When refugees from Ukraine fled into Poland, Ewa Kozik and Bartosz Frackowiak seized the moment to put their arts activism into practice.
On 24 February, the Warsaw Bienniale team was meeting to discuss our June exhibition. It was a sunny day, one that heralds spring. We woke to the news of Russia's military invasion of Ukraine and a message from our Director: “I would like us to [… ] talk about ways that we could react and get involved in a meaningful way”. This was a shared and immediate need for all of us in the art and activist institution we have chosen as our workplace.
We also knew that our programme would have to reflect the new context, that the exhibition theme - the connections between technology, authoritarianism and new forms of planetary violence - had to be rethought. The means available to art and its institutions in such circumstances are strangely inadequate. We could make a symbolic gesture of dissent or solidarity, but we now faced the real challenges of a humanitarian crisis. In the first instance, we responded with resources, imagination, feelings and organisational skills.
A few days later, we were contacted by the Ocalenie Foundation, with whom we have been working to help refugees at the Polish-Belarusian border. We agreed to collaborate on organising a reception point for people of non-Ukrainian origin fleeing their homes in Ukraine. Within a few hours, our whole team was involved in an impromptu preparation of beds for the arrival of BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) from the border the next morning.
Setting up a reception point
Some of us drove around Warsaw gathering mattresses, others created a makeshift kitchen. People rapidly responded to a social media callout and brought necessities such as sanitary products, bedding, towels and food. Quick meetings, exchanges of emotions and thoughts, were held on the run in a fevered atmosphere of care and empathy.
The next day is unpredictable: no-one knows who will arrive or when. The gender, nationality, age and legal status of our expected guests are not known until they arrive. And the minute they do, chaos ensues. There are fifty refugees; we did not expect that many.
Each has different needs and asks questions, which we have no ready answers for. How to get a Polish SIM card? Where is the closest Western Union? Can they get a free lift to the railway station? Do we give away clothes? Most want to charge their phones. I give them my charger but realise quickly I need a new one as my phone is constantly vibrating with notifications.
From the moment of the inception of our Reception Point for Refugees, magical things begin to happen. Restaurants offer us free, hot meals, delivered daily to our guests. Local art institutions open their doors so the refugees can use their showers.
Manufacturers provide us with regular deliveries of necessary goods – everything from sanitary wear and underwear to Covid tests and backpacks. Ordinary people bring essentials too. Friends call to ask how they can help. As a driver? By providing soup? As an Arabic translator? And there are those who simply offer an extra pair of hands to help carry, clean and organise the space.
Multi-national group of refugees
Among the group are a Cameroonian (wanting to go to Paris), a Nigerian student (planning to return to his country), two Afghan families (heading to Berlin), a Nepali, an Iraqi, and a Moroccan woman. Dari is interspersed with Arabic dialects, pidgin and French.
People connect with relatives through instant messaging and the network overloads. Some play cards, others sit around and talk. One Afghan family departs within three hours: a driver picks them up, they say their goodbyes, leaving behind only a baby car seat.
Imran and his friend wonder if they should stay in Poland. One of them ran a cafe in Lviv and worked for a Polish IT company; the other is a chef. A Syrian-Ukrainian couple set off to Germany and return, claiming they don’t like the attitude of the border guards.
A Syrian has just finished medical school and was about to qualify as a surgeon. He had applied for permanent residence in Ukraine when the war broke out. In Poland, he intends to work in a Covid hospital. I befriend some of them, others cry when it’s time to move on.
Sustainable activism makes us stronger
We can’t sustain this for long with a team of just eight people from Warsaw Bienniale and two from the Ocalenie Foundation. We need more volunteers. At first, we enlist twenty volunteers; good friends we fully trust. Many of them are creatives working in theatres, museum and galleries - but not all.
They lead smaller groups of volunteers and improve the system enormously. Within weeks the place is unrecognisable: two working showers, a free shop stocking clothes and essential items, a children’s corner, two washing machines, a dryer, two fridges, five microwaves and five kettles. We also ensure we have people on the premises 24/7. We never leave the refugees without care at any time.
There are some strict rules: everyone must do a Covid test and, if negative, complete a registration form. If positive, we take them to an isolation space. Other rules are continually being adjusted as it is impossible to foresee what the next day may bring. The number of volunteers is growing. We hold regular review meetings with them and ensure they get days off. Sustainable activism makes us stronger.
Acting from a strong sense of injustice
Our experiences leave us with a strong sense of injustice, even anger – and it’s not just about the refugees from Ukraine. Poland's dense forests in Podlasie are full of Belarussian refugees also in dire need of help. Trapped between Poland and Belarus, they are unable to move in any direction from this no man's land, which is guarded by armed forces from both countries.
But these refugees arriving from Ukraine also suffer from systemic racism. Without Ukrainian passports they are not allowed to use free public transport and are not accepted at the majority of refugees reception points or shelters. They can’t cross the Polish border to travel further they are not eligible to apply for a Polish identity card.
We constantly seek ways to help these refugees, working around the existing law. We find the double standards and radical inconsistency astonishing. Creating the Reception Point is just one small shaft of light to alleviate the darkness they face.
Ewa Kozik is a curator and creative producer. Bartosz Frackowiak is a curator, director and researcher. Both currently work for Warsaw Biennale.