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How I Turned My Office Into a Ukraine Refugee Shelter

When war broke out in Ukraine last month, I couldn't really believe it. Some people have said they saw it coming, but I didn't. (Maybe I was focused too much on conference preparations — or something as ordinary as deadlines and other project management work, which is kind of my daily routine.) In the news, there has been a lot of information about thousands of people driving or walking to Poland to seek shelter. One day, after Russia’s attack, the internet was flooded with pictures of crowded borders, train stations, receptions and registration points. That was the time when we knew the crisis would take longer than a few days, and the whole country of Poland is going to be involved.

Since I run a skydiving center — a season-related operation — I knew we had some offices that are currently empty and unused. We decided to transform areas that we have into rooms for Ukraine refugees. A lot of volunteers showed up out of nowhere (we announced the decision on social media) and they helped us set everything up: four rooms for up to 15 people were ready to welcome the first wave of refugees.

News from the border was horrible — tens of thousands of people waiting long hours, or days, to cross. Private cars and private buses were driving them to private houses and companies that had transformed to shelters, like ours. It was and still is a gigantic effort of the whole society, with very limited official help from local offices and literally zero help from the government.

Since most Ukrainian people wished to stay as close to its border as possible, we had to wait one more day until we actually hosted our first refugee family, a mother with five children. That same day we welcomed another family: two sisters, each with three children. With just two families in our space, we had half of our capacity taken, so it became obvious that we needed to try and make more rooms.

Within just three days — after tremendous effort from volunteers — we were able to renovate 10 more rooms. Instead of 15 refugees, we could now accommodate up to 70 people. We finished working just in time, because more families started to come to our dropzone looking for a shelter. At the time of this writing, after three weeks of operating, I can say that we have a fully functioning place with rotating guests. Some stay for a few days and drive to Germany or other Western countries; some leave because we find them a long-term accommodations. New families come in every single day to take beds and rooms that have just been vacated by others.

Usually, the refugees come to us very tired and silent. Children are often sick because of the long time spent outside, waiting to cross the border. For the first day or two, they stay in their rooms, resting. All they need is a Wi-Fi password to be able to update men (husbands, dads, brothers) still in Ukraine to share that they arrived safely to a place they can stay as long as they need. Some people need to be alone; others need to get involved and contribute to our shelter’s operations. They want to cook, clean, make beds for newcomers, and prepare food and clothes for those who leave. Everyone is coping in their own way.

I'm really proud of how Polish society has reacted to this massive refugee crisis. Poland is known for its hospitality. Now, we face a situation like never before — the country has needed to welcome hundreds of thousands of people within the span of 7–10 days. The incredible effort of people willing to help any way they can is amazing. Some people are driving (their own cars) hundreds of kilometers to pick up one family and drive them to safety. Others are hosting refugees in their homes, literally moving one kid to another kid’s room, making space for strangers … just because they needed it. Still others are providing food, clothes, cosmetics, blankets and sheets, as well as organizing legal help, documents translation, medical emergency help and even activities for kids. Everything is done for free, just because it needs to be done. Everything that has been happening in Poland since this war started is horrible, but also — in a way — beautiful.

Yet, we need to remember we are facing a great threat. I don't know how this situation will evolve, and I won't pretend to be a geopolitical expert. All I know is that Ukraine is not defending only their independence and freedom. If Ukraine cannot stop the invasion, it will spread. They're really fighting for us, Europeans, as well. It might sound dramatic, but we should do everything we can to help them win.

Since "we" is a very big word, despite having only two letters, I prefer to focus on what “I” can do. Our small shelter has provided help for more than 240 people so far, and more are coming tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Others are leaving. This is the “new normal" and I really hope it'll be over soon, for everyone's sake.

For suggestions on ways to support humanitarian relief for Ukraine, click here.