When the Russian war on Ukraine began in earnest this round, I got in touch with A Drop in the Ocean*, to let them know I could help out for a week or so, with refugees arriving in neighbouring Poland if they needed an extra pair of hands. Turns out they did. I got a call from the head office on Wednesday two weeks ago, and could I go tomorrow?

Why yes. Yes, I could. And as luck would have it, last-minute flights to Krakow were available at a not-too-exorbitant cost.

The experience was quite different from my Drop work in Greece in 2016. Back then, at Camp Sounio, the volunteers were part of the community. I spent most of the day in the camp – being invited for food and tea in their temporary homes (so many cups of tea I lost count already on day 1). I taught English in the schoolhouse, we played football with the kids in the square, danced to Syrian music in the same square at night, we sorted and handed out clothes from IsoBoxes – all in the refugee camp. (Just realised I haven’t published my notes from those days; coming up. Camp Sounio notes are here.)

Krakow 2022

In Krakow, we work in a free shop, a large warehouse where refugees can come and collect the clothes they need. Much of the work goes on behind the scenes.

Once a shopping centre and IMAX cinema, now a temporary free shop

Impressions from my first two days of field work in the free shop in Krakow

While there, I shared some thoughts on SoMe:

Here in Krakow, we’re working in an abandoned shopping mall, turned into a gigantic warehouse for now – filled to the brim with clothes and shoes. Tonnes and tonnes (literally!) of donations, mostly from locals. So much in fact, sorting it all will take weeks, so there’s now a temporary stop to new donations.

The operation is run like an efficient, well-oiled machinery: from organising the queues, registering everyone, carrying boxes (so many boxes!), opening boxes, sorting clothes and shoes (first by item of clothing and woman/man/boy/girl, then by size/age of children), hanging it on racks, refilling the racks, helping people find what they need, etc. And… repeat.

From 10 am to 6pm, Ukrainian refugees can come here to ‘shop’ (for free). About 1000 do. Every day. (1110 yesterday). In addition, about 80 -100 volunteers work here each day. It’s a bit of a beehive. Working from home seems like another world.

Then there’s us foreigners. In addition to the many, many local Krakow volunteers, I’ve worked with people from Argentina, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, France, Iceland, the UK and the USA today. (Hope I haven’t forgotten anyone – it’s getting late).

A word on Poland: I am so very impressed with Polish generosity and hospitality. It is nothing short of extraordinary! Many companies let their employees have time off, some as often as one day a week, to work at the warehouse. Others come and work here every Saturday. School classes come and help. Poland is housing nearly 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees. 2.5 million!! Polish families invite strangers to stay in their homes. Several hotels in Krakow offer free stays for refugees. All that, and much more, from a country with a purchasing power parity about half of Norway’s!

Finally, a shout-out to Ikea for providing everything that is needed in a shop: clothes racks, clothes hangers, tables, chairs & toys for the children’s corner, signs – without any form of advertising (that’s an extra bonus in my view).

At the free shop, volunteers are divided into teams, all doing different jobs. I made a point of experiencing a variety of tasks.

Behind the scenes: the warehouse (a small part of it)

About half the volunteers work in the warehouse, and half on the shop floor.

The shop floor is then split into various teams. There’s the general re-stocking area and shoe sorting area –

Shoes out on the shop floor

– and there are various roles out in the shop amongst the beneficiaries: some are responsible for women’s clothes, some for men’s, children’s, accessories and underwear.

Additionally, one volunteer keeps the dressing rooms tidy, and four volunteers look after children. The thinking behind that, is that mum can leave the kids with the minders to get the shopping done quicker. Though, it doesn’t always work out like that. (The vast majority of the refugees who come here are women, as all men between 18 and 60 are left to fight in Ukraine.)

Fitting rooms and kiddie corner

The child minding duty is a different ball game altogether. Not much heavy lifting, but a lot of running around chasing overly excited little ones. You can count on getting your 10,000 steps in. Several times over.

The photos in this post are taken mostly before- and after-hours. As you can see, there aren’t (identifiable) people; written consent from each would be needed for that. But I reckon the pup won’t mind too much. And it serves as a reminder that pets are part of the family, even when you are forced to flee your country.

In addition to the warehouse and shop floor, there’s one person looking after the kitchen (i.e. us) where everyone takes coffee breaks and have lunch when there is time. (Nice, warm room, the kitchen. The rest is rather chilly, so it pays to keep busy.)

And then there’s the volunteers managing the queue outside and the ones registering everyone just inside the doors. The beneficiaries must show their passports with a stamp showing they have arrived in Poland after the war broke out.

The kitchen/break area

Why do we volunteer? There are possibly as many reasons as there are people. I’m motivated by unfairness. I’m also a bit restless by nature. So if I can put that to good use, doing something to make things a little less unfair, even if it’s just a drop, well then…

After hours

There is time to relax and spend time together (or alone). Volunteers take turns organising dinners out in Krakow. Here’s a group of us, having a well-deserved night out on my last day at the Free Shop.

More space here than in Insta stories, so from left to right: Paul and Morgan from San Francisco, Charlotte from England, Vincent from the Netherlands, Paulina from Ukraine, Nick from the US, Isar from France and Iceland, Marcus, Mari and myself from Norway.

The Free Shop in Krakow opened 11 March 2022. To mark one month of work here, lovely Charlotte here and other volunteers show us around.

*Dråpen i Havet (meaning A Drop in the Ocean) is a non-profit humanitarian organisation, working with displaced people. The organisation is Norwegian but has field workers from around the world. More info here about how to get involved – from donating money to working in the field