WARSAW — Just weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 300,000 refugees have sought safety in the Polish capital, a city of roughly 1.8 million.
“In 2015, we had 300,000 to 400,000 people coming into Europe every month. We just had 300,000 people come into Warsaw in three weeks,” Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said in an interview. “We want to take everyone who needs help, but how many kids can we take into schools? How can we do everything we can so the health system doesn’t break down in our city?”
Nearly all the initial Ukrainian arrivals planned on staying with family or friends, Trzaskowski said. That eased the pressure on the city to find places for everyone to sleep. But as refugees continue to arrive, fewer are staying in private homes. Instead, they sleep in one of what the mayor said are 30 refugee centers in the city. Some are nearing or at capacity.
The centers are often organized to house people for a few nights. Some people at Warsaw’s Torwar Hall, which had filled 418 of its 500 beds as of Friday, have had nowhere else to go for more than a week.
Inna Rowanyshyn has been in the repurposed concert hall since March 9. Although she has had all the food, water and blankets she needs, the 22-year-old said she was ready to get out.
“I found a way to France because just so many Ukrainians are in Warsaw,” she said as she sat in the makeshift dining hall. After an online search, she connected with a Parisian couple who agreed to take her in, along with her boyfriend.
“These people can’t stay in sleeping halls for six months. That’s not a good situation for them, or their children, psychologically speaking,” said Dominika Pszczolkowska, a migration researcher at the University of Warsaw.
Although the mayor said he can open more centers, staffing them and providing food and medical care means finding more people willing to offer their time. Many volunteers have taken off work for weeks to help with refugee efforts, which the mayor noted isn’t sustainable.
As more refugees search for accommodations in the city, Trzaskowski worries that conditions in the centers will worsen, creating opportunities for covid and other diseases to spread. Medical care could also suffer, hurting the immediate needs of Ukrainians and the long-term needs of Warsaw’s residents.
Backlogs at city hospitals because of the coronavirus pandemic were just starting to ease when the Ukraine war erupted, he said. Ukrainians who need to be seen right away will be prioritized, Trzaskowski said, and he worries that people who have been waiting for months for some medical procedures will have to wait longer.
The flood of arrivals is also taking a toll on psychological care. The city administration has redirected all of Warsaw’s child psychologists to tend to Ukrainians, who are suffering emotionally after enduring explosions, fleeing their homes and leaving loved ones behind. The city is trying to identify Ukrainian refugees who can help provide such care.
“I can deprive [those children] of psychologists for two to three weeks, but I cannot do it for months,” Trzaskowski said.
One of the biggest challenges is registering the hundreds of thousands of newcomers for the Polish equivalent of Social Security numbers, called PESEL. The sooner Ukrainians get their PESEL numbers, Pszczolkowska said, the sooner they can start trying to rebuild their lives.
“I’m really scared it will take a really long time,” she said. “It’s going to be a huge bottleneck as several hundred thousand people stand in queues to get this number.”
An hour before a Warsaw PESEL center opened Wednesday, the first day Ukrainians could receive a number, dozens of people were lined up outside in the cold. Many would wait until sunset, only to be turned away, and then come back Thursday.
While newcomers have 60 days to get a number, according to Polish law, Anya Radchuk had been in a rush. After waiting nine hours Wednesday, she had gotten a number, allowing her to be hired, and was soon off to a series of job interviews. She said she hopes to send her wages to her husband and father, who are fighting in Kyiv. Others in line were waiting with their children, who are trying to get into school as soon as they can.
About half of the nearly 2 million refugees who have come to Poland are children. Warsaw is enrolling 1,000 students a day from Ukraine, and the city is trying to hire teachers who speak Ukrainian and Russian to support the new students.
As Warsaw bears the strains, experts say they are concerned that Polish attitudes toward Ukrainians could sour. In recent years, anti-immigrant political parties in Poland stirred public fears over refugees from the Middle East.
“I am afraid after this huge outpouring of support, there may be a sense of ‘We’re tired of this,’” Pszczolkowska said. “This huge wave of positivity will die down. People will be exhausted from helping and having people in their homes. The question is, what happens then?”
The mayor said he needs support from the European Union and other countries. He urged that the Ukrainians be relocated throughout Europe and that money be distributed directly to refugees, NGOs and local governments.
Otherwise, Trzaskowski said, his city and the refugees who have sought safety there face an uncertain future.
Julia Alekseeva contributed to this report.