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Volunteers at this Polish airport are helping Ukrainians fleeing conflict back home


Welcome to Poland. Thousands of Ukrainians are hearing that sentence every day. The U.N. says this is the fastest refugee exodus since World War II. Since Russia invaded Ukraine less than two weeks ago, 1.7 million Ukrainians have fled their country, more than a million of them here to Poland.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: At the Warsaw airport, the overhead announcements these days are in Polish, English and also Ukrainian. They tell people not to leave bags unattended. And they say, if you're Ukrainian and need assistance, here's where you can find kiosks with volunteers to help you.

ELENA SZULC: My name is Elena, and I'm originally from Kyiv. But I live in Poland for the last four years. And my parents and sister, they are in Kyiv now.

SHAPIRO: Elena Szulc is 32. And she normally works for a company that sells glass for windows. She doesn't have any special skills in refugee resettlement. But she speaks Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and English. And today, that's enough.

She stands at a little booth in the airport arrivals hall with a pile of handouts in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The flyers say information for refugees from Ukraine, with a hotline, a website and instructions on how to find a place to stay in Poland.

SZULC: This is my first day here, and I already have, I don't know, maybe 50 people for the last six hours.

SHAPIRO: Almost all the Ukrainians coming up to ask for help are women with children. Men of military age have been conscripted to fight, so most of the people she's helping still have loved ones back in the war, as does Elena.

SZULC: I can't help my family now. So I'm trying to help here, and I know there are a lot of, you know, immigrant mothers who just never even go abroad. And they don't know what to do here.

SHAPIRO: Have you talked to your family? Do you know how they're doing in Kyiv?

SZULC: Yes. Yes. They're fine, but they don't want to go and to leave their homes. So they are sitting there with their cats and waiting for a good time for our country.

SHAPIRO: Two women come up to the kiosk, one carrying a baby. I step aside as they speak with Elena in Ukrainian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SHAPIRO: They're trying to get to Bulgaria, so she points them to the ticket office. Most of the people who make it here to the Warsaw airport have a plan, a country they're trying to get to where they have friends or relatives. There isn't the chaos that you find at the border crossings.

SZULC: You know, I have a woman today. She got some job in Georgia, but she doesn't know how to get there.

SHAPIRO: Since there's nothing Elena can do right now to help her family back in Kyiv, at least volunteering here takes her mind off what they're going through.


That is our co-host, Ari Shapiro, who will bring us stories all this week on the Ukrainian refugee crisis in Poland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.