Choosing to stay in Poland to wait out the war

Media Fellowship

Poland has welcomed fleeing Ukrainians. But a cold winter, rising inflation, and minimal financial support from the government could strain the system.

Protestors with Ukrainian flags and photos of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Teaser Image Caption
People hold portraits of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during an anti-war rally in Warsaw on Saturday, April 2, 2022.

WARSAW, Poland—On a sunny autumn day in Poland’s capital of Warsaw, a city almost entirely obliterated by the Nazis at the end of World War II, evidence of Europe’s present-day war is everywhere. 

Street vendors outside the main train station sell Ukrainian flags next to Polish ones, and men walk arm-in-arm down the busy roads waving the blue and yellow banners. Polish girls roam the city center collecting donations for Ukrainian children affected by the war, and cafes offer discounts for people from Ukraine. A local concert hall advertises charity performances in solidarity with Ukraine, while a youth-run social center organizes a show by a Ukrainian singer songwriter. 

“We’re with you,” read signs hung around the city. “Glory to Ukraine.” 

Eight months after Russia launched a brutal invasion of its smaller neighbor, sparking the largest land war in Europe since World War II and irrevocably upending global politics, around 1.4 million Ukrainians have settled in Poland and registered for a social-security number. These reluctant refugees, primarily women and children, have changed the face of the country’s major cities. 

“You can really see and feel the difference,” said Aleksandra Petrykowska, a 40- year-old Polish lawyer and mother of two. “I like it. I like seeing Ukrainians and hearing Ukrainian spoken on the streets.”

banner in Warsaw supporting Ukrainians
A sign that says "Glory to Ukraine" hanging in Warsaw's Old Town


Permission to stay

An estimated 5.5 million Ukrainians fled to Poland and immediately needed shelter after the start of the war. Some have since returned home, while others left for third countries. But Poland continues to 

be the European country with the largest number of Ukrainian refugees, and many are choosing to stay instead of venturing to other European nations. 

Ukrainians now have the right to live, work, and access health care and education in Poland and other European Union countries. That’s thanks to the decision the EU made on March 3, 2022, exactly one week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, to invoke what’s called the Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainian citizens. The measure was created in 2001, in the wake of the wars in Yugoslavia, when European officials realized they needed a legal framework to provide immediate but temporary protection to a large group of people fleeing a conflict. 

Despite numerous refugee crises in recent years that strained the asylum systems of European countries, the European Union didn’t use the directive until Russia began launching missile and rocket attacks in cities across Ukraine, sending millions of people fleeing for their lives toward EU member states. 

The mechanism was only meant to last a year. Many officials hoped that the war would be short-lived. 

Still, when Poland’s government codified the directive into national law, it gave Ukrainians the right to remain in the country for up to 18 months, providing an extra six-month buffer for those who would choose to stay longer. Now both the European Union and Poland will have to extend their directives as the war drags on. 

Ukrainians say they feel closer to home in Poland, not just because of the geographic proximity but because the culture, language, and historical memory are similar. Ukrainians who had recently spent time in Western Europe told National Journal the war felt very far away. People just didn’t get it. But in Poland, where the memory of destruction during World War II air raids is still fresh, people know they could easily be in the shoes of any Ukrainian. The solidarity is palpable. 

“I decided to stay in Poland because of the emotional support from the people here,” said Diana Karpenko, a 34-year-old widowed mother of three from Kyiv. “They understand us. I’ve had quite a few moments when I wanted to cry, but I looked around, and there were Ukrainian flags or stickers everywhere. You feel the support everywhere.”

Woman stands in front of building
Diana Karpenko, a widowed mother of three from Kyiv who is now living in Warsaw with her children

‘The government doesn’t have money for that’

espite the warm welcome, the influx of at least 1.4 million new residents hasn’t been easy for Ukrainians or their Polish hosts, either emotionally or financially. 

Registering for a Pesel number, the Polish equivalent of a social-security number, took months for many people. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which beefed up its presence in Poland after February, gave registered families emergency cash assistance for three months while they waited to receive their Pesel numbers. An applicant would receive 700 zloty (roughly $140) each month, and then 600 zloty ($120) more for each additional member of their family. 

After three months, however, only the most vulnerable people could continue to receive cash assistance, such as the disabled or chronically ill. Getting a Pesel number before those three months became urgent for many families. 

“Our job is to provide support to the government. We’re not working here in parallel,” said Tarik Argaz, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Warsaw. 

Karpenko opted to drive to a nearby village to register for her Pesel because the wait times in Warsaw were so long. When she eventually received her number, the government gave her a one-time payment of 300 zloty, or roughly $60. As a single mother, she is entitled to 500 zloty ($100) per month per child, the same amount that Polish families on social welfare receive. 

“There isn’t financial support like in wealthier countries like Germany,” she said. “The government doesn’t have money for that.”

In May, the European Commission gave Poland €144.6 million (roughly $140.3 million) from the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund to help Ukrainian refugees. Around a month later, the Council of Europe Development Bank also provided a record €450 million loan to Poland. 

Pawel Kaczmarczyk, an economist at the Center of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw, noted there is a lack of information about how much money the European Union is giving Poland to help with the refugee crisis. Brussels has been at loggerheads with Warsaw for years over the ruling party’s crackdown on judicial independence and has been withholding some funding from the government. 

“We lack precise data,” Kaczmarczyk said.

Two men walking with Ukrainian flags
Two men wave Ukrainian flags near Warsaw’s main train station.

Meanwhile, the support the Polish government gave host families was minimal. Many Poles decided that it wasn’t worth navigating the bureaucratic red tape just to receive 40 zloty per day per refugee, roughly $8 a day per person. Polish families only receive that assistance if they agree to cover the cost of food and utilities in addition to housing, and the aid is only available for three months. With prices skyrocketing due to inflation, government assistance barely made a dent. Many decided to give their homes to Ukrainians for free or to crowdsource financial assistance on social media. 

Petrykowska was one of the estimated 2.6 million Poles who opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees after the start of the war in February. She was running her own law firm at the time while simultaneously completing a Ph.D. But as soon as refugees began pouring over the border, she put everything on pause. Within a few days, she was hosting a Ukrainian woman who had traveled to Poland with her mother and small child. 

She also spent most of her time on the phone and social media, arranging accommodation for refugees and doing other volunteer work. A local nonprofit that sprung up in response to the refugee crisis brought her onto its supervisory board. 

She was getting phone calls from dozens of refugees daily and doing her best to help everyone. The situation began to take a toll on her mental health. Eventually, she told her husband she might need to start seeing a psychologist.

“I was so mentally and emotionally engaged with the crisis. I wasn’t able to think about anything else at the time,” she said. “But I’m not special. People were cooking food and driving to the border. Everyone was helping in some way.” 

Bracing for a cold winter

As the weather in Eastern Europe begins to grow colder, Poles are bracing themselves for another influx of refugees. 

Many of the Ukrainians in Poland say that they would like to go home when the war is over. But in the face of significant battlefield losses, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his attacks on Ukrainian cities and appears to be deliberately targeting critical infrastructure ahead of a harsh winter. For many, going home doesn’t feel like an option yet. They are planning their lives one month at a time. 

“We all hope we won’t have to stay here for 18 months, and we can all simply go home,” said Katya, a 36-year-old mother of two from Kyiv who asked to be identified by her first name only. “People think Ukrainians dream of going to Europe. But all my friends want to go home. I never wanted to leave. I want to travel, but I want to live in my Kyiv. We’re grateful for the support, but we want to go home.”

Kids' drawings on a wall
Drawings by Ukrainian children hang in a UNHCR registration center in Warsaw.

Meanwhile, inflation in Poland is hovering at around 16 percent, one of the highest rates in the European Union. Petrykowska says that if more refugees arrive, she will put as much effort into helping them as she did in February. But she’s not sure if all of Polish society will be able to do the same. Local governments and nonprofits have taken over much of the responsibility that private individuals took on at first. But they still need support from Polish society to make millions of newcomers welcome. 

“I believe in Poles. We are good people,” Petrykowska said. “But some people might be tired and struggling. We’ve had huge inflation. People are really struggling. I don’t know if people will have the capacity.”

This article originally appeared in the National Journal on October 18, 2022. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Washington, DC.