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Il Pulmino Verde: beyond the borders

“We are going to Poland. Are you coming with us?”, wrote me Fernanda Torre, president of Pulmino Verde, a non-profit association founded in Turin in 2016, with the aim of providing relief in border territories, telling the stories of the people they meet and documenting the realities with which they collaborate on the spot. I immediately told her yes and, then, I didn’t sleep for two nights, wondering if my presence could really be useful. Why do I want to go? What is it that drives me with such vigor to embark on this journey? In the meantime, I left on a bus that is not yet green but has taken us all the way to Przemysl, along with dozens of boxes full of medicines and necessities.
When we arrive in Poland, it seems like time has stopped. The trip was long – next time we’ll go by plane, we tell ourselves. A young man we met at a Polish gas station had told us about a humanitarian reception center, where he was going to offer passage to Austria. After unloading the boxes at the Caritas collection point, we headed there.

Ph. Credits: Il Pulmino Verde

Everything seemed perfectly organized, almost surreal. A smiling woman with a yellow bib pointed us to the shed where we were supposed to register as volunteers. There they told us to come back in the evening, so that we could give our contribution only the next morning. This logistic organization surprises me, positively I think. A concrete and functioning system of humanitarian relief can exist. I look around. We are surrounded by buses coming from all over the world to bring donations and offer passage to people fleeing. There are dozens of journalists with cameras pointed at counters with thermos of tea and pots of boiling goulash.

“I had some unique feelings,” Roberto from the Green Bus tells me. “Our last trip to the border was before the pandemic, in a literally different world. We went to Bosnia, a small state that represents the funnel where tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan, India, Tunisia, Egypt stop… They cross Croatia and Slovenia to get to Italy and Germany. In Bosnia, we encountered the desperate attempt of people who have lost everything, crossed the borders on foot to find a future, and are not receiving a proper welcome. We have also seen the marks of kicks, punches, truncheons, caused by the Croatian military at the border. We saw people deprived of dignity.”

The images that unconsciously overlap and fast-flow before my eyes are those to which the media narrative continuously subjects us. Those same images of pain and distance that help shape a common imagery: those who flee from a war carry visible wounds on their bodies, wear deteriorated clothes – so they would accept any “donated” rag – and, above all, are not white. Attributing precise physical connotations to discomfort is different and distant. To empathize with a pain that looks more like our own. Why?
After lunch, we head to the Przemysl station. As we walk, Fernanda tells me, “The migrants are there but you can’t see them.” At the tracks, however, they are very visible. “People running, up and down, spacing through the crowd to catch the train. I found it chaotic and it reminded me of the station in Dobova, Slovenia,” Fernanda continues. “There, migrants would arrive and be divided into categories: women, men and children. In Przemysl, I saw a man with a baby, then I noticed he didn’t have two fingers.” A couple sits on the bench; they have an elderly cat with them. They are tired, all three of them. I talk to Anna, a volunteer for the Animal Care Society in Poland. “The animals are members of families fleeing Ukraine, and they too need support, as well as passports.”

Ph. Credits: Il Pulmino Verde

A Kurdish family is turned away and, a hundred miles away, hot chocolate is offered to Ukrainian children. A Polish girl gives a book to a little boy in a blue jacket and red woolen hat. He cheers and jumps around his mother. Many are the women who flee the war with their children. Few men are there with them. I meet Sabino, an operator of the Health Emergency Service of Frigento, in the province of Avellino: “We arrived this morning in Medyka with basic necessities, medicines, clothes and food. Then, we moved to Przemysl to offer a passage to people who want to come to Italy. For the moment there are 15 of them. None of them have acquaintances or relatives in Italy and they are mainly women and children.”

We got into our van, heading towards Medyka as well. We feel confused, even a little interdicted. I think back to the goulash and the Kurdish family. We arrive at the border with Ukraine, in Medyka. It is cold, there is an acrid smell that stings the throat. More than 1500 people are waiting for their bus in a composed, orderly line. A little girl sitting in the back of a bus – grey like the hair of the lady sitting next to her – greets me by waving her hand lightly. I return the gesture, smiling. I know that little girl will slowly be able to rebuild her life elsewhere. A sudden sense of nostalgia overwhelms me at the thought that the lady with gray hair may have lost everything she had already built.

Ph. Credits: Il Pulmino Verde

Space for mutual support: Foundation UNITATEM

The next day, the alarm goes off at 7:30 am. Half an hour later, we board the bus to reach Jarosław, a few kilometers from the border. Bunk beds, mattresses and comforters purchased with donations have been sent to Foundation UNITATEM, an association that offers war refugees a safe home and long-term support.

We climb two flights of stairs and walk down a hallway with many rooms on either side. Clotheslines outside the doors and empty strollers. We enter the office where Kamil works with Patrik, Sir John Laundry – Mitch’s stage name – and the other volunteers. Smiling eyes, irreverent jokes – “essential to being able to do this job,” Kamil says – and six large cups of regular coffee greet us in a large room. The wooden table, the low sofas, the colorful photos on the walls and Beautiful the iguana, the mascot of the house. Kamil makes an exception and takes us to see the other two structures in the warehouse. He almost never does it, because he doesn’t want people to feel “like monkeys in a cage”, but he wants to share with us the work they are all doing together. Those who host together with those who are hosted.

“It all started three weeks ago, when the invasion of Ukraine began,” Kamil tells me. “My friend Patrik decided to open his grandmother’s house, adapting the rooms to the needs of the people who were seeking shelter. When the situation started to deteriorate, we needed more space. The municipality gave us the concession of a school building – where there are currently 220 mothers with their children. However, the needs were growing and we needed to open another space. We renovated a dormitory that had been in disuse for 20 years and can accommodate more than 700 people. Luckily, Patrik knows professionals in the construction field who did the major work, from electricity to heating. Then, a group of volunteers worked to provide services to the people housed there, from providing entertainment for the children to furnishing the rooms to make them as comfortable as possible.”

Ph. Credits: Il Pulmino Verde

We walk through the crowded aisles. A child earnestly arranges powdered milk on the shelves; two enthusiastic girls unload some mattresses from a truck; a blonde lady holds her son on her lap and stares into space. Matias assembles one of the light wood bunk beds. A month ago, he came to Poland for a few days, bringing basic necessities with his van. Back home, on the island of Elba, he realized his place was in Jaroslaw. And there he was, with an orange piece of paper on which he jotted down the essential phrases in Polish. “I saw the border, I talked to the refugees… When I came home, I was not well. I went out for a beer and all I did was tell myself that I could help here. That’s why I decided to come back,” he tells me. “This building was abandoned. They painted everything, filled the rooms, redid the bathrooms and the kitchen… They made it livable in no time. Some women organized a karaoke yesterday; then they clean, cook… This is their home now and they take care of it.”

Ph. Credits: Il Pulmino Verde

In this place, welfarism has made way for mutualism. In addition to beds and medical care, the association is committed to offering psychological support, language support, school education, extracurricular workshops, vocational activation and paid training. “If we don’t actively invest in this area, there will be more problems in the future. We dream of a reality where companies hire Polish and Ukrainian women, without distinction. We want to create new jobs and offer paid training courses, so that we do not create a ghetto situation for people arriving from Ukraine, actively involve them and give them incentives to start a new life,” Kamil continues.

The long-term goal of the association is to avoid social exclusion for both local communities involved, the Ukrainian and also the Polish one. “If the situation continues for a long time, there will be a humanitarian tragedy in Poland as well, not only in Ukraine. Polish society is extremely poor and it will be difficult to share the last piece of bread with the thousands of people who will arrive. For this reason, cooperation is essential,” Kamil says with a proud and sweet look. “Patrik donated a lot for the works, but the rest was collected through people’s donations. Two weeks ago, we were in great need of mattresses. I called a friend who has a company that makes mattresses and he said, ‘Sorry, it’s the middle of the night and I can’t talk.’ After three minutes, he called me to tell me he couldn’t talk because he was loading 140 mattresses into his truck. Eight hours later he was here and had also brought 200 loaves of bread. All the people got involved, according to their possibilities… Some old ladies donated kilos of apples and hundreds of trucks from Italy arrived with boxes full of basic necessities. But we cannot rely only on the spontaneous help of others; it is necessary to have an institutional support, which can make everything more sustainable and agile. We need to be able to have the ability to react quickly to people’s needs. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We hope the war will end soon and we don’t want to deprive people of that hope. Today, we help refugees; tomorrow, it could be us asking for help. We have to be prepared.”

From Jaroslaw, we moved to Cieszanow, to the food collection point. Packages of water bottles frame the entrance to the shed. We unloaded our van: pasta, oil, baby food, legumes and canned meat. The sun is starting to set, the air is fresh and serene. The operators seem tireless. Background music accompanies their precise, now mechanical movements. We take a picture together and send it to one of the volunteers who helped with the packages. “We are happy to share on our social media the solidarity”.

Humanitarian aid: between interest and care

The last stop of our brief stay in Poland is Korczowa, a former shopping mall used as a humanitarian center for those fleeing. The building is just a few minutes drive from the border and is enormous: it can accommodate more than 7,000 people and the only way to get there is by private transport, because there is no station.

Many people from all over Europe are offering passage to Italy, Germany, Finland, Sweden, etc. But not all refugees plan to leave. The further away you go, the more real the war becomes. The perception many have is one of temporariness. Alice, a medical worker, explains that the move to Poland has slowed in recent days for this very reason. People have chosen to stay in L’viv, hoping to regain their right to everyday life soon. “In the first days there were 7 thousand people; most, stayed a few hours to rest and then leave. Others stayed two or three nights. Now the situation has changed a lot.”

Ph. Credits: Il Pulmino Verde

A little boy plays soccer, alone. The eldest of three sisters cuddles the youngest and gives her a kiss on the head as she strokes her face. Three men walk through the crowded hallways, among the cots and wool blankets. In a stroller, an infant sleeps and looks serene. They are residents of Ukraine, but few are Ukrainian. There are many people of Roma ethnicity and Uzbek and Armenian nationalities. Impossible not to sense a different atmosphere from that of the Medyka center, where those waiting in line knew that, sooner or later, a bus would take them far from there. “The reception center in Korczowa is much more similar to the one we saw in Bosnia two years ago,” Chiara tells me, reaching the car at a brisk pace.

After the trip, I found no answers but only new questions. The emotional level is intertwined with the socio-political one and brings to light a complexity that must necessarily be investigated in order to ensure the freedom of all and restore dignity to those who, because of the war – every war – have been deprived of it. I think back to the dozens of buses in reception centers, to the journalists and Telegram groups dedicated exclusively to Ukraine. To the donations and demonstrations for peace. I ask myself what is the point of wrapping oneself in the flag of peace and shouting mottos at the megaphone. I tell myself that, for me, it’s a nice way to claim the right to everyday life when it is interrupted by war. I think back to the Kurdish family and the hot goulash. To the women and children from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, stuck on the border with Belarus, in the cold. At Przemysl station, Marco met a Polish volunteer from the International Organization for Migration, who told him, “If you are white and Ukrainian, it’s okay.”

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