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“In 2015, 300,000 to 400,000 people arrived in Europe each month. We just received 300,000 people in Warsaw in three weeks,” Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski said in an interview. “We want to take everyone who needs help, but how many children can we take to school? How can we do everything so that the health system does not break down in our city? »
Almost all Ukrainians who first fled to Warsaw planned to stay with family or friends, Trzaskowski said. This eased the pressure on the city to find places to sleep for everyone. But as refugees continue to arrive, fewer are staying in private homes. Instead, they sleep in one of the city’s 30 refugee centers, some of which are near or at full capacity.
The centers are often organized to accommodate people for a few nights. However, some people in the center of Torwar, on the outskirts of Warsaw, have had nowhere to go for more than a week.
Inna Rowanyshyn has been in the concert hall-turned-sleep center since March 9. While she had all the food, water and blankets she needed, the 22-year-old said she was ready to go out.
“I found a way to go to France because there are so many Ukrainians in Warsaw,” she said as she sat in the makeshift dining room. After an online search, she came into contact with a Parisian couple who agreed to host her and her boyfriend.
“These people cannot stay in dormitories for six months. It is not a good situation for them, nor for their children, psychologically speaking,” said Dominka Pszczółkowska, a migration researcher at the University of Warsaw.
Although the mayor has said he can open more centers, staffing these centers and providing food and medical care requires finding more people willing to volunteer their time. Many volunteers took weeks off to help with the effort, and the mayor said it was unsustainable.
As more refugees seek housing in the city, Trzaskowski fears conditions in the centers will worsen, creating opportunities for the spread of covid and other illnesses. Medical care could also suffer, harming the immediate needs of Ukrainians and the long-term needs of Warsaw residents.
There were already backlogs in the city’s hospitals due to the coronavirus pandemic, and they were just beginning to ease when the war in Ukraine broke out, he said. Ukrainians who need to be seen immediately will be given priority, Trzaskowski said, and he fears those who have been waiting for months for certain medical procedures may have to wait longer.
The flood of refugees also weighs on psychological care. The city administration has redirected all child psychologists in Warsaw to care for Ukrainians, who are suffering emotionally after suffering explosions, fleeing their homes and leaving loved ones behind. The city is trying to identify Ukrainian refugees who can help provide this care.
“I can deprive [those children] psychologists for 2-3 weeks, but I can’t do it for months,” Trzaskowski said.
One of the biggest challenges for the city is registering the hundreds of thousands of newcomers for the Polish equivalent of social security numbers, called PESEL. The sooner Ukrainians can get their PESEL number, Pszczółkowska said, the sooner they can start trying to rebuild their lives.
“I’m really afraid it will take a very long time,” she said. “It’s going to be a huge bottleneck as several hundred thousand people line up to get that number.”
An hour before a PESEL center in Warsaw opened on Wednesday, the first day Ukrainians could receive a number, dozens of people lined up outside in the cold. Many would wait until sunset, only to be turned away, then return on Thursday.
While newcomers have 60 days to get a number, according to Polish law, Anya Radchuk was in a hurry. After waiting for nine o’clock on Wednesday, she had obtained a number, allowing her to be hired, and was soon off to a series of job interviews. She said she hoped to send her salary to her husband and father, who are still fighting in Kyiv. Others lined up with their children, who are trying to get into school as soon as they can.
About half of the approximately 2 million refugees who have arrived in Poland are children. Warsaw receives 1,000 students per day from Ukraine, and the city tries to hire teachers who speak Ukrainian and Russian to support new students.
As Warsaw becomes overwhelmed – with pressures on education, medical care, housing and day-to-day bureaucracy – experts say they fear Polish attitudes towards Ukrainians will deteriorate. In recent years, anti-immigrant political parties in Poland have stoked public fears about refugees from the Middle East.
“I’m afraid that after this huge wave of support there might be a feeling of ‘we’ve had enough’,” Pszczółkowska said. “This huge wave of positivity is going to die down. People will be exhausted from helping and having people in their homes. The question is what happens then?
The mayor said he needed support from the European Union and other countries. He insisted that Ukrainians be relocated across Europe and that the money be distributed directly to refugees, NGOs and local governments on the ground.
Without it, Trzaskowski said, his city and the refugees who have sought safety there face an uncertain future.