Strona główna/EASTERN EUROPE. How Lublin’s social capital paid dividends to Ukrainian refugees

EASTERN EUROPE. How Lublin’s social capital paid dividends to Ukrainian refugees

Author: Marcin Skrzypek,, +48 603 714 532
Translation: Michalina Żydek

Social humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees might and should be described with modern methods of development. And maybe due to that fact, we will understand that it wasn’t only a reflexive reaction dictated by compassion, but an advanced mechanism that we can develop consciously and use it for our own wealth daily.


Thursday, February 24, I was outside of Lublin. On Saturday my wife texted me that we would host refugees. And on Sunday I found Irina, her daughters – Vika and Katia, and her grandson Tymoszek already in my house. They were brought to us by a Ukrainian volunteer-helper, on whose further help we could count if needed. This was all possible thanks to the Google accommodation base and support system created within the first two days from the outbreak of the war, and most of all due to plenty of people willing to host refugees in their private houses. And so, behind each fact there is another. The present article tries to define which of them are of a key importance to achieving final results.

Organising lodgings in private dwellings for refugees was one of many activities of the Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine, which was running on all cylinders at that time. And there were many more institutional, social or city residents’ initiatives like this Committee. One of them was a private centre at 5 Liliowa Street and thanks to the commitment of three people, 2 thousand Ukrainians were accommodated in different European countries within two months, which translates to sending on average 30 people a day west.

When it comes to my family, we are closely connected with other cultures, including the Ukrainian one, as my wife and I work in the Saint Nicolas Orchestra. It was 30 years ago, when we were returning with a few people from Charnohora, we were stuck in Chernivtsi at night. A resident of a tower block offered us a night stay in his flat. We couldn’t see him, nor could he see us because none of the lamps were on. His wife was a little bit surprised, but we were given supper and breakfast along with a room with a bathroom. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.

It is known that 1,200,000 Ukrainian citizens stayed in Lublin until April, including 130,000 who spent at least one night there. At the end of March, they constituted 17% of city residents (68,000 people). The Committee alone accommodated 1.668 people (531 families) for three months and its municipal hotline answered 14,670 telephones. Moreover, this organisation conducted 14 intervention accommodations with around 1.500 beds, which gave over 102,500 overnight stays and 150,000 meals. 39,500 packs with durable food were delivered. 80 lorries and 68 other means of transport with humanitarian aid were sent. With the support of the Committee, 1196 Ukrainian citizens were hired by Lublin employers, including 64 pedagogues in 41 schools (see more: the report in English 90 days of help. The Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine and the presentation at 90 days of help for Ukraine and Ukrainian citizens).

Apart from this all being archival data that enhances our self-complacency: what does it all mean for us today? As usual, we proved that we could manage with “levée en masse” when needed. But it wasn’t just that. Humanitarian aid on such a large scale required an advanced network of grassroots cooperation. If we don’t notice it, perhaps we are lacking relevant terms and metaphors, as no one has fully described such large-scale bottom-up assistance yet. Why was it even created? What factors influenced it and what worked in its favour? The present article tries to answer those questions, while also proposing a set of useful expressions so that we can cooperate not only for others in the time of terror but also for each other on a daily basis.

Let’s start with personal training. One and a half months after the outbreak of the war against Ukraine, I held three conversations about the social involvement of city residents about humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees in Lublin. My interlocutors were: Rafał “Koza” Koziński (Managing Director of the Centre for Culture in Lublin), Piotr Skrzypczak (Homo Faber Association), who co-created the Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine, as well as Olga, Łukasz, and Marcin from a private refugee association centre based at 5 Liliowa Street in Lublin. The conversations were held respectively on 12, 14, and 26 April. You can read more about it in the text: “Why did it work? Narratives of Lublin assistance to refugees from Ukraine”.

Power of narration

Originally, this was only supposed to be a source of information and quotations for this article, but I’ve noticed that, in some way, those vivid narratives better organize the text than the author’s version and so it’s worth publishing them as a whole. The form of the story allows one to feel others’ motivations better, which were crucial here, and also preserves a multitude of important connections between information. However, above all, it helps us to imagine ourselves in similar situations. In a nutshell, it’s an individual mental training material, the same as the one for sportsmen or all of the stories about the heroes that inspire ordinary people to follow them.

There’s not much we can find in those prepared know-how reports on how to mobilise or organise mass humanitarian aid in extraordinary circumstances. My interlocutors didn’t talk directly about, e.g., social capital, however they described it through peoples’ actions. Of course, those narratives help to comprehend the functioning of social capital, but firstly it’s crucial to familiarise oneself with it, before starting to analyse and understand it; to be surprised and intrigued by it. That’s the main purpose of reading this article.

To put it simply, some sort of picture emerges from it, a picture of an ant colony, a flock of birds or a bee swarm. Following some uncomplicated rules, those animals are able to act as if driven by the same single thought. We admire them for that because behaviour for the purpose of common good isn’t so frequent among humankind. But that’s exactly the way local communities helping Ukrainian refugees worked. Without any external coordination, they started solving problems, the ones which delegated authorities and formal bodies couldn’t tackle. Thus, collective wisdom created and immediately implemented some mysterious algorithms that couldn’t be used or aren’t known by experts.

Fluid pyramid

Individual contributors of those actions (city residents, non-governmental organisations, companies, offices, institutions) could be imagined as a cloud storage of scattered opportunities located in society. Each of them was minor, but together they created a great power. It’s probably the simplest definition of social capital: the ability to join forces for a common goal. My interlocutors also recalled moments of scarcity of that capacity. It could be pictured as some sort of software enabled to utilise all of the potential scattered in the cloud. It consisted of three main rules. The first one was: minimal transaction costs, meaning instant willingness to trust-based cooperation. Like the saying goes “one phone call was enough” to get things done. “We knew we were working on trust and nothing bad could come out of this”.

The rule number two: heterarchy. This meant working without any hierarchy, on the principle of the transience of power. Depending on a solution which seemed the most effective at a given time, individual contributors were working autonomously, completing each other, construing, or adjusting to someone else’s rules regardless of the position in the hierarchy. Effectiveness of the organisation was a priority, not its status. Thanks to that, aside from active members of the Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine, who were in a way its “face”, any other organisation or people who were acting independently in their sectors, as well as synergistically with other partners within the Committee, could become part of it. It was an open structure, the elements of which were defined by the intensity of communication and matters to be dealt with instead of unyielding regulations. Power relations were fluid and subordinated to pragmatism, not to hierarchy.

The third rule relates to determination to act in the name of the common good, which will be covered more precisely later. Now the significant fact is that this quality is unprecedented, and the fewer people are characterised by this feature the more it exposes. It gives the society a classic pyramid-shaped Gaussian curve, which is hard to accept for people and institutions who believe in an absolutism of the rule of social equality and apply it somehow mindlessly. It is undoubted that equal opportunities and possibilities ought to be offered to everyone, although it would benefitial to everyone if in particular cases more of them would be given to this exceptional minority, so that could be utilised better for the common good.

By the way, the minority in this case happen to be the same people who are present at each social consultation session. Public institutions frequently ignore their involvement, without understanding that it isn’t possible to stimulate massive-scale motivation of citizens and convince them to spend their free time in a consultation room, as this is a feature of a small fraction of the population. Fortunately, after the outbreak of the war it was noticed that it’s essential to recognize those who engage themselves on their own accord and at least not to disturb them. Even if the principle of equal treatment was applied to all humanitarian aid initiatives by, e.g., SES [sanitary-epidemiological station] or the police, it would be necessary to build camps for refugees. And ironically, the emergency services would have even more duties. So, the Gaussian distribution law is only intuitively understood in such situations as humanitarian aid in Ukraine, but even then, it’s not always the case, as my interlocutors from 5 Liliowa street have mentioned.

Organic network

The structure of this cross-sectoral cooperation was growing organically and not due to some predetermined plan. Its subsequent elements entered the whole to solve the problem, after its identification. Everyone engaged in the duties that they could and knew how to resolve and those which were the most important at that moment. Separate resources of subsequent entities and individuals entered the system as a form of a security chain maintaining the running of the entirety. Sometimes these were small favours, seemingly irrelevant to the functioning of the system, for instance the engagement of grandparents or even neighbours in taking care of children of parents involved in organization of assistance. To work efficiently some of them had to temporarily “opt out” of their families. So, without the acceptance from their loved ones, it wouldn’t have been possible.

And these anonymous background heroes were everywhere. Their support had a critical influence on this small group of people who committed themselves to the maximum to accumulate the generosity of a large group who were involved minimally. Thereby a natural crowdfunding system, which employed even a small amount of time, service, or material resources, was created. This is how every tree and each ecosystem works. For us to eat an apple pie, somewhere in the ground capillary roots and threads of mycorrhizal fungi must provide the tree with micrograms of substances needed for the development of a ton of apples from the soil.

The first reaction to humanitarian aid was spontaneous and voluntary. Though as Rafał “Koza” Koziński noticed, subsequently the most valued asset for the Lublin Social Committee to Aid Ukraine was unrestricted work of officials and institutions’ employees. For 5 Liliowa Street, it was the work of Olga, Łukasz, and Marcin, in which they also applied their professional skills. Thereby a foundation was created for widening and stabilising the involvement of other people and organisations in the collective help provided to refugees. Even if all this happened simultaneously, it is worth distinguishing those functional stages in order to understand why it brought results and didn’t end with chaos.

Professionalism of amateurs

The key workers of the Committee not only enabled others to get involved and set an example of proficiency and commitment for all, but also gave them a feeling of being an essential element of a common, well-functioning machine. It’s the base of a so-called teal organisation mode, in which the degree of management awareness is decentralised and equal for each member of the organisation. This model explains how to work on a trust-based level with others and what is the origin of the above-mentioned heterarchical instinct. Because for this cooperation, there is no need for leaders, but for people who can step up in one situation but in another give way to others, hide their ego, cooperate without tension and rivalry. Moreover, there’s a need for awareness that sometimes there is a way to success through your own actions, and sometimes through enabling others to work.

In the community, this situation repeated on a smaller scale and was more dynamic among people who weren’t involved in any organised structures. Incessantly, there’re being created temporary decision nodes between people, hubs directing the flow of information or single impulses converting open initiatives from various people into informal teams. They formed spontaneously and temporarily, or preserved as a stable support centre from which other scattered initiatives could benefit. For instance, 5 Liliowa Street was that sort of centre. It would be a truism to dwell on the utility of social media in this course of action, about which Marcin from the 5 Liliowa Street talks in detail. It is worth noting that the self-help network created some sort of blockchains to secure the credibility and correctness of the flow of refugees between subsequent locations or procedural points.

On the other hand, my interlocutors mention some manifestations of organisational wisdom resembling the same methods used in the modern military. As regards the overall plan, decision-making competence has been decentralised and shifted to the lowest operational levels, supported by a vigilant common information network. This is how NATO’s methods of military engagement work, thanks to which the Ukrainian army prevails over the Russian one. This is a slightly different utilisation of the teal organisation method. The method of military organisation also includes the simple principle “be ready and wait”, which was followed by the employees of the Centre for Culture in Lublin as well. At some point, they were simply at the Homo Faber Association’s command. Not everything could be organised in advance, and we have to accept that. It takes some time before lean management procedures appear, in other words before everything starts to run like clockwork at a minimal cost.

Finally, the whole system evolved to this state thanks to intuitively applying two related and modern principles of management: Kaizen and no-fault. The first one concerns the perfecting of production through the small steps of eliminating the causes of malfunction and implementing improvements. This system, invented in the US during the Second World War, was later adopted from American experts in Japan and popularised by Toyota. The second principle is used to improve the quality of medical services, and it’s about implementation of insurance, regardless of the culprit of the unfortunate events. It makes identification easier and systematically eliminates its causes. By applying these two principles, the system was being updated simultaneously in an instant, informing all its elements about introduced changes, new conditions, disappearance of opportunities or emergence of new ones.

Volunteering of responsibility

A completely different form of volunteering to the black and white one that we are accustomed to, is for instance overtime work of employees, supporting volunteers by providing them with subsistence allowances or employment contracts. It turns out that it is possible to be an employee and volunteer at the same time or to be a volunteer and receive a salary, nonetheless. If we were to organise all this work in accordance with some kind of bureaucratic rules, the support system would unravel. The subject of this form of commitment is not to work without compensation, but to take responsibility without the employer or leader.

It is about taking additional responsibility for common wealth, doing overtime and unwanted work after or during working hours, if there is a possibility for that. The opposite of this form of volunteering after 24 February 2022 wasn’t unpaid work, but not committing to any new responsibilities, just continuing current tasks and lifestyle. Which, for the record, had its own reason for the well-being of society.

The specific example of “volunteering of responsibility” were people who, despite the lack of their own lodging place for refugees, took responsibility for finding another accommodation for them. Using the term related to business, Olga called this phenomenon a “drop-shipping service”. But these people can be considered traffic controllers who voluntarily search for any free accommodation in cloud storage of dwellings.

Digression: this type of volunteering can be also encountered in peacetime, although it’s usually unnoticed then and is called a civic activity, community work, self-advocacy, or urban activism. It appears wherever there is no “owner” of good change and then often someone decides to pick up the slack. Sometimes this form of civic activity is a target of mockery and criticism from other citizens. In the end, it could be understood, but why do the democratic authorities dismiss it as well? After all, it’s a form of meeting the highest of human needs that is self-fulfilment which realises through doing something for others. Our country and each municipality or city should help in fulfilling it, because it’s at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of desires, which I mentioned earlier.

Moral imperative

The volunteering of responsibility is closely connected with this third principle, thanks to which a grassroots system of aid for Ukrainian refugees was created. It’s about the common value principle, but not the one invoked orally, but the one which immediately gives rise to actions in accordance with said principles. What follows is rejection of other, opposing activities. This is how the Homo Faber Association initiated social aid for Ukraine in Lublin. The reaction such as “This is so important, but…” doesn’t follow the moral imperative principle. The response was immediate, almost as a moral knee-jerk reflex. It was enabled because members of the association were always close to those issues. And recently they literally learnt what it’s like to be a refugee the hard way: in the woods, darkness and cold, without any perspectives.

The terms “the hard way” and “first-hand experience” have an inner meaning here, which neuroscience explains. Our brain relates to the skin, senses, muscles, and all other organs. That’s why we learn through our body as it participates in the realisation of concepts known from philosophical books. The person who has experienced the fate of people that they want to help, will react completely differently compared to someone who knows this issue only in theory. In that way, one ought to understand the joy of helping, which my interlocutors mentioned.

There might be doubt about the altruism of their motives. Still, there is no contradiction between their unselfishness and their own personal fulfilment. Satisfaction of achieving the aim is the normal effect of any intentional action. Thanks to that, thousands of people reacted immediately after the outbreak of the war. As Marcin noticed, there emerged a trend to help, or – simply put – social solidarity, some sort of exothermic reaction generating warmth between people. It’s impossible to imagine an efficient action without any joy of achieving results. Quite the contrary, the greater pleasure of action is, the more effective it is. As the officials and politicians serve the people, working for them and being paid to do so from their own, i.e. public, money, we would rather see them doing their public duties with the same happiness and enjoying their citizens’ prosperity.

As the reflex action, the real moral imperative brings rapid instinctive reaction, but also reorganises the entire value hierarchy and influences deliberate decisions. And that allowed the Homo Faber Association to cease previous disputes and animosities with authorities in the name of true priorities. It is not an easy process, it requires you to bite a bullet for the first time, which always takes a while or may not even happen at all. Own experience and history give plenty of examples when, despite declaration of shared values, antagonism and self-interests prevailed. The spectre of the humanitarian crisis has shown us the opportunity of achieving tangible outcomes – not due to the know-how, but because of recognition of the necessity of certain actions. Objective circumstances have shown how efficient a human being is without having another choice.

Social compound interest

However, it is not possible to achieve this outcome by one-time “self-investment”. The traits of character needed for this are not inborn. To react in that way, you need to take small steps regularly, well and a long time before the trial to test this desirable reaction. Piotr Skrzypczak alluded to this, when he once said that the Lublin solutions of humanitarian aid could be applied elsewhere, but we would have to “go back in time” to do that. They are dependent on social capital. And its development depends on the outcome of our previous actions, which the social capital is composed of.

When it came to creating the capacity of helping refugees in Lublin, it was associated with numerous cultural projects connected with Ukraine and the presence of students and employees from Ukraine in the public space. It made us used to the existence of that national minority, to which we have not been accustomed after all, since post-war border changes and repatriations. Olga, Łukasz and Marcin from the 5 Liliowa Street followed the same path, but in their private life.

The point is that all the action must be done for other reasons than those that require serious intervention from us afterwards. In Lublin, the activity of the “Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre” Centre mattered. For a quarter of a century now, it has been re-establishing the public memory that before the [Second World] War every third resident of Lublin was Jewish. The Centre debuted in the 1990s with its flagship “Meeting of Cultures” programme, which was a very unconventional approach to opening borders at that time. Later in the next decade, the important episode of constructing intersectoral integration was Lublin’s effort for the title of European Capital of Culture 2016 and subsequent, long-term collaboration between institutions, companies, non-governmental organisations, offices, and city residents in various circumstances, including the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns. Long story short, according to the evangelical principle, one must be faithful to the values of social capital in small matters to achieve a measurable outcome in important ones.

It resembles a lot investing on a compound interest basis. Today, a small effort, for instance while tolerating another nationality of a neighbour, is enough so that we can afford effective altruism towards them in the future, when more serious sacrifices will be required. This principle applies not only to foreigners but in general to all groups prone to being discriminated against, or to our resentment including our next-door neighbour, our fellow citizen, our compatriot, as shown in the film “Sami swoi” [“All Friends Here”]. All that more, we need to emphasise the role of culture and its environment in this process, the environment which provides a reason for development of amiable intercultural and interpersonal relations during peace and prosperity. It’s good to help someone with whom we have cheerful memories. We need to “buy” shares of good relations while they are cheap.

Social capital as a political one

Social capital does not need all this meta-knowledge to function, but it’s certainly required to be known by public figures, who thanks to their influence on society can develop or destroy it. Ironically, when politicians destroy it by applying the principle of “divide and rule”, they also do it out of necessity to create it. But only at their own disposal, only to achieve their own objectives. By turning their own voters against supporters of their rivals, they aim to reduce transaction costs. But they do this only within a mutual appreciation club which the more internally integrated it is, the more hostile it becomes towards other groups.

It is a primitive, short-term strategy for handling self-interests. It will not work in solving significant problems relating to entire local communities or the whole country. For this to work, literally everyone with their resources is needed, not just those whom we specifically like. The local reduction of transaction costs within one group comes at the expense of increasing costs between others. A very stable system is often created, which is difficult to move. An example might be colonisation of Polish society by political parties. When that happens, to cry out “all hands on deck!” is in vain, because only supporters will show up. And in critical situations, it may turn out that we may have a fishing rod, but our hated neighbour has a bait worm.

Fortunately, this situation was avoided in Lublin thanks to the afore-mentioned intellectual applications of the moral imperative. “Social organisations always have some problematic issues with authorities. We stopped dealing with them, and we addressed really important stuff”, Piotr Skrzypczak said openly. The friendly relations between the mayor of Lublin city, Krzysztof Żuk (Civic Platform) and the voivode of Lublin Province, Lech Sprawka (Law and Justice) should be also considered equally fortunate circumstances. However, without the organisational flexibility and ingenuity of non-governmental organisations or people such as Olga, Łukasz, and Marcin from the 5 Liliowa Street, the situation would be much more difficult for local officials due to the rapid influx of refugees. By definition, administration was created to govern the existing state of affairs and not to invent new rules of conduct, not to work out as the crew of a sailing ship during a storm. Lublin’s social capital has made it possible for competent people and organisations to join the action.

Revelation of social capital

After 24 February 2022 we experienced a “revelation” of social capital comparable only to the events between August 1980 and December 1981, to the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity” (Polish: “Solidarność”). For the first time in their lives, the majority of Poles had the opportunity to observe on such a scale and with their own eyes (although maybe not entirely consciously) that social capital brings measurable benefits and what mechanisms are behind it. We see that soft skills sometimes turn out to be the hardest ones and what many years of work of culture and social animators are useful for. Previously, social capital was rather abstraction than reality, but war foregrounded it like a lens. However, it will become only a theoretical concept once again if we simply don’t believe in its revelation.

Social capital is efficient. Perhaps this is a good moment to think about creating a scheme for development of national and local social capital, using our experience of humanitarian aid for Ukraine? Thanks to the fact that the threat has temporarily blown over, now we can take some time to analyse these actions in terms of previous circumstances that favoured them and invest some money in creating intentionally similar circumstances, if only as social security for future generations.