Warsaw resident Janusz Żwański is ready for the weekend. The post office worker has bags full of boots for soldiers, helmets, fuel, tampons and pads, bandages, formula,diapers, and pain meds that he’s driving 400 kilometres across the border into the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Friday—as soon as he logs out for the week.
He and three friends plan to drop the supplies off with soldiers in Lviv and are also considering doing a second drop-off in Lutsk, 150 kilometres north of Lviv. On Sunday, they’ll drive back into Poland so they can log into their day jobs on Monday.
“I went to the border with friends to help and saw they already had everything because so many Poles are helping. So, I spontaneously decided to cross into Ukraine instead,” Żwański said in Polish. “My friends agreed to go.”
Janusz Żwański (left) delivering goods on Feb. 25 to the border. Photo courtesy of Janusz Żwański
Żwański, a veteran, said he will wear his uniform on the journey. He believes border agents will let his team in and out because the group is delivering aid. That he’s a Polish citizen helps too.
The father of four is part of a countrywide effort in Poland to support Ukrainians who are fleeing or fighting the Russia-backed invasion. More than 800,000 refugees have already fled Ukraine, with nearly half a million entering Poland, where many citizens are waiting to help.
While several humanitarian organizations and charities in Poland have also stepped up to support Ukraine and those fleeing—a comprehensive list of aid groups was published by independent Polish broadcaster TVN24 here—grassroots support has been overwhelming.
Polish side of the Ukrainian border where refugees can access food, water, and toiletries on Feb. 27 Photo courtesy of Janusz Żwański
People in cities all over Poland have collected clothes, food, water, and toiletries and driven them to the border. Hotels have opened their doors to refugees, as have regular Poles who have a room to spare. An entire site has popped up offering free rent to refugees, and Facebook groups are full of people offering to drive down to the border and pick up refugees. At the border, people carry signs that say “Krakow!” or “Warsaw!” or “Katowice!” so that those fleeing Ukraine know they can hitch a ride.
“A lot of private people here just decided to help,” said Polish journalist Kazimierz Łysiak. He has been reporting from the border since the war started and confirmed that Poles from all over are arriving with aid.
“There are enough clothes already,” Łysiak said. “Most important right now are hygiene products and things for babies—so, diapers and pumps for mothers.”
“Also, blankets are important because it’s very cold,” Łysiak said.
In the border town of Przemyśl, temperatures range between -4 C and 4 C, with nights dropping below freezing. At least thousands of people have had to wait for days in the cold while attempting to cross out of Ukraine. A medical student from Ghana who fled Ukraine told VICE World News he was “astonished” by the support he received once he arrived in Poland.
“They assisted us and gave us free food, free drinks. I lost my luggage and I needed free clothes, so I got trousers and a T-shirt,” he said. He was then able to catch a ride and make it safely to Warsaw.
Car stuffed with goods for refugees. Photo courtesy of Janusz Żwański
According to Żwański, Poles understand Russian aggression intimately; they’ve survived communism and understand the power of solidarity. “We are also touched deeply by the war,” he said, adding that many Poles worry Russia could invade Poland next.
That’s why he and thousands, if not millions, of Poles are rushing to support their neighbours, even if it’s not always safe. Żwański has a wife and four kids, all of whom are nervous about his upcoming trip. But he’s going nonetheless.
A lot of Poles simply feel compelled to help, he said. “This is just how we are.”
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