they accounted for 17% of city residents (68,000 people). The Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine alone accommodated 1.668 people (531 families) over three months and its municipal hotline answered 14,670 phone calls.

39,500 packs with non-perishable food had been dispensed. 80 HGVs and 68 other transports with humanitarian aid had been dispatched. Moreover, the Committee was running 14 intervention lodging points with around 1,500 beds, which over that period of time provided 102,500 accommodations and served 150,000 meals. With the support of the Committee, 1196 Ukrainian citizens were hired by Lublin-based employers. This number includes 64 pedagogues in 41 schools (for more, see: Report “90 days of help. The Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine”).

The Committee was a network of cooperation of many NGOs, the Lublin City Office, the Lubelskie Province Governor’s Office, Marshal’s Office, cultural institutions, universities, businesses and ordinary people. It was created on the initiative of the Homo Faber Association, while its venue and first regular employees were provided by the Centre for Culture in Lublin and City Office. The data shows that the Committee’s activities were only a fraction of all actions for refugees in quantitative terms, but quantitative relations are not a reliable benchmark here. Social aid for refugees formed a system of connected vessels, in which different factors were paramount, such as the speed of reaction.

The speed of reaction

The members of Homo Faber Association have been engaged in aid to foreigners for many years. In 2021, they became part of Grupa Granica (The Border Group), which concentrated on direct, on-site aid to people abandoned on the Polish-Belarusian border. Thanks to their experience, when the war broke out they already had a network of contacts with the authorities and other entities, and were able to picture clearly the situation of Ukrainian refugees.

This was why, when they learnt about the Russian attack on their way to Berlin at dawn on 24th February, they immediately turned back and, while still on the train, began to organise the meetings and the volunteers. They knew that a multitude of frightened, hungry and tired people would soon appear at the border, and would need to be helped to survive the next couple of hours and find some options for future.

A few days before, at the initiative of Homo Faber Association, a meeting was held between the city mayor, the voivode, and the Civic Dialogue Commission on Lublin’s system of integrating immigrants. This helped establish what the authorities were planning, and it also made it easy to establish a hotline to the authorities. But for this swift mobilisation, there would have been many more problems, and these would have been much more challenging, even after day one of the arrivals.

The need to help

It is likely that the situation on the Belarus border prepared the entire society for this effort. Many people had long been frustrated at being able to only passively observe the inhuman treatment of immigrants by Polish and Belarusian [border] forces. The arrival of the refugees from Ukraine was a sort of “liberation” from this powerlessness. Finally, you could react to the violence and injustice taking place in the world.

People personally drove to the border with Ukraine to transport refugees to other cities. For this reason, there were no huddles of helpless refugees, but they were spread around Poland and further across the European Union, where they could encounter similarly dispersed aid from many people of goodwill in other countries. One of the Lublin centres involved in such help had its headquarters in a private house at 5 Liliowa Street. Thanks to three people who met on Facebook, it became a logistics centre sending refugees to the West in vehicles

which returned to us filled with donated items.

The Polish Economic reported that in the first months of the war 77% of Polish society was involved in helping refugees spending as much as 10 billion zlotys from private money. A few weeks after Russian aggression, politicians began to repeat that “this noble impulse of the heart is no longer enough” and that the government now had to step in. This claim was motivated by their extreme ignorance of the professionalism of the help provided for refugees by the civil society. It was rather “a noble impulse of logistics” than of the heart. Quite simply, citizens turned out to be more efficient in their self-organization than the public sector they finance, and which indeed could use some sort of an “impulse of the heart”.

Logistics of cooperation

Homo Faber Association’s previous contacts with the authorities meant that the latter were comfortable handing over the initiative of organising humanitarian aid. It also allowed to instantly connect the wide community of volunteers with the resources of the City Office and the Centre for Culture: the premises, the decision-making and the work of committed employees. Already in the afternoon of 24 February, a meeting at the Centre for Culture was held with several dozen volunteers, who were assigned tasks. Thanks to an online home-sharing database functioning since the following Sunday, the constantly arriving refugees ended up in private flats.

Within a few days, the Committee organised over 20 working groups, which included 40 coordinators and 250 volunteers, and which covered all the life needs of refugees. This is to say that, in terms of providing the social services, they all but replaced the local government. What turned out crucial was setting up a single hotline and centre of collecting and publishing up-to-date information to be used by any entities or residents providing assistance to refugees on their own.

Such small steps, the local “connectors” and procedures both of top-down and bottom-up nature, together created a system allowing to collate the resources of premises, time, work and measures dispersed in the community. This was happening all over Poland. What might have resembled an “impulse of the heart” to an ignorant politician could be seen by a computer analyst as a network server software, and a sociologist might describe it as social capital in real-life action. It was probably the first time in our lives that we had encountered such an advanced application of the ability to cooperate and join forces for a common purpose.

One person had a car, the other knew where to go. Somebody sensitive and empathetic provided psychological support to the refugees, while a more “task-oriented” person provided them with food and learnt how to get hold of appropriate documents. Nothing was wasted, no competence or resource. The owner of the house at 5 Liliowa Street, a speaker of Ukrainian, worked with strangers for several hours a day thanks to the neighbour who took care of her children.

Task organisation

In the Committee we discuss here, most of the Ukrainian and Russian-speaking volunteers worked 24 hours a day in lodging and accommodation points, coach and railway stations, as well as transporting people and goods. The remaining teams dealt with: shipment of medical aid, assistance for families hosting refugees, finding jobs for refugees, directing the hungry to restaurants offering free meals; psychological support for children, adults and volunteers; legal aid; translations; coordination of donations; publishing guides, leaflets and posters; contacts with external entities; coordination of free premises and infrastructure; Polish and Ukrainian language courses; childcare; book collecting; scholarships for those in need of continuing their education (e.g. piano playing) and so forth.

Meanwhile, it was necessary to react to any new circumstances, such as the fact that refugees kept refusing to move inland and wanted to stay close to the border. Another necessity was to create a system of trust between volunteers and refugees, who were initially afraid to get into unknown cars at the border and fell victim to dishonest carriers, against which they should be warned. It was necessary to create relevant leaflets and a system of attestation for carriers based on recording and relaying information about who is carrying whom and where, so that in case of any problems the history of transit could be traced. That was partly done by the relevant administrative entities and to some extent by the people themselves, who spontaneously formed chains of trustworthy contacts equivalent to the famous blockchains known from the cryptocurrency market.

By August 2022, over 5 million Ukrainians had crossed the border into Poland, and 3 million had crossed in the opposite direction. At the beginning of May, approximately 3 million Ukrainians were staying in Poland, around half of them refugees, and by now that order of magnitude could be considered stable. Today we know that the war might not end soon, and the Ukrainian minority is going to stay with us for longer. Are we able to move to this next stage of sharing what we have with refugees? Certainly, there are some circumstances that are not helpful, such as the economic crisis and the scheming of Russian trolls trying to incite Poles against Ukrainians and other Poles who help refugees. Thus, we are facing other difficult practical exams in ethics and St. John Paul II’s famous “imagination of mercy”.

The issue of interpersonal closeness

Helping Ukrainians was possible thanks to the cultural and linguistic proximity of our nations. Unfortunately, this has had virtually no impact on the approach of the border service and politicians to foreigners of colour on the Polish-Belarusian border, or even to the refugees from Ukraine. However, this cultural closeness was not a pre-existing given; it was developed through three decades of various actions. But for these, there is much that could separate us from the Ukrainians, for instance the Battle of Lviv between Poles and Ukrainians, the murder of about 50,000 civilians by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Volhynia, or the simple matter of competition in the job market.

Actions that have brought us and Ukrainians closer were conducted by NGOs, cultural institutions, and informal groups involved in cultural and social animation. It should be clearly stated that this area is still underappreciated in Poland. A carefully considered cultural policy was deliberately deployed in the development of the country after 1989, with the “little homelands” movement as an example. Another revival accompanied the 2010 campaign for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016 for a Polish city. But then this strategic way of thinking diverged in two directions leading nowhere in terms of social capital: creative industries and national conservatism.

The function of social ties in helping Ukraine suggests that it is worth returning to the cultural and social animation as a tool of its creation. Cultural and social events form a neutral space of shared positive experiences that build social capital. And this is necessary for us to join forces and cooperate in unexpected and difficult circumstances as well as on a daily basis. Every interpersonal animosity, whether political or ideological, distances us from that goal.

Three decades of cross-cultural actions

It is difficult to say which actions were the most important for preparing the Lublin community to help refugees. We do not even know whether and how Lublin stands out from other cities in this regard. It could be an interesting subject of the study. It is nonetheless true that we reacted to the surge of arrivals a little sooner and better than many other cities, and that there have been no xenophobic incidents in Lublin over the last several years, unlike elsewhere

Many examples can be given of cultural and social activities that may have contributed to this. It’s worth mentioning at least the longest, the most renowned or the most spectacular of them. Chronologically speaking, the earliest activity addressed to a wide audience is that of the folklore group – the Saint Nicholas Orchestra. Since its foundation in 1988, it has performed the Lemkos, Boykos and Hutsuls’ music in Ukrainian, popularising our cultural community, previously cultivated by the tourist and sightseeing movement. Since 1991 the Orchestra has organised the yearly “Mikołajki Folkowe” festival, which was the first festival of cross-cultural music and the cornerstone of the development of this movement in Poland.

The next oldest is the “Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre” Centre, which debuted in Lublin’s cultural landscape with the “Meeting of Cultures” programme in the 1990s. Its very name expressed the idea of intercultural social animation. In the early years of the programme, showcases of Ukrainian artists were possible thanks to the close contacts of “NN Theatre” with the Lviv and Kyiv artistic communities. Later, the focus of the Centre’s activity shifted to the heritage and remembrance of Lublin Jews, who had their district just behind the Grodzka Gate. This memory is closely connected to helping refugees in February 2022. But this does not need to be explained to the nation with a quarter of all Righteous Among the Nations. If your identity is cross-cultural, it is easier to make sacrifices for people of other nationalities in need.

One-day crossing point

For many years, an intriguing, symbolic and spectacular action was the temporary crossing point between Korczmin and Staivka during the “Good Neighbour Days” organized by pr. Stefan Batruch and the Foundation of Spiritual Culture of Borderland. After the war [Second World War – translator’s note], Korczmin was separated by the border from the miracle spring associated with the revelation of the Virgin Mary. The tradition of local church fair became an opportunity for organising the annual one-day crossing point, symbolically traversing a strip of ploughed land between Poland and Ukraine.

In 2008 and 2014, the Lublin artist Jarosław Koziara made earthworks for these occasions depicting the contours of huge fish crossing the border strip as a symbol of “freedom of passage”. This image of the Polish-Ukrainian good neighbourliness undoubtedly stayed in the memory and imagination of the communities of Lublin and the Lublin region. The list of these kinds of activities is very long. We should not underestimate their integrative role in enhancing our ability to help people of a different nationality or culture. Even commercial companies recognise the role of integration events for better teamwork between their staff.

In a sort of response to Koziara’s earthworks, new cohorts of Ukrainian students appeared in Lublin, and many people from Ukraine also began to work in the City Office and in other institutions of culture. At the outbreak of the war, there were around 1.5 million of Ukrainian economic immigrants in Poland. The post-24 February arrival of people from that nation in Lublin and in the country constituted a quantitative change, not a qualitative one.

Flexibility and empathy

After the outbreak of the war, the nature of humanitarian aid was changing hour by hour, and then week by week. It was necessary to react quickly to new signals, to identify and correct mistakes while respecting the goodwill of all partners. This can be compared to skiing: a skier does not have a precise plan for balancing or turning. A skier simply has to know how to ski, or be able to react quickly to variable circumstances.

Gradually, full-on support turned into less extensive assistance or into providing information about the possibilities of receiving help from other sources. After four months, new problems emerged, such as the exploitation of the refugees in the workplace or the lack of stability in arrangements such as schooling for Ukrainian youths. As the aid shifted to administrative and bureaucratic structures, their actions did not always continue to be empathetic and well-organised.

With a drop of irony, it can be stated that in this matter refugees are on a par with Poles, but all of our other needs are met: we have jobs, somewhere to live, we know the language, and we are at home, we feel safe. Meanwhile, for a single mother with children from Ukraine, minor bureaucratic issues can be a major problem. For this reason, refugees should be treated somewhat “better” than the Polish majority. Still, a number of Poles fail to understand the situation of the refugees and unnecessarily consider those privileges to be a form of inequality or even discrimination.


In order to help refugees in urgent need, we should first and foremost ensure that strangers are not strangers to us. It is also good to have NGOs in the city that are competent in direct, on-site humanitarian aid and to have at our disposal the social capital that enables rapid cross-sectoral cooperation. It means getting used to the foreignness of others and building day-to-day cooperation between many people and entities in advance.

This type of actions will never be mass in numbers. Help is always pyramid-shaped: people who are the most supportive and active are situated at the very top, and those at the bottom, who are the least active, can, for instance, only share their homes. The point is to connect them into one system, and for others not to interfere with it. Cultural and social animators are particularly effective in such activities because they have the organisational skills, and they work for the common good, which spurs solidarity and cooperation. It is hard to deny that their impulse of heart was noble and sincere, and that their actions were logistically efficient.

The text above is a development of the author’s article “Von Mensch zu Mensch”, which appeared in the publication Stimmen zum Krieg in der Ukraine published by Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste e. V. and available in PDF format on the website:

Read more on the website of The Congress of Urban Movements:

  • Marcin Skrzypek, “Why did it work? Narratives of Lublin assistance to refugees from Ukraine”

  • Marcin Skrzypek, “How Lublin’s social capital paid dividends to Ukrainian refugees”

Tłumaczenie: M. Żydek

Korekta: B. Zielonka