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Poland: How offices in Warsaw are turned into shelter for vulnerable refugees from Ukraine

An office compound in the Polish capital Warsaw is transformed into tiny homes for a large group of refugees from Ukraine. Here, the Warsaw Family Support Centre under the Municipality offers people shelter and access to basic services with support from DRC.

Posted on 04 Aug 2023

72-year-old Anna from Kherson thought it was time for her to enjoy life as a pensioner in her beloved Ukraine, spending days by the river and among friends and family. Never, in her imagination, had Anna envisioned that she should be forced to pack a few belongings, travel through frontlines, and endure hours of interrogation by foreign soldiers from the neighbouring Russian Federation.

After several failed attempts, they eventually let her pass and she then escaped through a five-day journey that took her through occupied territories in Ukraine, via Russia, then Lithuania, and finally Poland where she is now hosted in the capital, Warsaw, since 15 September 2022.

"I have traveled before and even spent 15 years abroad working as a caretaker for a family in Italy, but never imagined I would have to live through this,’ tells Anna. She speaks with lots of energy, smiles, and tears - and while she is struggling for air and through emotions that are a mix of relief, gratitude, despair, and sadness.

Anna's asthma has become worse after a recent pneumonia, and her health and wellbeing is influenced by the uncertainty and trauma that is now a condition of life that she shares with millions of Ukrainians impacted and displaced by the ongoing war.

Siemens Education Centre in Warsaw – now shelter

At the premises of Siemens in Poland and in what used to be their Education Centre in the outskirts of Warsaw, daily routines changed overnight as the war in neighbouring Ukraine broke out. The German company decided to step in and help find a solution that could offer immediate housing opportunities. Located in Warsaw, the Polish capital, they saw many women, children, elderly, and disabled arrive after having fled Ukraine.

The refugees from Ukraine came to Poland by train and bus, in cars or by foot from the border, helped by private people and initiatives offering transport and support.

In the immediate time after 24 February 2022, a wide array of Polish civil society organisations and volunteer initiatives mobilised or repurposed their work and offered to help alongside humanitarian organisations. Some of the non-government organisations – including IOM and DRC - are now engaged in the assistance and services offered at the Warsaw Family Support Centre, also known as the Zupnicza Shelter, one of seven collective centres in Warsaw Municipality offering accommodation for refugees from Ukraine as facilities that sort under the municipality’s social services (WCPR).    

"We can host up to 158 people in these offices and are always nearly full. Here, we see many vulnerable people arrive with disabilities and difficulties in traveling on and moving any further," tells Oleksii Taras, Site Coordinator of the Zupnicza Shelter on the Siemens premises.

At the Zupnicza Shelter, DRC is contributing with services improving the running of the facility and provision of capacity building and assistance to the Warsaw Municipality’s social services in charge of the daily management and coordination at the site.

Oleksii Taras is now employed by the Warsaw Family Support Centre and is himself from Ukraine but has lived and worked in Poland for the past nearly 10 years. He left his former job in Poland to join the humanitarian response.

"At least, people here are safe and allowed to stay until March 2024 according to the protection scheme that runs till then. These buildings are perfect for the purpose, being ground floor and easy to access for people who do not walk well. We are currently hosting many elderlies and disabled people with limited capacity to move around or find private accommodation. The canteen is repurposed and now manned so that it can serve residents here meals three times a day. It also functions as a communal space where people can meet and socialise," tells Oleksii Taras.

Access to social benefits and sensitised support in Poland

Ukrainians are referred to short term shelters like this located across the country and once they are registered by the government authorities for the Temporary Protection scheme. The arrangement in Poland entitles refugees to access public health services and the same social benefits that are offered to Polish citizens. Some shelters offer language classes, yoga and handicraft activities targeting the refugee population that are mainly women and children as well as persons of age or with vulnerabilities.  

"People are marked by the fear and experiences they have gone through. Finding themselves in a foreign country, with little means to cope, psychologically and financially, it makes a big difference that they feel welcome and understood in settings where they can feel comfort not least from being among fellow country men and women - and where there are also Ukrainian speakers among the staff," tells Helene Lassen, Country Director for DRC in Poland, Moldova, and Romania – all three bordering Ukraine:

"DRC places great emphasis in employing both Polish and Ukrainian staff for the humanitarian responses – both from among those who have been in Poland already for years, and people who have arrived recently and who themselves are refugees."

Living in offices

The offices lining the long hallway through one of the two Siemens buildings are transformed into interim homes for Ukrainian refugees.

Alina, a 85-year-old bedridden woman from Zaporizhzhia, lives in one of the smaller offices. It has two beds, one for her and the other for her daughter. They arrived in Poland on 16 October 2022 and have lived at the shelter since then.

"I worked as long as I would and was 78 when I retired from the local factory that has been my workplace and my life since I started there in 1963,’ Alina tells. ‘It produced parts for different types of engines, and it was hard work, but I really loved it and the plant was like my second home for so many years. My son also worked there, but then war changed everything."

In the bed next to Alina is Fila, their 12-year-old cat that they managed to carry along with them. Many refugees from Ukraine have arrived with their pets insisting on not leaving them behind but bringing them to safety as well. Alina’s daughter soon found a job in Warsaw and is out most of the day to earn some extra money to meet their needs.

Close by is a woman and her son who is mobility impaired, born with a condition that requires special walking aids and orthopedic shoes tailored to his needs. "We are of course glad to have reached to safety, but it is difficult for us now to find out how to source the special support and aid that is needed for my son," she tells.

Anna from Kherson occupies another of the office spaces at the former Education Centre with four other family members - her sister, daughter, niece, and nephew.   

Their shared room is sparingly furnished. Five beds are lined up along the walls, former document boxes serve as bedside tables, there is a closet and a couple of close rags, and in the middle a desk with chairs and from where they face a green lawn surrounding the building.

"It’s fine here and what we need for now. We are grateful for being in safety and can only think of today and perhaps tomorrow. It is impossible to plan for anything as it is, and we must accept that," says Anna who no longer has a home in Kherson and is uncertain about whether she will ever return to the region.

‘What is there to return to? For me, nothing right now,’ she says, recalling the day when she lost her home.

A small blue chair helped Anna escape

Anna remembers all too well the day she made the decision to leave. It was cold then, back in April 2022 – still in the early days of the war in Ukraine – when yet another round of intense shelling rocked Kherson in southern Ukraine. Once again it left significant damages with the city hall bombed and many private houses and apartment blocks scarred or destroyed by the impact of missiles and crossfire. They were banned from seeking shelter in the basement or elsewhere nearby, and instead ordered to stay indoors. This time, the shelling came too close and hit the building and damaged the roof of the apartment block where Anna used to live. The place was no longer inhabitable and the Kherson area where Anna is from since generations, was no longer safe.

"I packed a few belongings and moved to my daughter’s place not far away, but where we thought we could feel safe and hope for the situation to improve," tells Anna. As the situation worsened and moved closer also to where the daughter lived, they decided that it was time to escape.

"I had brought a small chair with me, one that we used to bring for fishing by the river. I knew it was going to be difficult and exhausting to try and get out of the occupied areas and that I needed to find a way to wait for hours in the cold without a place to sit and rest."

"The fish are gone as well," she tells, as the river they used to fish from dried out following the attack on the Nova Kakhovka Dam in the early hours of 6 June 2023.

The ticket to freedom paid with funeral savings

Without any other means to finance the trip ahead of her, Anna decided to use a saving that was intended to be there after she was no longer alive. Anna had for years saved up for her own funeral as an insurance to facilitate a decent farewell. 

"I had not other choice than to use this money when we ventured out on the long trip eastwards through Russia and the Baltics to get to Poland," Anna explains. "So, I decided to spend this saving to get us out alive instead of waiting any longer in Kherson."  

The funeral savings that she had kept for years with herself and never thought of using, became her rescue, and financed their tickets to freedom and safety.

*Names are changed to protect identities


DRC support at the Zupnicza Shelter in Warsaw is made possible through contributions from individuals and private foundations.

Knitting for Ukraine

Talking about home and all that happened back in September 2022, makes Anna restless with her hands clasped together. She insists though in talking about the ordeals and sharing her personal story for people elsewhere to better understand what they have gone through and how they feel.

Only when grabbing the knitwear laying next to hear, brightens the moment and has its own story. Anna, her sister, and daughter spend 5-6 hours every single day knitting. It gives them peace of mind and a sense of purpose, she tells, explaining with pride how they source used sweaters and cardigans from nearby secondhand clothes shops, to use the yarn for their joint contribution to people remaining in Ukraine.

"Everyone, not least our boys and men in Ukraine, need woolen socks also this winter to stay warm and cope with all that they are going through. We do this for them and feel that we can contribute and help from a distance," says Anna as she displays the collection of handmade socks.

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"I had brought a small chair with me, one that we used to bring for fishing by the river. I knew it was going to be difficult and exhausting to try and get out of the occupied areas and that I needed to find a way to wait for hours in the cold without a place to sit and rest."

"I had brought a small chair with me, one that we used to bring for fishing by the river. I knew it was going to be difficult and exhausting to try and get out of the occupied areas and that I needed to find a way to wait for hours in the cold without a place to sit and rest."

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