Russian volunteers are only conditionally welcome in Poland

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Russian opponents of the war help fleeing Ukrainians in the Polish-Ukrainian border town of Przemysl – and are met with mistrust.

Volunteers from the” Russians for Ukraine “initiative with their white West in the train station of Przemysl, Poland

For many Ukrainian war refugees, the train station is in Polish Przemysl, ten kilometers from the border with Ukraine, is the first station outside of her homeland. Every day up to 2000 Ukrainians, fleeing from Putin's bombs, arrive here. Most are women and children.

On the way between the station hall and platform number 5, where the trains from Ukraine arrive, volunteers explain the way to people, guard luggage or pets, give tips in Ukrainian, Polish, English – and Russian. Up to 100 of them are in action here every day.

In the first month after the start of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, the work of the volunteers was coordinated by the Przemysl city administration. Then the government of the administrative district – in Polish Voivodeship – took over the supervision of all aid activities in and around the station.

Language skills and a willingness to help are particularly appreciated by helpers, according to the regional administration counter in the station hall. The employee, who wants to remain anonymous, explains to DW that everyone is welcome as an assistant – regardless of origin, place of residence and nationality. But the volunteers from Russia, with whom DW spoke on site, report completely different experiences.

Russian passport, clean slate

Russian volunteers have been rejected several times at the Przemysl train station, says Georgij Nurmanov. In early March 2022, the 38-year-old founded the “Russians for Ukraine” initiative to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland. “We experienced that the officials did not want to use people with a Russian passport. They then said that nobody was needed at the moment – but at the same time other people were accepted,” reports the Russian war opponent.

“Russians for Ukraine” founder Georgij Nurmanov in the house he rented in Przemysl for volunteers

A spokesman for the regional administration told the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita that nationality does not matter, but that the volunteers are checked by the Polish security authorities. In practice, however, things are different, says refugee helper Nurmanov: “Apparently there are no fixed regulations. Sometimes you can get through with a Russian passport. Depending on who is sitting at the counter.”

Bureaucratic hurdles

Georgij Nurmanov comes from Omsk in Siberia. He has been living as a pierogi producer in the Polish capital of Warsaw for ten years – for political reasons. Nurmanov is an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He strongly condemned Russia's attack on Ukraine. In a village near Przemysl, Nurmanov has rented a house where up to 20 volunteers can stay. The Telegram channel of “Russians for Ukraine” now has over 2400 members.

A Russian volunteer in the white vest with the logo of “Russians for Ukraine”

Until now, the Russian volunteers on site wore white vests with the words “Russians for Ukraine” in English. But this outfit has recently been no longer welcome at the train station: “Since May 1, 2022, only the yellow vests that the Polish officials distribute have been allowed. So we can no longer be identified as 'Russians for Ukraine' “, reports Georgy Nurmanov. He sees this as discrimination on the one hand – and a politically motivated game by the authorities on the other: “That's the policy of the local nationalists.”

Russians are undesirable

The national conservative party PiS (Law and Justice) has been in government in Poland since 2015. PiS members also dominate the administration of the voivodship. Their competition in the region is xenophobic parties that are even further to the right than the governing party. Wojciech Bakun, mayor of Przemysl since 2018, previously sat in the Polish parliament for the right-wing populist party “Kukiz'15”.

Ola Karon helps Ukrainian refugees in Poland as part of the “Russians for Ukraine” initiative

Some Russian refugee helpers report that they also encounter xenophobia at their work at the Przemysl train station. Russians for Ukraine volunteer Ola Karon has Russian-Ukrainian roots and currently lives in the Netherlands. She came to Przemysl for two months to support refugees. “We don't want any Russians here,” she heard from a Pole at the train station, who saw Ola's vest with the “Russians for Ukraine” logo and heard her speak Russian. “I was shocked,” Karon told DW. “I came here specifically to help people fleeing the Russian army.”

“Go to Russia”

A Polish volunteer recently asked a Russian refugee worker to take off the vest with the “Russians for Ukraine” logo because it was forbidden. When the Russian politely asked about the legal basis for the ban, he was told: “This is Poland, no one will apologize to you, no one will show you any legal basis. Go to Russia.”

Georgij Nurmanov (front) and members of the “Russians for Ukraine” initiative protest against the Russian war of aggression on June 12, 2022 in Kraków /p>

What the legal basis for the Russian attack on Ukraine was, the Pole wanted to know from the “Russians for Ukraine” activist. “They don't exist, the attack is illegal,” the Russian replied. It was the same with the ban on the white vests from “Russians for Ukraine,” explained his Polish counterpart. Georgij Nurmanov and his collaborators filmed several such situations with mobile phones and published them on their Telegram channel.

“Show that not all Russians support this war”

It doesn't matter whether the work of “Russians for Ukraine” is hampered by bureaucratic hurdles or xenophobic attacks: Nurmanov and his comrades-in-arms will not be discouraged. The refugee aid initiative is not the first in which the Russian is involved. In 2016 he co-founded the Kremlin-critical foundation WOT (For a Free Russia) in Warsaw.

Georgij Nurmanov shows photos of previous volunteers in the kitchen of the “Russians for Ukraine” house in Przemysl

On the facade of the “Russians for Ukraine” house near the Polish-Ukrainian border the white-blue- white flag, since March 2022 the symbol of the Russian opponents of the war. In the kitchen are photos of the volunteers who have come here to help Ukrainian refugees. In the first 100 days of the war, that was a total of 160 helpers.

“These are both Russians and Russian-speaking people, including many who left our homeland for political reasons,” explains Nurmanov, while at the kitchen table he and his employees set the work schedule for the next few days. “Our common denominator is the Russian language.”

That same evening he has to drive two volunteers to the center for humanitarian aid in Przemysl, where they have to relieve two other women after twelve hours of work. The former department store contains dormitories and lounges for hundreds of refugees. The center is managed by local businessmen. Here the Russian volunteers are welcomed with open arms.

Georgij Nurmanov and his friends are encouraged. “It's important for us to help – but also to be present,” the founder of “Russians for Ukraine” told DW, “because that way we can show that not all Russians support this war. We feel responsible for what is happening now in Ukraine.”