Poland is struggling under the weight of Ukraine’s refugee crisis

WYSZATYCE, Poland – Anna Wislocka is the kind of person who hates to see a guest go hungry. As soon as someone sits down at her wooden kitchen table, she whips out her specialty coffee – with a splash of cinnamon – and a plate of cookies.

It was this impulse that made Wislocka, a grocery store lady, open her home, a bright pink five-bedroom house with liberal indoor wood paneling, for several families of Ukrainians: Iryna Morykvas and Oksana Khymych and their three children.

“I can not imagine not helping Iryna and Oksana,” said Wislocka, 55, in Polish, laying her hands on her heart as she sat in her sunny kitchen in Wyszatyce, a quiet village a few kilometers from the Ukrainian border. “It’s natural for me to react this way.”

Wislocka, whose broad face easily folds with laughter, is one of thousands of Poles who have shown kindness to Ukrainians fleeing the war next door. Poland, a country of 38 million people, has already received nearly 2.6 million Ukrainian refugees, or 60 percent of the total emigration since the Russian invasion began in late February, according to the UN.

Many Poles have welcomed Ukrainian families into their homes, collected donations and volunteered to help the refugees. Despite the millions of individual examples of generosity towards fleeing Ukrainians, concerns are growing that Poland will not be able to withstand this level of migration.

When NBC News visited Wyszatyce last month, Ukrainians said they felt at home in Wislocka’s house – cooking and eating with their host, her husband and her daughter.

“I sometimes feel bad that they are sacrificing their comfort for us,” said Morykvas, 36, in Ukrainian.

Morykvas, a children’s book illustrator, escaped Lviv, a Ukrainian border town 50 miles east of Wyszatyce, along with his 10-year-old son, Matvii, last month. They came to Poland with Oksana Khymych, their neighbor, and her children, Danyil, 8, and Anna, 3.

Anna Wislocka, 55, was hosting six refugees when NBC News visited her home in March.Jacobia Dahm to NBC News

Khymych, 35, showed a reporter around her room on the second floor of Wislocka’s house, which she shares with her two children. It’s right next to the one Morykvas shares with his son.

It has everything you need, Khymych said – a TV, a comfortable bed and even a balcony.

“We ended up with really good people,” said Khymych, an associate professor of economics at Lviv Polytechnic National University, in Ukrainian.

Tomasz Szeleszczuk, a district official in charge of nine villages, including Wyszatyce, said he was proud that his villagers had welcomed Ukrainians.

“Right now we can help them,” said Szeleszczuk, 43.

But if many more come, society will need more help from the Polish authorities, he said. Szeleszczuk said he was concerned about the effects the refugee crisis could have on health care and on the economy across the country.

“It’s a challenge for the whole system,” he said.

The Polish village of Wyszatyce is located just a few kilometers from the border with Ukraine. Jacobia Dahm to NBC News

The flow of Ukrainian refugees to Poland has slowed in recent weeks – 28,908 came in on April 9 compared to almost 141,000 at the peak on March 6, according to the UN. But many more can come if hostilities in Ukraine escalate.

Speaking with President Joe Biden during his visit to Poland last month, Polish President Andrzej Duda warned that if Russian aggression continues, the number of refugees will continue to grow, posing a “major challenge” for Poland. .

A common story

While the exodus has been traumatic for the millions of Ukrainians forced from their homes by Russian threats, bullets and bombs, close cultural and historical ties with Poland have made the landing easier for many.

The countries shared periods of both peaceful coexistence and rivalry, said Piotr Kroll, a historian at the University of Warsaw.

Iryna Morykvas is a children’s book illustrator.Jacobia Dahm to NBC News

In the 19th century, Ukraine and Poland were under Russian and Austro-Hungarian rule, Kroll said. But both nations were striving for independence, he added, leading to conflict as they both claimed the same land, seeing it as part of their state.

“In the 20th century, the Poles made these dreams come true, and part of the Ukrainian lands became part of the Polish state,” Kroll said.

Poland has accused Ukrainian nationalists of ethnic cleansing Poles during World War II, and in recent years Warsaw has demanded that Kiev take responsibility for 20th-century massacres.

That story has remained an emotional and divisive issue, but after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, many in Poland have put aside historical disagreements, says Iwona Bobko, museum inspector and historian in Przemysl, a border town where many Ukrainian refugees travel.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to see both nations support each other and leave behind the painful past,” Bobko said.

Anti-immigration rhetoric

Poland’s response to the refugee crisis is all the more remarkable because its right-wing leaders had previously openly opposed immigration when immigrants came from a different part of the world and from different ethnicities.

The ruling Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, thanks in part to its fierce anti-migrant rhetoric as Europe faced a crisis for refugees from the Middle East following the war in Syria.

Last year, the Polish government was criticized for its treatment of refugees, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan, on the border with Belarus, and pushed them back with water cannons and tear gas.

But the Polish ruling elite changed tune when it came to Ukrainians.

Duda said last month that Ukrainians fleeing the war were not “refugees” but “our guests, our brothers, our neighbors from Ukraine, who are in a very difficult situation today.”

“We ended up with really good people,” said Oksana Khymych, an associate professor of economics at Lviv Polytechnic National University, about Anna Wislocka and her family.Jacobia Dahm to NBC News

Partly reflecting fears of Russian aggression and attempts at dominance, the Polish parliament passed legislation on March 12 to help Ukrainians arrive in the country by giving them the right to stay in Poland for 18 months and gain access to the country’s labor market, health care system, social services and education.

A spokesman for the Polish government said in an email last month that Poland must show solidarity with its Ukrainian neighbors “at every level.”

Poland has been preparing for weeks to accept Ukrainians, and since the war broke out, the country has opened all border crossings to its eastern neighbors, the spokesman said.

Too much to handle?

But some Polish mayors have already sounded the alarm that their cities have been overwhelmed, and residents of Rzeszów, close to the border, also said they were concerned.

Anna Slabosz worked in a paper kiosk in the Hala Targowa shopping center in the city center, saying she feels “misery and despair” when she sees Ukrainian mothers and children arriving in her city, but she is also worried that Poland’s government debt is rising, as the country spends millions on helping Ukrainian refugees.

“I think this will affect us, the Polish nation, negatively,” said Slabosz, 61.

She is also concerned about the strain on health care.

“We know very well what our health care system is like,” Slabosz said. “It can not handle us, the Polish people, so what about these extra refugees?”

Volunteers handing out free food to Ukrainians who arrived at Rzeszów Central Station also wondered how long the effort could continue.

Rzeszów is the largest city in southeastern Poland with close to 200,000 inhabitants. Jacobia Dahm to NBC News

Katarzyna Dybas broke down in tears, talking about residents handing over food and supplies to the refugees and the emotional strain it takes on everyone.

“The refugees are crying and we are crying,” said Dybas, 34.

Her volunteer, Magdalena Rokita, was concerned that the city was already running out of housing to accommodate the newcomers.

“At some point, such a situation could upset the balance of the region,” said Rokita, 58. “This balloon will eventually burst.”

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