With Ukrainian refugees streaming westward, a successful initiative in Warsaw can offer insights on how to assist those most in need.
One day in August 2020, Sergei, a Belarusian police officer, decided he had had enough. He had again been ordered to disperse one of the peaceful protests that took place after Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory in the presidential election.
This time, however, Sergei refused. And not only that. He took off his uniform and recorded a video message in which he called on other security officers to follow his example.
Soon, Sergei and his wife Olga received a tip that the police would be coming to arrest them. They quickly obtained humanitarian visas for themselves and their children and left for Warsaw.
“While still in Belarus, I was looking for foundations or programs that could help us to adapt in a new country,” Olga says. “I accidentally came across CBS, and they responded, even offering to pick us up right at the border, but we declined. The center found us an apartment for [the mandated] quarantine, paid for it, and brought us food. I also sought psychological help: at first I had a constant irrational fear – I cried all the time.”
To help those dealing with life in a new country, CBS – the Center for Belarusian Solidarity – opened in Warsaw in August 2020. After initially offering only legal assistance, the group now works in multiple areas.
Olga’s family was hardly alone in relocating to a safer environment. After the elections, the protests, and the harsh crackdown, Belarusians began to flee to neighboring Poland in much larger numbers than before. In September 2020, more than 80 people asked for international protection in Poland, while in 2019 the total number was 40 for the entire year.
Some prepare for the move, applying for humanitarian visas beforehand to allow them to cross the border legally and stay in Poland for up to a year, with the possibility to work. Many leave Belarus spontaneously, leaving everything. Some enter Poland illegally, walking through the forests, while others declare at the border the dangers at home and their need for asylum. They are sent to a “distribution center” for foreigners, and await an interview about their status. Those who pass the test receive international protection and thus the right to stay in the country indefinitely and even obtain a residency permit.
Migrants without any money or housing stay in refugee camps, while the majority settle on their own. The newcomers suddenly find themselves in a new country with many questions to solve: how to find suitable housing, where to look for work, how to place a child in school, what are the options for legalizing their status.
In for the Long Haul
CBS grew out of an alliance of people from several initiatives that have been operating in Poland for many years. The organization has three founders: Anatoly Mikhnovets, who emigrated from Belarus for political reasons after the 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests; Vlad Kopets, who went to Poland for the same reasons four years later; and Alina Kovshik, a journalist with Belsat, a Poland-based TV channel broadcasting to Belarus.
“At first we all thought this would be a temporary initiative: we would win quickly and the center wouldn’t be needed. But in the end everything went according to a different scenario,” says Anton Zhukov, the CBS press secretary. Now the organization employs about 10 people full-time, others part-time, and dozens contribute as volunteers.
CBS started by providing legal assistance. The first client was Andrei Ostapovich, a former police officer and later the founder of BYPOL, a group of former law enforcement officers who support Belarusian opposition politicians. Ostapovich fled to Poland illegally and at one moment found himself alone at a train station and realized that he didn’t know what to do next. He eventually contacted the CBS founders, whom he got to know through word of mouth from friends. They helped him receive international protection.
Anyone in need can either call the CBS infoline or join a chat on the group’s channel on Telegram, the popular messaging app. CBS personnel, depending on the individual’s request, will either provide links to the necessary information, or send the request to the legal department or to volunteers. About a hundred new requests are received weekly. They are mainly from families, with the average age of the clients about 35-40, says legal hotline adviser Dmitry. He requested that his full name not be used for security reasons.
According to Zhukov, people still learn about the center mainly through word of mouth: from their Belarusian friends who already live in Poland, or perhaps at solidarity events held in the Polish capital every Sunday or via CBS’s social media accounts.
Legal aid remains the organization’s main task.
“Most often people ask questions about legalization, and then we help them with obtaining either a temporary residence permit or international protection. There are, of course, more of the second. But there are also simpler questions: for example, how to get a PESEL [the national identification number in Poland],” he says.
The legal department handles the more complicated questions, working either individually or with groups.
“At some point, we realized that the problems people come to us with are very similar; it is only the people themselves who think that their situation is unique,” he says.
To save time and effort for the lawyers, staff now sort those requesting legal assistance into groups with similar problems, then invite the groups to the center.
CBS soon became a kind of funnel for Belarusians in Poland who wanted to help after the crackdown back home. After August 2020, many Belarusians already living in Poland began to experience something similar to a feeling of guilt for being in another country. Many felt a great need to be involved in what was happening and to help somehow.
“Rallies and solidarity marches are, of course, also forms of support. But it was necessary to direct the energy into a more useful channel, to help with something real. This is how our volunteer network came together,” Zhukov says.
Currently, 120 volunteers contribute their time and expertise to the center. There are so many willing people that not everyone can be given a job. There are about 30-40 active participants, the rest assist on an ad-hoc basis. Volunteers join an online group, where different cases are posted, and participants pick and choose where they would like to help. Often that means assisting newcomers who face problems because they don’t know Polish and need assistance with basic things such as opening a bank account, enrolling a child in a kindergarten or school, submitting documents for legalization, or applying for international protection.
The search for housing is one of the biggest challenges. Volunteers act almost as real estate agents.
“Volunteers at the center helped us find housing. They looked through the options, arranged meetings with the owners. At that time I didn’t know the Polish language at all, so I could not have done it myself,” says Anna. Back in Belarus, she had been tried three times under an administrative article for unauthorized picketing, and then a search was conducted in her home and a criminal case opened. But she managed to escape with her 9-year-old daughter. In March 2021 they ended up in Bialystok, a Polish city near the border, and later moved to the capital, where Anna turned to CBS.
People also buy food, hygiene products, and other household items, and bring these and clothes for newcomers. Problems no longer exist with finding clothes for anyone; about seven tons are stored in a warehouse CBS shares with another organization, and those who wish to donate clothes are sometimes turned away.
Some volunteers often end up acting as mentors. “Our method is to we assign our person to a specific family, and over the course of about a month he or she helps with everything,” Zhukov says. [That avoids] overloading the information line on various minor issues, for example, how to buy a travel card. Usually 30 days is enough for people to more or less adapt.”
Anna says her assigned helper was crucial in finding a school. “The volunteer negotiated with the principal and helped translate the necessary documents into Polish. Now, by the way, we are good friends with this girl.” Lawyers at the center also provided Anna with advice on legalizing the family’s status.
Some volunteers also hold “integration events,” because it is very important for the arriving Belarusians to make new acquaintances and relax after work. CBS hosts classes on brewing coffee, drawing, and more. Olga, the woman who came with her family soon after the crackdown began, has also helped out at CBS, giving classes on making Christmas wreaths and macrame weaving.
CBS also makes its premises available to other initiatives in aid of Belarusian newcomers. The Free Choir, which sang in support of anti-government demonstrators before fleeing the country, rehearses in the center. Previously, dance classes were held there, and Belarusian- language courses are now taught.
Back to School
In February 2021, a free school for children between the ages of six and 12 opened in the center. The idea had been hatched much earlier, but it took time to find the funding, and CBS was determined to pay the teachers. That initial financing ran out after about half a year, so in October CBS launched a campaign to cover salaries and class materials. Many large Telegram channels joined in, helping to raise 17,000 zloty ($4,000) in a day.
Classes are held twice a week. On Saturdays, children learn English and Polish, acting, drawing, and music. On Tuesdays they have Belarusian lessons. There was discussion about giving all lessons in Belarusian, but most parents still want their children to study in Russian, Zhukov says.
The CBS school is not a substitute for a general education; rather, it is an additional opportunity for children to find friends, and for parents to relax on a weekend while the kids are kept busy. Some adults visit the Polish conversation club held in the center at the same time.
Olga, said her youngest, a 7-year-old boy, has been attending the school for a year. He likes classes so much, she said, that he’s willing to take the metro to get there even though he hates riding it. She says, “We are very glad that he has the opportunity to communicate with Belarusian children, not to forget his native language.”
The school now has 60 students, but about the same number remain on the waiting list, limited by the size of the premises and the lack of teachers. CBS has been trying to deal with that demand, and aims to hold classes at a Warsaw secondary school in the future.
“We didn’t think there would be such a response,” Zhukov says. “Parents say the children look forward to classes. … We have a positive atmosphere, all the teachers have some pedagogical training – they know how to work with children.”
Remembering the Repression
The Center for Belarusian Solidarity also organizes events to show those who stayed in Belarus that they are remembered, and to at least symbolically support them. One took place last August on the anniversary of the disputed election.
“Warsaw authorities didn’t come up with the idea on their own to hang the white-red-white flag on some building or light up the Palace of Culture in red-and-white colors,” says Zhukov, referring to the historical flag of Belarus, now the symbol of the opposition. “You need to write, call, ask about it. Such initiatives come from various groups, including us.”
CBS’s efforts also led to the naming of the Free Belarus roundabout in Warsaw last October. Together with sympathetic Polish politicians, CBS collected signatures and applied to the city hall.
“It is symbolic that this place leads to the highway to Belarus. Everyone who enters Warsaw from the direction of Brest will see it,” Zhukov says.
CBS also set up a press center in hopes of keeping Belarus in the public spotlight, despite the long, drawn-out struggle. They sometimes face challenges in focusing local journalists’ attention on Belarus. “If something big happens, for example, the forced landing of a Ryanair plane, then the media themselves send us a lot of inquiries. For the rest, you have to write and remind them,” Zhukov says.
The press center also informs locally based Belarusians about what is happening in Poland, sharing life hacks and creating information brochures. CBS started a YouTube channel with useful videos on topics such as seeking a humanitarian visa, taking out insurance, and obtaining a residence permit. The channel also features interviews with famous Belarusians.
It’s a constant struggle to finance the operation. Institutional patrons cover some of the funding, and individual donations cover about 5% of the budget, typically used for urgent, direct assistance such as purchases of hygiene products, food, or clothes. Business people from Poland and Belarus have helped the center financially or aided specific people – a Polish businessman recently provided a family from Belarus with an apartment for a year.
The organization’s fundraising manager is always on the lookout for local and foreign grants, the main source of income. For example, CBS recently won a competition among non-profit organizations in Warsaw with a prize of 20,000 zloty (around $4,600) from the city to pay for expenses connected with the school; city officials later agreed to buy a piano for the school. Local authorities also give CBS preferential rental terms on its city-owned building.
One service that had to be cut was psychological assistance, because funding ran out. The organization’s founders are looking around for options to renew the service, even though Zhukov acknowledges that requests to use it were few. As in many former Soviet countries, for Belarusians, seeking mental help carries a stigma, and perhaps many victims of repression were not ready to talk about their injuries or were afraid of drawing attention to themselves.
More than money, employee burnout is the biggest challenge. Salaries are small, and while the paid staff are motivated by the center’s mission, with so many Belarusians having fled to Poland, they sometimes feels overwhelmed with requests. Staff sometimes work seven days a week – Zhukov says he last took a day off two months ago. In December, CBS received so many requests for help with obtaining a temporary residence permit that it had to suspend this type of assistance. At the time of writing, CBS was looking for a separate specialist to take over this task and planned to resume the service soon.
Finding housing for newcomers is particularly exhausting, according to Zhukov, who says Belarusians, as a rule, prefer a good apartment for little money. As a result, the process takes a lot of time and effort, and many volunteers burn out and go on a temporary “vacation.”
The stories that CBS personnel hear from refugees can also be disturbing. “Our employees hear a lot of really scary stories, because a large number of clients applying for international protection have experienced violence in Belarus,” Zhukov says.
Dmitry, who works in the legal department, said he tries to erase the disturbing stories from memory as soon as a task is completed. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some have sought psychological help.
Anna, the woman who fled with her daughter a year ago, is a regular visitor to the center. Her daughter started attending the school more than six months ago.
“While the children are studying in the classroom, we adults gather in the kitchen to discuss some problems and just chat,” she says. “When you’re in a foreign country, it’s great to be able to communicate with those who understand you, who are on the same page with you. It helps me not to feel like a stranger in Poland.”
Iryna Bardouskaya has been a reporter and editor at Belarusian news outlets Komsomolskaya Pravda; Pro Business, a website for entrepreneurs; and the news site Tut.by, which the authorities effectively shut down after the protests against the disputed 2020 presidential election.
Photos courtesy of the Center for Belarusian Solidarity.