The buses keep coming.
It’s Day 25 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and amid another round of talks for an elusive truce — this time, it’s Turkey claiming some common ground — the buses keep coming. Bringing fleeing children, women and elderly men. Hungry and tired, carrying whatever they can in small bags, escaping the war, leaving behind their homes, family, friends and pets.
They are welcomed by hundreds of volunteers who provide them with information about where and how they can move next, translation services, hot food, candies and emotional support.
Welcome to Warsaw Central, the railway station at the heart of Poland’s massive mobilisation to help those fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a transit hub from where the refugees take trains and buses to other cities across the country and Europe — over 2 million of them, at last count, of the 3.9 million who have fled Ukraine.
Warsaw is hosting the largest share. Over 200,000 refugees have chosen to remain in the city, marking a 16 per cent hike in its population of around 1.8 million before the war began. And Poland, which had once closed its borders with Belarus to block those escaping violence in Syria and Libya, is now reportedly No. 4 on the global list of refugee hosts after Turkey, Colombia and the United States.
Barely a week ago, as over 300,000 refugees surged into Warsaw, the city’s mayor Rafal Trzaskowski posted on Twitter: “Our city remains the main destination for Ukrainian refugees. Situation is getting more and more difficult every day. Warsaw stands and will #StandWithUkraine. Support. Donate.”
The country has responded with overwhelming warmth: from elderly women offering to be “temporary grandmothers” to refugee children, and civilians opening their hearts and homes, to businesses offering space, cash and volunteers.
This outpouring isn’t just about geography — Poland shares a 300-mile border with Ukraine — but also history. In 2015, Poland had opposed EU quotas for asylum seekers but now with Russia invading a country it shares close ties with, people are stepping up.
On the Internet, even with signs of strain, the Warsaw administration’s homepage has several links for volunteers, donors and refugees. It has information about where people can donate money or other aid, organisations looking for volunteers, and where the incoming refugees can find help in the city.
On the ground, the signs of support are visible everywhere. The local buses, painted in the red and yellow of the city’s colours, are now adorned with two flags on the sides in the front — one of Warsaw and the other of Ukraine. And several residential and institutional buildings have hoisted the Ukrainian flag in the front.
Nowhere is the solidarity more evident than in the services that local residents and international volunteers provide at Warsaw Central.
Osama Eddin, a 36-year-old computer engineer, who was born in Syria but now lives in Sweden, has come to Warsaw to volunteer. He said the volunteers ask refugees where they want to go next, and book flights, buses or other means of transport for them.
Along with material aid, providing emotional support is crucial. Eddin said many families have come from cities that have seen maximum destruction in the war. And then, there are the children. Many of them, he said, “are missing their fathers” as men of fighting age are not allowed to leave Ukraine. “You can see the children start asking, ‘Where is my papa, I need Papa’. We try to keep them busy, give them some toys to play with. But it’s really hard,” Eddin said.
“Volunteers have come from across continents, and they help the refugees in whatever is needed,” he said.
Outside the station, it’s not just about compassion for refugees, but anger and resentment towards the man whom everyone blames: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A few hundred metres away, at Parade Square, a man in a yellow jacket has pitched up a dart board with headshots of Putin and his ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The images show blood dripping from Putin’s smiling mouth, and crosshairs on the foreheads of both leaders.
Anyone could throw darts at them — free of charge.
As some people took their shots, a few others gathered around giggling and taking pictures. As if the darts weren’t enough, there was also a tiny voodoo doll, pierced all over with pins, with Putin’s face. Amid the heavy weight of pervasive gloom and despair, this also provides some relief.
A couple of kilometres away, graffiti on a residential building illustrated the mood all across the continent. It was a sketch of the Russian President being hanged, right next to a line that said: “Stop Putin’s Aggression on Europe”.