Local councillor headed straight to Krakow to help the refugees

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The effects of the war have filled our screens and our conversations; Rachael Rowe has spoken to one local councillor who went straight to a refugee point in Krakow.

“Krakow is just one of many onward ‘safe’ points from the Ukraine border. I have spoken to too many Polish people today torn by this war. Young staff at our lodgings and in the cafes who have said goodbye to young
Ukrainian men who have gone home to fight. People who have Russian friends who have been hissed and spat at. This current generation in Poland was not expecting to see this.”

Rachel McNamara on right, with former colleague Mike Miles as they arrive in Krakow

The recent events in Ukraine have shocked and appalled people across the world. However, local resident and chair of Shillingstone Parish Council, Rachel McNamara, could not stand by and do nothing. She packed a bag and travelled to Krakow with an ex- colleague from British Airways to roll up her sleeves and help. When I contacted Rachel, I was curious why she decided to go to what is the edge of a war zone, and whether it was part of a charity or NGO.
“We both felt sure there must be something we could do. We’d heard the visa application process was awful and thought we could just get stuck in. We are both ex-BA cabin crew with access to cheap flights, and just
years of experience travelling to strange and sometimes hostile environments. “We, like others we met yesterday and today, are independent. There are lots of ex-cabin crew that we have met here. There are
a couple of charities here, but I’d say [there’s] as many people like us who just decided to pack a bag and try and help.”

Refugees in Krakow
What were your first impressions of the impact of refugees on the city of Krakow? “It’s strange. Initially, we couldn’t find them, and life in this affluent city looked unaffected. But then our instincts took us to the railway station. Suddenly, the contrast from ‘life as normal’ to the refugee centre in the middle
of a brand new train/shopping mall was striking. “Every day two trains arrive from the Ukrainian border. Refugees are cared for by loving volunteers with some basic financial support from the Polish government
(about £6 per day). Some prefer to stay. Feeling far enough away to dodge the bombing but close enough to feel connected with their loved ones fighting or unable to escape. Hundreds of thousands are processed to
Germany, Sweden, the USA and many other countries. They are hungry, without papers, with uncertain futures. “I came here with friends to help, and we are astonished by what we can do. We thought we might
not be needed or welcome.”

Rachel McNamara, left, peeling apples in the refugee centre

Peeling fruit
So how was your offer of support received, and what sort of things have you been doing? “Open arms! There is a volunteer process and registration with the police, but it is also possible to just dive in and start peeling fruit. This morning that’s what I did. Mike went shopping with another volunteer for sanitary essentials and spent about £200 of his own money. He came back, helped give out the essentials and then
helped with lunch.” Rachel also described how refugees were helping each other in Krakow. “Refugees are getting involved themselves. Some refugees are not looking to go any further. They have left friends and family behind and want to be far enough away to be safe but close enough to feel they haven’t left properly.
These refugees are starting to help the new refugees arriving. They work alongside us with food provision. Most importantly, some of the younger ones have multilingual skills in Polish, Ukrainian and English translation. Last night, we learnt from locals who are fearful for their own loved ones. Many Ukrainians lived
in Krakow and went ‘home’ to fight. There is also some fear that the war will spread here.”

Rachel’s friend Mike Miles stocking up on sanitary essentials for the refugees – he spent about £200 of his own money

How can readers help?
It is important to know that there is still so much to do and help with. The visa application process
takes about two and a half hours. Help is needed to do that with each applicant. Volunteers are also ladling
soup, giving drinks, sorting accommodation, finding funds for onward transport etc. I think sometimes we think that ‘someone else is dealing with it’. We had initially considered going to the border, but we were genuinely concerned that we should not take up required accommodation. Equally here we have chosen accommodation with plenty of availability. Many volunteers are in hostels. “There have been conflicting
reports about what is needed. I think this is because what is required in Ukraine, on the border and here at a secondary refugee point are different.
So here, less medical supplies are needed but more daily sanitary essentials, reading glasses, paper/plastic food dispensing stuff like plates, bowls, cups, cutlery … There is a supply here, so volunteers go and buy it
each day. There are volunteers in Poland that money can be passed directly to in order to buy supplies.
“Register to be a sponsor on ‘homes for families’ here https://www.gov.uk/register-interest-homes-ukrain .
Then email me on rachel@shillingstone-pc.gov.uk , and I will connect them with the volunteers who are matching individuals and families here to the requirements of sponsors in the UK.”

by Rachael Rowe

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