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I Helped Ukrainian Refugees in Poland - Here's My Story

It was originally meant to be a girls’ trip for a few days.

In January, a friend and I booked flights to Krakow, Poland. We were planning to spend a few days sightseeing and doing a bit of shopping.

But a month later, watching the horrors of what was going on in Ukraine, it no longer felt right to go on a holiday. Seeing people fleeing the war was heartbreaking. I decided to keep the flights – and to go and volunteer to help Ukrainian refugees arriving to Krakow.

I’m Sinead, an actor, a drama teacher, and a part of the FlairBox family. I'm also a co-founder of PsCreative Management (Philippa Stapleton Agency). I studied Stanislavski for two years at the The Focus Theatre, where many well-known Irish actors such as Gabriel Byrne have trained.

The teachers, directors, writers and classmates that I’ve worked with and continue to work with are inspiring to me. I'm always learning from them – especially that, whether we’re working or not working, we should always be training. I'm currently waiting to hear back on a great role that I've being shortlisted for.

Despite all this, a lot of my attention and focus has recently been on fundraising for Ukrainian refugees. With my flight to Krakow approaching, I started thinking about how I could help.

Volunteer in Krakow, Poland
I wanted to help in any way I could.

I’d done a skydive to raise funds for UNICEF before, but I’d never done any volunteer work. Initially, I thought about bringing over a 20kg suitcase full of clothes and supplies to donate, but I realised I could make the money go further in Poland. So I set up a GoFundMe page, and spread the word. I set an initial target of €500. At the time of writing, I’ve raised €6,600 through the site and via direct donations.

Setting out

On March 9, I set out for Poland. I was a little nervous about going, but I’d travelled on my own before and was determined to help. I contacted the Irish Embassy in Warsaw and left my details with them before travelling.

While queuing to board the plane in Dublin Airport, I met Michael. After eavesdropping on his conversation and hearing that he was a member of the Foreign Legion on his way to Kyiv, I told him my plan. He then introduced me to Peter, who was going out to join a group called Volunteer for Ukraine.

Bound for the border.

Like me, Peter had no volunteering experience, but he’d already made one or two contacts in Poland, and would go on to make many more. He is one of the best organisers I’ve ever met, and I’m proud to now call him my friend.

We decided to donate directly to families. On arrival in Krakow, we met a Polish volunteer who could speak Ukrainian and a little Russian. He asked arriving refugees: “What do you need? Can we help in any way?” We bought every item they needed in bulk.

After speaking to one mother briefly, she gave me a big hug of thanks. The need I felt to protect these women and children was overpowering; their vulnerability was so obvious. But I had to keep my emotions under control — getting upset doesn’t help, but being productive does.

The local Scouts had an area where they were collecting food, toiletries, etc. I asked if they needed baby food or nappies. No, they said, had enough nappies – but they needed feminine hygiene products. In my time in Krakow, I found that you have to ask what’s needed, rather than just assuming. Each day those needs changed.

Some of the many donated belongings.

The second day at the station was Saturday, and there was a noticeable increase in the number of volunteers in yellow jackets – from Krakow and around the world. They were working to get families to safe accommodation.

We spoke with two sisters and their teenage niece and nephew. They had little English, but we could understand each other. I asked how long they’d been travelling, and they said: “Two days; it’s hard.” We looked at each other and took a deep breath. No words needed. I told them we were Irish. “You came from Ireland to help Ukraine?” one of them asked. “Yes,” I replied. Again, a deep breath, and then we smiled.

It was harder to get these sisters housed because they had a dog with them – many places won’t allow pets. Thankfully, somewhere was eventually found for them to stay that night.

We heard another 1,000 refugees were due to arrive, so we went to do another big shop. In the car on the way back, I felt angry – angry at people coming to the city for a holiday. Angry I couldn’t do more. Even when they’re doing their very best, so many of the volunteers feel helpless. That feeling of wanting to do more doesn’t leave. It still hasn’t.

We’d previously stopped off at the Red Cross centre, which is in a different part of the city, to leave them our details. When we went back on another day, they welcomed our help. Big plastic bags, filled with donated clothes, had to be put in order of sizes — adults, babies, toddlers, etc. The volunteers there had a great system, but they really need more support too.

We helped organise the flood of donations.

We were only there five minutes when a woman and her teenage daughter, Anastasia, came in looking for accommodation. The mother had no English, but she showed me her daughter playing the piano on her phone. It was hard not to get upset during these moments. We used some of our funds to help them pay a deposit on an apartment near to a school that Anastasia will soon be attending.

A Ukrainian mother who volunteers at the Red Cross showed me a picture of her son, still in Ukraine, hunkered down and ready to fight. Using Google Translate, I asked if she was proud of him. “Yes,” she nodded, and we hugged. It was very emotional.

Moments of humanity

Despite the darkness, I met so many amazing people in Krakow – both refugees and volunteers.

On my last day, Peter travelled to the border to collect a group from Lviv before reuniting them with family who were waiting for them just outside Krakow. It was an eight-hour trip. The train was delayed due to a bombing on the line. There was all manner of chaos and delays but, eventually, Peter managed to find them — a grandmother, mother, her 14-year-old daughter and their cat. The girl was the only one who spoke English but she was too shell-shocked to say a word. Peter got them safely to their new home.

Richard, a prosecutor from Washington, was staying at my accommodation. He had flown to Poland to set up a system for Ukrainians who have a connection to the US to meet with immigration lawyers working pro bono or for a low fee.

I’m back in Ireland now. I’m getting daily messages from a wonderful Polish volunteer, Kuba. He’s at the border, providing food, shelter and first-aid kits for refugees crossing into Poland. A bomb went off just 20km away from where he’s based. One message read: “Currently preparing first-aid kits and MRE portions [ready-to-eat meals] for Ukrainian boys — really boys — going back to fight.” That’s the reality.

Imagine having to flee your country with nothing but two plastic bags, and relying on strangers to help you and your vulnerable relatives. Leaving your brother, your boyfriend, your husband, and your male relatives behind at war – most of them not trained as soldiers; many of them just teenage boys.

One of the aid trucks.

It was heartbreaking to see so many refugees, but being productive and doing what I could to help kept me strong and focused. I rang my friends before leaving Krakow, and hearing their voices I could relax a little and let the emotion in. I didn’t want to leave; I wanted to do more.

Returning to Krakow

Now I’m planning on going back in the middle of May. I would be very grateful if anyone reading this could make a donation. Even a share of my GoFundMe page will help. Every penny will help and is desperately needed.

I'll be going to the border to help Ukrainian kids and their families. It's day-to-day living there. Then I'll then be going back to Krakow to volunteer there once again.

It is a heartbreaking situation. Some messages that I receive from the volunteers I met are just too sad and horrific to share. But we can do our bit to help. So please feel free to share and donate if you can.

Thank you,

Sinead x

You can donate to Sinead's GoFundMe page via the following link:

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