Oksana is a Ukrainian refugee, working at the clothing distribution center in Szczecin, Poland. Volunteering has given Oksana a wide network and a sense of meaning in a difficult situation. Refugees coming into the center receive clothes and other necessities but also exchange information and talk with each other. The center has become a community of sorts, where everyone wants to help each other.

On the 23rd of February 2022 Oksana packed her swimming suit and flew from Kiev to Egypt to spend her holiday in the sun. She could never have imagined then that six months later she would still not have returned home. On the 24th of February the armed conflict started in Ukraine and Oksana’s holiday turned into a nightmare.

Oksana comes from Kiev where she worked in administration management at a big company. She is now in Poland with her daughter who joined her in June, but the rest of her family is still in Ukraine.

Travelling to Poland

Being far from her family when the conflict broke out was difficult. Oksana’s only consolation was to stay in close contact with everyone back in Ukraine, to make sure that they were okay. She could not get a plane ticket back to Ukraine, but after some time the Egyptian government organized for Ukrainians to get on a flight to Europe, to Szczecin in Poland – a place Oksana did not know from before. When she arrived, she was taken to a hotel where she stayed until she was moved to permanent housing. She used the time at the hotel to start getting to know the town and her new surroundings.

For five days we were at the hotel. And during this time, we started to search everything about the city, about the situation, because at first, we don’t know what to do, what to think and what the next steps will be for us.

At the start of the conflict, Oksana’s husband was in the occupied territory of Irpin and they had managed to stay in regular contact. However, on the 5th of March, just when she flew out of Egypt, she lost contact with him. She was very worried because she knew that the conditions were hard in Irpin.

Photo credit: Brynja Dögg Friðriksdóttir / IFRC

Volunteering to deal with stress and uncertainty

Oksana’s anxiety levels were running very high. It was only when she reached out to the Polish Red Cross and found the clothing distribution center, that she felt useful, and it helped to keep the anxieties in check. During the first month she worked every day, without days off from 8am to 7pm. From May she started working 3 days a week.

At the distribution center they give out clothes and other necessary products. All the refugees have travelled with little luggage and need many things, especially when seasons change. Oksana herself arrived in Poland in the winter equipped only with her summer clothes.

Many people coming to Szczecin … had never before traveled outside of Ukraine. But here they find themselves all in the same situation, traveling with only one suitcase.

Through donations from Poland and other European countries the refugees get clothes, groceries, and hygiene supplies. But the center has also become a hub where the refugees come together to talk and to exchange information and to help each other. It has become a community of sorts. Oksana gets a lot of questions from people who don’t know the language and she is happy to help them. Through her work she has developed a network and knowledge that she is happy to share with people in the same situation as her.

We share all the information that we have and that we can share with each other. There are a lot of questions now, a lot of people don’t know the language but, in this situation, we want to help everyone, and everyone want to help each other.

Oksana says that Ukrainian refugees have a strong need to talk to each other. It gives them strength to deal with their fear and their stress. Everyone is monitoring the news and are in contact with their loved ones back at home. It gives a sense of belonging getting together and to talk.

Women and children

The center gets many visits from women with babies and young children. They may have come into the country without strollers or diapers and other necessities. It is especially difficult for them, coming with their children to a foreign country in a distressing situation. But Oksana stresses that these women have a lot of strength and that they are holding up together also in these unfamiliar circumstances. They help each other and follow each other on the road. Oksana smiles when she talks about a woman who was pregnant the first time she came to the center, and now has a little baby.

Our volunteers are our heroes

Oksana is often asked why she is volunteering and not looking for a paid job. She says that volunteering gives her a sense of meaning. She has always loved people and she wants to help. It is a way to handle her stress. But she also has very positive experiences of volunteers in Ukraine. They are the real heroes, she says. It was volunteers in Irpin who helped her husband get back to Kiev. Oksana says that this thought helps her.

Oksana ends by saying that she believes in peace in Ukraine and that she will be able to go home.

This article was written by IFRC’s Minna Guigon-Sell (CEA Communications Consultant)