They came with so many donations of water, blankets, baby carriages, toys, canned meat and even pet food that Agnieszka Kaminska could barely keep up.
The gymnasium at School No. 11 in central Przemysl, near Poland’s border with Ukraine, was already stacked high with bags full of donated goods, and now rooms in nearby School No. 5 were filling up, too. Even as Ms. Kaminska, a foreign language teacher, frantically sorted through the items, a woman stopped by and offered to buy whatever was needed, as students ran outside to unload more boxes from waiting cars.
“I know Polish people,” Ms. Kaminska said. “They’ve got a big heart. We all know what war is and we’re afraid of what’s happening.”
After initially hesitating to mass-mobilize in support of refugees, Poland has opened its arms and hearts to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. The Polish government said that more than 115,000 Ukrainians have entered the country. Most came through Przemysl, the largest city next to the border.
The outpouring of support from the public has caught many off guard.
Przemysl was buzzing on Saturday with people making donations to shelters and volunteering. In Warsaw, buses sported Ukrainian flags, and all across the country thousands of people on Facebook pages made offers of free accommodation for new arrivals. There was even one query about how to bribe border officials so that more Ukrainians could get across. Poland’s central government has set up eight reception centres to assist refugees.
Maciej Orzechowski was among dozens of people who showed up at Przemysl’s train station Saturday morning asking how they could help. “I just wanted to find out what are the needs here,” he said amid the bustle of people unpacking food and serving hot meals to refugees who arrived at a reception centre set up by the city. Mr. Orzechowski plans to rent a three-bedroom flat and offer it to a family in need.
Two days ago, only one city official and a handful of volunteers, mainly from the local Ukrainian cultural centre, were on hand to help hundreds of refugees who arrived from Lviv and Kyiv. There was hardly any food available and only a scattering of folding beds.
By Saturday, the centre was teeming with activity and full of tables loaded with donated food, water, sandwiches, snacks and children’s toys. At one point a truck arrived with boxes of baked goods, and several volunteers moved among the refugees offering free rides across Poland and throughout the European Union. Several city officials were working feverishly to prepare for more than 8,000 refugees who were expected Saturday night.
One early volunteer from the Ukrainian House, Max Nakonechny, could only marvel at the sudden surge of activity. “I didn’t expect this at all,” he said as he surveyed the jammed parking lot outside the train station.
Anna Ostrouwka, a psychiatrist, came to the station to offer counselling and friendly chats. She carried a stuffed squirrel to make children feel more at ease while she talked to their mothers. “Many of these people suffer from post-traumatic stress and depression,” she said, shaking her head. “These are my neighbours. I have to help.”
Outside the train station in the city’s main square, Anna Grad-Mizgala wiped tears from her eyes as a rally in support of Ukraine ended. Only a few dozen people showed up to the gathering Saturday afternoon, but, given Przemysl’s history of fraught relations with the local Ukrainian community, Ms. Grad-Mizgala was taken aback when several people in the crowd came forward and signed their names on a banner calling for the city to stand with Ukraine. That kind of cross-community support has been all too rare in the city, where fights have broken out between Polish nationalists and Ukrainians.
“I am full of hope,” said Ms. Grad-Mizgala, a local activist who has often tangled with the populist Law and Justice government over its policies on women’s rights and immigration. “When people signed the banner, I didn’t expect that,” she said. “I hope that we will be together now.”
High-school student Laura Skibinska also hopes that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be a unifying force in Poland. “They are our friends and our neighbours,” she said of Ukrainians as she held up a handmade sign at the rally that said: “Freedom Yours=Mine.”
“Our history is very complex. But we are the future, and when something like this happens, young Polish people don’t care about the past.”
By nightfall, a refugee camp began taking shape in a field next to a former supermarket on the highway to the Ukrainian border. Several companies in Warsaw had banded together and sent van loads of food, water and other supplies. Volunteers had erected five giant tents that could each hold 10 people, and another one had been set aside for a makeshift medical centre.
The area outside the tents was lined with tables of hot food, drinks, canned goods, diapers, clothing, cookies and boxes of fruit. In the nearby parking lots more than 100 people stood with signs offering rides. As Ukrainians stepped off buses from the border crossing, volunteers asked where they wanted to go and then shouted the locations to the crowd to find volunteer drivers.
“We thought all this up [Friday] night and got here today,” said Piotr Wysmolinski, one of the organizers of the camp. “The city is helping, the firemen are helping.”
Karol Rosocha was among those who made the four-hour drive from Warsaw to chip in. He still can’t fathom what’s happening in Ukraine. “This is 21st-century Europe,” he said as he affixed a giant red cross to the medical tent. “And we have war. Can you believe it?”
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