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The Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that more than 377,000 Ukrainians had entered Poland since Russia’s invasion began last Thursday, including 100,000 on Monday alone

A school gym in Przemysl, Poland, has been turned into a shelter housing 90 refugees per night. Przemysl is near Poland's border with Ukraine, and has become a crossing point for many fleeing the Russian invasion.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Poland is starting to show the strain of welcoming nearly 400,000 Ukrainians, with some shelters near the border now restricting how long refugees can stay.

The Interior Ministry said on Tuesday that more than 377,000 Ukrainians had entered Poland since Russia’s invasion began last Thursday, including 100,000 on Monday alone. The ministry added that the government has set up 49 reception points across the country to provide information, food, medical help and temporary shelter to refugees.

However, there are growing signs that the official response to the crisis has been haphazard, and that most of the critical support for the influx of people is coming from a stretched network of non-profit groups and ordinary Poles.

Officials in Przemysl, a small city close to the Ukrainian border, have been scrambling to cope with a surge of Ukrainians arriving at the train station and the highway border crossing, roughly 10 kilometres away.

On Monday the city announced that refugees can stay for only two nights in the city’s handful of shelters, which can accommodate 600 people.

That has left many refugees camped out at the train station overnight or staying in tents set up by volunteers next to an abandoned shopping mall on the outskirts of town, where city buses drop off those who arrive on foot at the border crossing.

The mayor of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, has been counting on new arrivals moving on to other parts of Poland or the European Union, given the widespread family connections many Ukrainians have across the EU.

For the most part that has happened, but many people worry that as more and more Ukrainians flee the conflict, hundreds of thousands will stay in Poland because they have nowhere else to go.

“They will need to find a job, they will need a permanent place to live,” said Nazar Lyko, a volunteer with the local Ukrainian community association.

“This is where the central government should kick in.”

At top, a mute Ukrainian refugee signals to volunteers that he is looking for clothes for his family; at bottom, Ukrainians stay at the train station, which is where many are spending their nights as the city scrambles to find room for everyone.

While the response from the central government has been uneven, Poles have filled the gaps with extraordinary generosity. Thousands of people across the country have joined Facebook groups offering free accommodation, food and even pet care.

At the empty shopping mall on the edge of Przemysl, dozens of volunteers banded together and built a makeshift camp with several heated tents. They provide refugees with hot food, clothing, medical care and toys for children.

As soon as a busload of refugees arrives from the border crossing, volunteers in green vests offer them help finding rides or local accommodation.

“This is completely self-organized,” Mr. Lyko said. “There is no centralized structure whatever. People just arrive here, take the vest and see what they can do.”

In Ostrow, a village just outside Przemysl, Jolanta Glogowska and her sister have taken in a family of three Ukrainians – a mother and her two daughters – and she’s working with neighbours to house many more. “Just about everyone in this village is helping,” she said Tuesday. “There’s nothing really organized from the top, it’s all crazy.”

She’s worried that the lack of a national strategy could dampen the current outpouring of support and leave those who are helping burnt out and frustrated.

Golanta Glogowska, left, is sharing her house outside Przemysl with the Lazar family of Ukraine: Mother Galina, middle right, and daughters Eva and Lisa.

Past Daniel Kempa sought official guidance on what to do with the refugees, with no clear answer.

Daniel Kempa was already feeling exasperated on Tuesday. He’s a member of a Pentecostal church in Przemysl and the congregation has been desperate to do something but doesn’t know how. While the pastor has been in contact with the government, Mr. Kempa said the only response so far has been: We’ll get back to you.

Fed up with the inaction, Mr. Kempa, 72, arrived at the shopping mall parking lot on Tuesday, eager to offer two free rooms in his house to a family. But as he wandered around the camp, he had no idea whom to approach or how to get involved.

“I don’t know how it works,” he said as he surveyed the commotion.

Malgorzata Ziober is principal of Przemysl’s School No. 5.

At Przemysl’s School No. 5, principal Malgorzata Ziober has been facing similar trying circumstances. The school is home to one of the city’s shelters, and Ms. Ziober has been accommodating 90 refugees a night on cots in the gym. Several hallways are lined with boxes of donated clothing, food and drinks; a large television screen has been erected to display train departure times.

City officials check in regularly with Ms. Ziober to make sure the refugees aren’t overstaying their two-day limit. “This isn’t a hotel,” she said. She added that buses take refugees to Warsaw or other cities, and from there they either carry on travelling or find somewhere to stay.

She’s not thrilled with the arrangement and wishes donations could be better organized along with volunteers, who often show up unannounced or not at all. Keeping track of everyone coming and going from the shelter has been a challenge, she added, and sorting through donations has grown cumbersome. For example, the school has received mountains of T-shirts, snacks and bottled water, but Ms. Ziober said she badly needs men’s underwear, slippers and medicine.

Daryona Solodka holds cat Ostap Bender at the school in Przemysl.

Despite the logistical headaches, refugees such as Daryona Solodka say the school shelter has been a godsend.

Ms. Solodka, 22, arrived from Kyiv early Tuesday morning with her mother and brother. They’d been on the road since Friday, dodging air strikes and following the Ukrainian army at one point. “We were just so tired,” Ms. Solodka said as she sipped hot soup in the school’s lunchroom. She’d managed to bring the family cat, Ostap Bender, who’d become a popular addition to the school.

The family plan to head to Munich where Ms. Solodka has an older brother who works for Google. But for now, she said, she was just grateful to be somewhere more peaceful.


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