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Ukrainian refugees pick up garbage in the Bielański Forest in Warsaw on April 2, 2022. The group of about 30 refugees was one of several across Poland that gathered to tidy parks as part of an informal effort by refugees to thank Polish people for their help.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Julia Kazarian put on a pair of bright green gloves, grabbed a plastic garbage bag and headed down a dirt path in a nature reserve in Warsaw on Saturday morning, ready to show her gratefulness to Poland.

“It’s just a little thank you,” Ms. Kazarian said as she bent over to pick up a piece of litter and toss it into the bag. “They’ve done so much for us. There are no words to describe it.”

Ms. Kazarian was accompanied by her 11-year-old brother and about 30 other war refugees from Ukraine. They’re part of an informal movement of Ukrainians who have been cleaning up sidewalks, boulevards, monuments and parks in cities across Poland each Saturday morning for the past month, all in an effort to say “thank you.”

The impromptu campaign has been dubbed “subotnik,” a reference to an annual spring tradition in Ukraine when families gather to clean public spaces. It started at the end of March, when a group of refugee women in Suwalki, a small city in northeastern Poland, asked local officials if they could do some kind of community service to show their appreciation for all the support they’d received.

“We wanted to repay the city and the people that live here for welcoming us,” said Irina Koval, one of the Ukrainians who started the first subotnik. “They gave us a home, food, clothes. We are happy that at least we can say thank you for it.”

The city agreed, and on March 26 about 30 refugees spent hours removing trash from Suwalki’s biggest park and two major city boulevards.

“The refugees came up with the idea of cleaning city parks,” Kamil Sznel, a municipal official, wrote on Facebook. “The road workers handed over the equipment, and these Ukrainian women with their children started the action on Saturday morning.”

The idea quickly took off, and subotnik activities now take place in nearly a dozen communities across the country, with more added every week. The location of each cleanup is posted on social media and spread by word of mouth.

There’s no apparent organizer and volunteers simply show up at a designated site and get to work. There’s also nothing stopping Poles from joining in, but for now the effort has been an entirely Ukrainian-led project.

This past Saturday in Warsaw, dozens of refugees gathered at three locations – the Kabacki Forest, the Bielanski Forest and the Rembertowski Forest – with their garbage bags in tow.

In Bielanski Forest, the group was made up almost entirely of refugee women who walked quietly through the trees, collecting paper, discarded cans and other debris as joggers, dog walkers and mountain-bike enthusiasts passed by.

One man stopped to salute the Ukrainians and shout, “Glory to Ukraine.” But otherwise, the women went largely unnoticed as they fanned out into the woods.

“I wanted to do something for Poland,” said Ola Maistrenko, who came to Warsaw last month from Kyiv with her nine-year-old son, her mother and her sister. Volunteers helped her find living essentials and a place to stay, and she said she can’t thank them enough.

Saturday was Ms. Maistrenko’s first subotnik, but it won’t be her last, so long as she’s still in Poland. She’s thought about applying for a visa to Canada, but she’d rather return to Kyiv to be with her husband, who owns a shop that sells electronics. He couldn’t join her because of a Ukrainian government edict that bans adult men from leaving the country.

“I’ve never been to Canada, but I want to go home,” she said.

Ukrainian refugees Anastasiia Kovalenko, second from right, and her sister Daria Kovalenko join the effort to pick up garbage in the Bielański Forest on April 9, 2022.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Anastasiia Kovalenko, 25, was also participating in her first subotnik on Saturday. She fled to Poland nearly a month ago from Brovary, outside Kyiv, with her 16-year-old sister and they’d both been looking for a way to show their gratitude for all the help they’ve received.

“Poland has given us so much,” said Ms. Kovalenko. “It’s a great idea to say thanks.”

Like a lot of refugees, the Kovalenkos had never been to Poland before and they didn’t know what to expect when they crossed the border. But they’ve been overwhelmed by the support they’ve received.

Volunteers not only gave them food and clothing, but also found them a place to stay rent-free. And because Ukrainians can ride free on public transit in Warsaw, Ms. Kovalenko has been able to pick up freelance work as a graphic designer. Her sister, Daria, has also joined a dance troupe while keeping up her studies online in Ukraine.

While they’ve grown more comfortable in Warsaw, Ms. Kovalenko misses her parents and her boyfriend, who remained in Kyiv. As the situation in the city improves and becomes more secure, they are thinking of returning.

“We want to go back maybe in one or two weeks,” she said. “We’re crossing our fingers.”

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