As of March 5, 2023, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported 21,793 civilian casualties (8,173 deaths and 13,620 injured persons) since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Considering the staggering numbers of displacements in Ukraine, Poland has welcomed more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees into its borders, the U.N. Refugee Agency reports. During times of crisis, the efforts of humanitarian organizations provide host countries with critical support to address the needs of refugees. During a recent trip to Poland, marking the one-year anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the President of The Borgen Project, Clint Borgen, met with the organization Polish Center for International Aid (PCPM). In an interview with The Borgen Project, PCPM provides insight into its efforts to provide critical assistance to Ukrainians as the war continues without a clear end in sight.
When was your organization founded and what does it aim to achieve?
The Polish Center for International Aid (PCPM) was founded in 2006 and is, in fact, one of few Polish international NGOs (INGOs). This means we focus, or rather, have focused, on humanitarian and development aid abroad. However, with the influx of refugees from Ukraine, we were able to bring the operational expertise gained in our work with the Syrian refugees in Lebanon (continuously since 2012) and in the border area of Uganda and South Sudan and implement it in our home soil, rolling out cash assistance, cash for work and education programs. In this respect, we focused our support and experience-sharing on the Polish local governments, predominantly municipalities, that are at the forefront of providing social services to the entire population, including Ukrainian refugees.
When did your organization begin helping refugees and displaced Ukrainians?
The political change in Ukraine started with the Revolution of Dignity, otherwise known as the Maidan Revolution, in February 2014. PCPM’s medics came to the scene, providing first aid to the demonstrators wounded by sniper fire from the police supporting then-president Yanukovych. In the second half of 2014, amid intensive conflict in the region of Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, PCPM provided humanitarian aid, including cash assistance, to internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Donetsk and other cities who sought safety and shelter in Kharkiv.
When temperatures dipped to -20°C / -5°F in November 2014, we rehabilitated an unused scouts’ camp to host more than 400 IDPs, which turned out to be the largest IDP camp in Ukraine at that time. Since 2015, we have worked in the proximity of the frontline in Donbas, delivering humanitarian assistance, funded by USAID among others, and rehabilitated schools in rural areas around Izyum, which is, unfortunately, an area where the armed conflict of 2022 obliterated villages and schools.
Through the media feed, we watched Russia moving troops to the border of Ukraine since mid-2021. Since November 2021 already, we had developed contingency plans, which included emergency relocation of PCPM’s office in Kharkiv as well as plans for immediate activities. So, when we got a call from our Head of Mission at 5:30 am on February 24, 2022, telling us that “it has started,” we all knew what to do and things worked like a clock. Our team was safely evacuated from Kharkiv, in range of Russia’s artillery bombardment, within half an hour. Our office was struck by an artillery barrage just a few weeks later. By then, all PCPM staff and their families were safely evacuated to a pre-identified location on the western bank of the Dnieper river, which is a major water obstacle to any armed forces.
What programs did the Polish Center for International Aid primarily focus on at the onset of the war?
In Ukraine, the immediate priority was to evacuate civilians from the areas of Eastern Ukraine in the crosshairs of Russian forces. PCPM brought civilians from Kharkiv and other cities to the IDP transit center on the western bank of the Dnieper river. From there, PCPM moved civilians with chartered buses to Western Ukraine and Poland.
In collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council, PCPM set up the largest refugee transit center in Warsaw, Poland, which served as a staging point for refugees’ onward movement to host communities in Poland. Returning buses took humanitarian aid to refugees. At the time, and even now, delivering humanitarian aid with anything larger than a minibus is too dangerous as any such vehicle will attract an artillery strike from armed forces.
PCPM was the first aid agency in Poland to start cash assistance for the Ukrainian refugees in Poland, building on our extensive experience with such aid modality for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The program commenced on March 11, 2022, less than three weeks after the onset of the war. Soon after, we started what is now PCPM’s flagship program — the employment of more than 1,500 Ukrainian refugees as assistant teachers in Polish schools to assist Ukrainian refugee children and in Polish social services managed by the Polish local authorities.
How have humanitarian needs changed one year on and what resources are needed in order for the Polish Center for International Aid to continue its work?
On one hand, Poland has achieved pretty much the impossible: well over 60% of adult refugees from Ukraine are gainfully employed and on a path to self-sufficiency. But, this does not mean that we are out of the woods. About 92% of Ukrainian refugees in Poland are women, children or elderly and are by default eligible to receive humanitarian assistance. These priority groups consist of 600,000 persons at minimum.
More assistance is needed to support Ukrainian children attending Polish public schools — 200,000 are currently enrolled and require language and curriculum adaptation support. But, an additional 200,000 Ukrainian refugee children are still studying online. Remote learning commenced in March 2020 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued due to the war. However, the quality of education is subpar and the children are confined to their homes with no support from their peers.
There is also a very concerning trend of children dropping out of school altogether, which risks creating a “lost generation” of youth. Critical support is required for children in terms of education, including schools following the Ukrainian curriculum, and daycare so that refugee women can find employment. Support for female-headed households is particularly important as most men of military age could not leave Ukraine.
The second priority is to assist people still residing in collective centers — nearly 100,000 refugees. The refugee influx in March – April 2022 reached up to 100,000 persons per day. Thousands of Polish families welcomed refugees not only into their residential homes but also into smaller private apartments that constitute the majority of the housing stock.
As part of the contingency planning, the Polish government made available sports facilities with camping beds set up in rows as well as other accommodations that received hundreds of thousands of refugees. Currently, Poland hosts more than 80,000 refugees in such mass accommodation facilities and funding shortages are a major issue. The conditions in some of these facilities are ill-suited for human occupancy and lack privacy.
Months of reliance on humanitarian aid and trauma caused by war have deepened the psychosocial problems faced by the refugees. The priority for humanitarian organizations in Poland is to assist these vulnerable groups to leave the mass accommodation facilities and become self-sufficient or receive proper, continuous care, particularly for the elderly and persons with disabilities.
The collective centers presented major challenges in the previous humanitarian crises in Kosovo, Bosnia, Georgia and Lebanon. Based on this experience, we are committed to assisting refugees to find proper, rented accommodation and gain self-sufficiency within the second year of their displacement.
In terms of resources, PCPM’s budget in 2022 stood at $50 million, and this year, we estimate the financial requirements at about $40 million.
While PCPM continues to support more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugee children in Polish schools with curriculum and psychosocial assistance from Ukrainian teachers, we are able to fund this only until mid-year. The social services managed by Polish local governments need more Ukrainian-speaking staff as new challenges come to the surface, related to the dire psychosocial situation of some refugee children or alcohol abuse by adults traumatized by war and displacement. Instead of creating parallel NGO-led initiatives that have no sustainability, we are committed to capacitating Polish local governments to extend these and other social services to the Ukrainian refugees. Local governments are currently extending this assistance, but require staffing support.
What is the best example you’ve seen of your organization’s work making a difference?
In addition to being a humanitarian-development NGO, PCPM operates Poland’s only Emergency Medical Team (EMT) that is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO). PCPM’s EMT was very active during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing expert support to intensive care units in eight countries. The PCPM also deployed its EMT to assist in a number of natural disasters, from earthquakes in Nepal to cyclones in Madagascar.
With this experience and thanks to funding from the European Commission, PCPM operates a Medical Evacuation Hub near the Polish-Ukrainian border, which serves as a staging point in the medical evacuation of sick and wounded people from Ukraine to hospitals all over the European Union. Ambulances bring the patients to the Hub and we prepare them for onward travel with a specially chartered airplane. The Polish Center for International Aid is the only Polish entity classified by the WHO and able to receive direct EU funding. We are proud to participate in and contribute to the medical evacuation system that is a collaboration of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, Polish authorities, the European Commission, several EU Member States and Norway.
What message would you like to send to advocates in the U.S. and U.K. who are passionate about supporting humanitarian work like yours in Ukraine and Poland?
Firstly, Russia’s war against Ukraine is not another civil war in a far-flung part of the world. This is the first war aimed at territorial conquest and genocide in Europe since World War II — the deliberate killing/displacement of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.
The global West must keep up support for Ukraine, for Ukrainian civilians and for Ukrainian refugees. Should Ukraine lose the war, there will not only be genocide (a look at the mass graves in the vicinity of Kyiv and Kharkiv gives a glimpse of what is to come), but Russia’s win in the war of territorial conquest will embolden numerous other autocrats to take similar actions. We in Eastern Europe feel like we’re reliving the 1930 and 1940s with a dictator seeking revenge for past grudges and restoration of a once great empire. Even more importantly, a successful war of territorial conquest not countered by the international community like the one in Kuwait in 1992 will be a death blow to the international system enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, among others to the international standing of the United Kingdom and the United States.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has a human face: A roughly 30-year-old Ukrainian mother executed by Russian troops together with her baby, with the bodies thrown into a mass grave and boobytrapped with a landmine. An elderly gentleman I met in Kharkiv who told me that his home was destroyed twice — once in 1943 by Germans and again in 2014 by Russian troops. Women with children residing for months in mass accommodation centers because of major shortages of funds for shelter assistance in Poland. An elderly couple I met at the refugee transit site in Warsaw who were forced to flee their homes although both of them are older than 75. But, also Ukrainian children suffering from cancer who continue to be evacuated for treatment in Europe, which gives them a good chance of full recovery.
We should be aware of the big picture but leave the politics to the politicians. We, civilians, should support people whose lives have been shattered, whose aspiration was to live in freedom, in democracy and in dignity. And this was taken from them again. I believe the support from private well-wishers and corporations plays an important part in uplifting Ukrainian people both in-country and in host nations.
Photos: Courtesy of Polish Center for International Aid