11 April 2022, The Tablet

Volunteering to help refugees on the border between Poland and Ukraine

A Tesco supermarket has been turned into a humanitarian centre.

Volunteering to help refugees on the border between Poland and Ukraine

Tesco humanitarian centre
James Rogerson

Arriving at my accommodation was one of the first of many surprises. We walked through a metal door to a half finished building. We went up five flights of stairs to a bare room with a single lightbulb. The ceiling is insulation foam, the floor cement covered with paper. A fine layer of dust covers everything. One of the girls says: “Welcome to the penthouse.”

There are several of us here sleeping in sleeping bags on camping mats. 

I am here working for Love Bristol, a church and community organisation from Bristol. There seem to be about six people working here, all of them volunteers. People are encouraged to “come for at least a week”. The group is ever changing as people leave and arrive. 

Our main role is to match refugees with sponsors in the UK, process their visa applications and then give them temporary accommodation while they wait for a decision to be made. There are around 160 people in accommodation waiting for their visas. For some it takes a few days but most have been waiting for between two and three weeks. 

At 6.45 the next morning, I was up and ready to be collected by Steve who had picked me up from the airport. He had come here, hired a car and was helping out wherever possible. In the humanitarian centre at Tesco in Przemsyl, there were lots of camp beds with bedding but no pillows. 

“I drove to a store and bought a hundred new pillows.” I am aware of how frequently I come across these acts of kindness here.

Inspired by Steve, I decided it would be helpful to hire a car to drive refugees and supplies to temporary homes. He was now flying back from Krakow to England and was able to drop me off.

The land here is flat. Grey, brown fields dotted with bare birch trees and small farmsteads. Nearing the airport Steve pointed out the heavy military presence. There were rows of Patriot missiles lined up like oversized wardrobes leaning at angles on the back of low lorries. This is NATO’s potential front line with Russia. 

In the middle of a business park on a main road on the way into Przemsyl from the border, a Tesco supermarket has been turned into a humanitarian centre. There are members of the Polish emergency services but no army here. Around the car park are mobile buildings with showers, rows of outside loos and orange field tents for medical care. There is also a tent for registration. 

To register to be a driver or volunteer we have to give passport details, take a Covid-19 test on site and are given a wristband in return. Other volunteers tell me the importance of this. 

There have been stories of traffickers coming here trying to lure away newly arrived refugees. There are signs around the centre saying: “Trust only registered drivers.”

There are several food stalls. The main provider is called World Food Kitchen. They are providing free food: cheese and salami rolls and chocolate muffins. A group of young priests are laughing and eating and drinking coffee out of foam cups. One says he is Father Alejandro is from Mexico.

There is also a pizza lorry from Italy creating hundreds of free Margharita pizzas everyday. 

It’s quiet and there’s a peaceful atmosphere that doesn’t give much hint to what is really going on. A group of girls wander about laughing with each other. I notice a mother with three children. Again I’m surprised, this time by how many of them have no bags, no luggage. 

Yet Rachel, who is part of the team, says to me things will change in the next few days. 

“The people managing the centre want us to get through our backlog of those seeking homes in the UK because they’re expecting 500 new refugees in the next two days.” Many of these are expected from the east where Russia is expected to make renewed attacks.

What do you think?


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User comments (1)

Comment by: Peter Swiecicki
Posted: 18/04/2022 15:16:40
James Rogerson has caught the essence of the commitment of the volunteers working for Love Bristol, one of the many faith-based and non-faith-based groups working tirelessly to bring hope to the thousands of refugees that continue to stream into Poland. Bless the refugees and bless the volunteers for their work! And continue to ask the Home Office to streamline the application process for Homes for Ukraine so that mothers with visas are not stuck in Poland while the visa process for their children remains delayed.
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