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Poland | Open Place Krakow: Aid and activities for refugees and migrants

Located in Krakow City is the Centre for Intercultural Integration – or Open Place Krakow as it is also known – a space used not least by many Ukrainian refugees hosted in southern Poland. The Polish civil society actors running the Centre are supported by DRC through funding from UNHCR, and it offers a multitude of services and activities. They range from yoga and karate training, language classes for adults, safe spaces for children, and other aid and support needed by refugees and asylum-seekers who are new to Poland.

Posted on 09 Nov 2023

Behind the glass, steel, and stone that makes up most of the office blocks and businesses in this street, is a space full of hospitality, diversity, and with support and services free of charge to people from all walks of life and of different ethnicities. What the visitors here have in common is that they are far from their home and country of origin and new to Poland - and with most of the visitors being refugees from neighbouring Ukraine.  

"We organise events and activities based on what people need and request for. This is often related to learning the Polish language and social gatherings where we offer a space to spend meaningful time or to meet other people in the same situation and with similar needs," tells Uliana Pavliuk  Coordinator of Open Place Krakow

Since the war in Ukraine escalated in February 2022, more than every third Ukrainian are believed to be displaced, with over seven million having crossed into neighbouring countries via borders in western Ukraine. Poland has registered over 1.6 million Ukrainian refugees since February 2022 and is currently hosting around one million registered refugees with the actual number likely being higher. In Krakow, Poland’s second largest city located in the southern part of the country and at relative proximity to Ukraine, every sixth citizen is currently said to be a person from Ukraine, tells the team at Open Space Krakow.  

"The right to seek asylum and to receive emergency aid and assistance is a human right. DRC and partners have an important role to play here in Poland when it comes to creating and facilitating spaces that are safe, inclusive, and offer the critical help and support needed by Ukrainians. We work closely with UNHCR and with the Polish civil society and duty-bearers to make this happen, and to help guide the response spearheaded by local organisations," says Helena Lassen, Country Director for DRC Poland, Moldova and Romania.  

Seven centres across Poland 

The community centre in Krakow – known as Open Place Krakow - is the most recent and one of seven across Poland. In partnership with UNHCR and jointly with 12 local NGOs, DRC is providing a range of support and expertise to ensure the delivery of inclusive protection services through the community centres as well as mobile outreach activities in six major urban areas in Poland. Today, a total of seven community centres are located across Poland with offers to refugees and asylum-seekers in Warsaw (2), Gdynia (1), Lublin (1), Rzeszow (1), Wroclaw (1), and Krakow (1).  

Poland has traditionally been a destination for economic migrants from Ukraine since the 1990s. Many of the refugees hosted here and in the wider region, have already been back to Ukraine during lulls in the fighting, to visit family and friends and take stock of the damages to their homes and possessions. 

Krakow with its proximity to the border to Ukraine has become ever relevant since the war broke out in 2022. Many of the refugees hosted here and in the wider region, have already been back to Ukraine during lulls in the fighting, to visit family and friends and take stock of the damages to their homes and possessions. 

Safety and a sense of normalcy in Krakow 

Olena* is originally from Sumy on the east of Ukraine, but lived in Kyiv when the war broke out. She regularly visits Open Place Krakow with her son who is seven years, and both make use of the offers to take part in activities. She is appreciating not least the peace of mind she finds here and the possibility to meet with other Ukrainians and take part in Polish language classes to help her get by in daily life.   

"We are here on our own. My husband is in the army and currently somewhere in the eastern part of Ukraine. We don’t know exactly where he is," tells Olena.   

Like for many Ukrainian women, vanity, she says, is a way to escape reality and constantly having to counter problems that are increasingly chaotic. Olena treasures her shiny red nails and looks at them while saying that they help her maintain some sanity and to treasure life.   

"We, as Ukrainian women are strong - and the recent time has taught us to appreciate and treasure every day, as we never know what is there for us tomorrow."   

Ukrainian-Polish ties 

"I feel safe here. There are no air alarms, and my son can go to school again. He needs conditions for a childhood that will be as normal as possible all things considered. We left Kyiv on 18 October 2022 when attacks on infrastructure cut off electricity supplies in wide parts of the country. It affected every aspect of life and made it hard to cope," Olena recalls. "The President encouraged Ukrainians to leave the country over the winter as it was predicted that it would become even more difficult times. And so, we decided to do so and go to Poland at least for some time." 

Before the full-scale war, Polish tourists were traveling to Lviv in Ukraine and vice versa, and the train connections for Ukrainians needed to leave the country in a hurry, were also an incentive to choose the location.  

"There are strong ties historically between Krakow in Poland and Lviv in Ukraine, and with the architecture being largely similar, it feels a little like home," explains Olena echoing the words of many others from both sides of the border.  

"At some point in time in the first months after the full-scale war broke out, there would be more people in the public transport here in Krakow who were speaking Ukrainian than Polish. They were welcomed and helped – and they still are – by their Polish neighbours," says Diana Ryznik from Zustricz, a Ukrainian founded and Ukrainian led organisation in Poland involved in the Open Place Krakow. 

Financial assistance and psychosocial support 

Open Place Krakow is also one of the sites to go to for people in need of emergency cash assistance from UNHCR, offered as regular financial assistance targeting people who are registered as refugees in the country. And once there, many are inspired to stay on and take classes or make use of some of the other activities. Trips have been organised for elderly people who are brought together for events at the centre and have been on sightseeing and other trips.     

Among the other visitors are two other women from Ukraine visiting with their children. Anna and Katarina are both from Kyiv, who got to know each other since they arrived in Poland.  

Anna and her husband had a private business in Ukraine before the war. Katarina is a psychologist with her own practice that she has continued online with Ukrainian clients based all around Europe and some still in Ukraine. 

"I heard about Open Place Krakow from a Telegram [digital platform used by many Ukrainians] group for Ukrainians in Krakow and decided to try it out. Now, I am here several times a week with my children and appreciate the opportunity to take part in language classes," says Anna.  

Difficult decisions 

Katarina left Ukraine with her four children at the first day of the war, travelled to Spain but went back home after six months. Her daughter has developed an anxiety disorder and needs treatment and to be away from Ukraine. Recently, Katarina has decided though to return home to Ukraine with the three youngest children and will leave her teenage daughter with trusted friends in Poland for as long as the war prevents them all from reuniting. 

While she can counsel and console others, she finds herself needing supervision and support. Some of that and the space to find peace of mind is what she finds at the Open Place Krakow, she says.     

"Here is a warm atmosphere, kind people, the teachers are good and very patient. We can go for walks in nearby areas that are green and beautiful. It all helps a little bit for now, but we need to go home."  

Katarina is convinced of her decision and planning to return soon, before the winter sets in.  

"It is saddening what is taking place in my country, and I am so grateful for the support of the Polish people. But I am also proud to be Ukrainian. And I realise that now - more than ever - and see how we have a very strong identity and sense of belonging. We must try to reestablish ourselves as a family - and our life is there, in Ukraine." 

*Name changed to protect the identity of the person interviewed  

 

DRC and partners’ support at the Open Place Krakow is made possible through contributions from UNHCR.   

Open Place Krakow - a safe space for refugees and migrants

Open Place is an opportunity for people of different ages, genders and nationalities to meet and spend meaningful leisure time or get critical support and advice. Open Place offers legal advice, psychological support, language classes and new knowledge.

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The DRC and UNHCR supported centre in Krakow also offers safe spaces for children as well as regular sport events for both children and teenagers. Open Place Krakow is open to everyone, and all activities and services are free of charge.

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