By Monika Pronczuk
The tide of refugees fleeing to Europe from wars in the Middle East and elsewhere has sparked strong reactions, much of it hostile. But for some of us, it has been a life-changing, positive experience.
It all started in October, when together with three friends I made the 1,500-kilometer drive from Warsaw to the Serbian-Croatian border to help the refugees.
We did not know exactly why we did it. We all had some time off work and we wanted to help. We also felt a strong need to find a concrete way to protest against the recent wave of xenophobia in Poland.
Partly, it was curiosity: we were suspicious of the mainstream media and wanted to form our own opinions. Whatever the reason, we did not know what we were getting ourselves into.
We spent 10 days as independent volunteers in a refugee camp that had just sprung up in the Serbian village of Berkasovo.
It could have easily been our families and us.
Our daily (or rather nightly, since most refugees arrived at night) activities were very simple. We handed out tea, food, blankets and warm clothes, and, most important, information.
The refugees were exhausted and disorientated. They rarely had a clue which country they were in. To them, it was just a blur: another Balkan no-mans-land, another endless queue, paperwork to be done and shouting policemen to be avoided.
So we came back — this time to the Serbian-Macedonian border, where together with a local NGO we set up a help point in Miratovac. The village is four kilometers from the border, up a hill reached on foot, through a muddy road, surrounded by empty fields.
This experience has changed us: once we started helping, we could not stop. The images of people we met — thousands who passed us daily and hundreds we talked to — haunted us.
The freezing, exhausted families and young men running away from military conscription, a probable death sentence, were very different from the images in the mainstream media. We realized that in different circumstances, it could have easily been our families and us.
We are not an organized group, just a movement of good-willed people with a Facebook page. “Dobrowolki” is a play on the words dobra wola, meaning “good will” in Polish.
We know we cannot change the whole system.
We have already driven three times to the Balkans, spending an average of 10 days there.
The local NGO we work with, Qendra Solidaritetit dhe Avancimit, is helping us with logistics. We have no official ties with them and act as independent volunteers.
We now find ourselves coordinating other volunteers who have joined us since November — friends, siblings, friends of friends and others who heard about us. There are about 70 of us now, mostly from Warsaw and the city of Krakow in southern Poland.
We know we cannot change the whole system. We struggle with inefficient international organisations, local politicians, smugglers and local taxi drivers, who tried to destroy our information board about the free bus to the registration center.
But we can be the first ones to meet the refugees and provide a cup of tea, a pair of gloves, a warm word. Every time we return to our daily lives in Poland, we are heartbroken. The transition to reality is a like a strong punch to the head. We wonder how many more times we can do this — but we cannot stop. We keep coming back.
Monika Pronczuk is a Warsaw-based journalist who writes about society, international development, human rights and culture. Her latest special interest is the refugee crisis. A graduate of King’s College London and Sciences Po Paris, she co-founded the Polish branch of Refugees Welcome, an Internet platform that allows refugees to rent rooms and flats from the locals. Monika tweets at https://twitter.com/MonikaPronczuk, but only occasionally, as she is a devotee of longer stories.