My latest tour in the field with A Drop in the Ocean* here in Krakow is coming to an end. Some reflections:

The free shop

Sfaza Dobra = ‘the good cupboard’

Back in spring, when the Russian war on Ukraine first began, the free shop was in a large, abandoned shopping mall, with more than 100 volunteers and up to 1300 beneficiaries coming through in a day. It was not meant to be a social space, yet many lingered. The play area always seemed full, with kids running around. A bustling beehive of activity and sound.

It is quieter now. The shop had to move, and is now in different locations, all tiny in comparison to the Ikea-size warehouse. Several small spaces with very little storage space come with a completely different set of logistical challenges. We shuttle boxes of clothes, shoes, baby strollers, car seats and other donations back and forth in a huge, unwieldy van. No small feat, Krakow traffic is insane. Luckily, the logistics coordinator does most of the shuttling. Currently a cheerful Roman named Francesca has that job. After all, if you’re used to driving in Rome, you can drive anywhere.

Otherwise, it is a smoothly run operation: queues tend to form outside the door an hour before opening. Since the space is small, max 30 are let in at a time. 130–140 stop by daily. Shopping is restricted to once monthly, and only for oneself. If you’re shopping for others (limited to children and elderly), you must provide documentation. There is also a maximum number of items allowed per person.

Winter is coming

In addition to the logistics coordinator, the team comprises a volunteer coordinator (currently Aaron from California) and a site coordinator (Michalina from Poland). Every morning, the various roles are filled. Lots of bases need to be covered: registering and checking passports, counting items at check-out, sorting, restocking, and helping beneficiaries on the shop floor. Minimum 5 volunteers at a time, often more.

45 minutes of shopping, then 15 minutes before the next group comes through the door. 15 minutes to put everything back where it belongs, refill the racks, and collecting empty hangers, each one evidence that someone found something they needed. Also, again, appreciation for those that work in retail. This is hard work. On the plus side, less time for thoughts running amok.

Warm clothes and shoes are needed

Other projects

Another Drop project here in Krakow is English classes: 2 levels with structured lessons. Yesterday, we covered adjectives. The other day, teacher Sherin (from Colorado) brought makings for pasta salad, fruit salad and no-bake cookies. Great way for everyone to forget their shyness and get the conversation going. Working together.

Additionally, Drop volunteers help with food and hygiene article distribution in yet another location. I spent Tuesday there with Cindy (from Missouri), putting together food bags whilst chatting with friendly Ukrainian volunteers. No common language, but hand gestures, facial expressions and body language did the job. That, and lots of laughter and cups of tea. Also, I’m pretty sure everyone now knows the lyrics to Jolene.

Current status in Poland

Here in Poland, Ukrainians have been (and still are) treated differently from other refugees. No documents are needed. As soon as you cross the border, you can stay for 18 months, accommodation and transport provided, with the same access to services as locals: health care, education, job market, social services.

However, things are changing. As of February, a new law will require those who stay longer than 120 days to cover half their accommodation, capped at 40 PLN (8.5 EUR) per day. Further tightening comes later in ‘23.

Home is where the heart is

Fewer are fleeing Ukraine, many are returning. As of this week, 7.4 million Ukrainians have crossed into Poland since the war began. About 4 million have crossed the other way.

I am reminded of the Syrian refugees I spoke with in Greece six years ago, all in an interminable limbo, waiting to have their asylum applications approved by a European country. When I asked which country was top of their wish list, they all said: Syria! Syria without war! We would do well to remember that refugees want to be home, just like the rest of us.

And I suppose you can get used to everything, can’t you? Including living in a war zone? Say your home is in Eastern Luhansk (where the fiercest battles have been happening this week). Russian roulette seems a particularly apt metaphor. 1 out of 6 bullets. 16.7%. What is the risk of you or someone in your family getting in the way of a bullet today? About the same? What about the risk of your home being struck by a bomb? I’ll not even get into the more ‘minor’ challenges, like the consequences of power outages caused by Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure.

What else?

On a lighter note, I found the perfect place to stay. A flat, with a kitchen even (though I’ve only cooked once: carbonara – good for one dinner and two breakfasts).

The flat is on the main square, about 100 metres from St Mary’ Church, where a bugler plays a traditional Polish 5-note tune every hour on the hour from top of the tower, as they have done for 700 years. The bugler stops mid-tune, in memory of the trumpeter who was shot through the throat while warning the city of the Mongol attack in the 13th century.

I like to sleep with windows open, so the bugler has woken me up every morning – and sometimes in the middle of the night. Oddly cosy and comforting.

Everything is outside the front door. The girls in the store next door smile and wave when I walk past. The waiters opening the Italian restaurant just outside, call out ‘Dzien dobry, Sofiya’. So do the staff at Starbucks across the square where I go to get some writing done after work (because reliable wifi, power and other living beings). They begin making my order as I walk in the door (mocha frappuccino, no whipped cream or other gunk).

Beginning to feel like home

*Interested in hearing more about field work in Krakow? I’m working with A Drop in the Ocean. Every drop counts!