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Prawa autorskie: Agnieszka RodowiczAgnieszka Rodowicz

WARSAW, Żerań. The buildings of the former car factory at ul. Modlinska have numerous holes. At the entrance, there are two concrete blocks wrapped in a Ukrainian flag.

In the background, a modern exhibition and congress centre. A relief point for Ukrainian refugees has been operating here since March. It is operated by GE Operator (GEO), which leases the centre from Global Expo (GEx). The names of the companies are similar, and so are the owners. I was unable to enter in March. The centre was being monitored by the voivod; the media were not allowed in.

Dispensary and paperwork

In July, the container marked ‘Registration of volunteers and visitors’ was closed. The security guards refer me to the reception desk. A woman is asking about transport to the airport. Another is asking about suitcases. There aren’t any. There are also no questionnaires to complete to become a volunteer. After half an hour of waiting for the colleague responsible for that, the receptionist waves her hand. She hands me an ID badge, writes only my forename on it and leads me to the ‘lower dispensary.’

There are three Ukrainian women behind the counter of the former cloakroom. They explain what is going on and how it works.

Everyone who arrives first gets bedding, a blanket, a pillow, a towel, a mug, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and soap. Then, as needed: clothes and shoes, toiletries, earplugs, pet foods... All measured out in a pharmacy manner: one-off hair conditioner applied to a cup. Washing powder or liquid for two washes. Tampons five at a time, the same for nappies. Fortunately, combs are not broken in half. I learn which products the centre’s residents can get without being recorded, and what needs to be written down on a piece of paper, a document, referred to as a residence card.

Customers appear. I unwind several dozen centimetres of black thread from a large spool and give them a needle. I then bring cat food for three days: a bag of dry food and three small cans. I write this down on the card. Deodorant and socks too. The razor goes without registration.

Thousands of beds, an artificial palm tree and a parasol

Not much is going on, so Olga drags me to the canteen. There are several types of dishes to choose from, potatoes, cereals, pasta, salads, yoghurts, fruits, pastries, compote... There is coffee, tea and water on separate stands. The logo of World Central Kitchen, an international NGO, is on the walls.

In large halls, there are rows of black camp beds draped with suitcases and blankets, forming makeshift pens. There is an artificial palm tree beside one. In another, someone is sleeping under a parasol. Lamps are shining in parts of the hall. It is dark in places. And quiet everywhere. This silence hanging over thousands of beds is shocking.

A woman is looking up at the ceiling a few ‘blocks’ from the palm tree. The man next to her is listening to something on his phone. They are moving and talking in slow motion. They arrived in the middle of July from the Lugansk region. Through Latvia. In their own car.

‘That’s all we have left,’ says Oleksandr (52 y.o.), who was a driver in Ukraine. ‘Russians are already living in our house. The president allowed the men to leave the occupied territories,’ explains Oleg. ‘Why should they stay with their enemies?’

When he arrived in Poland with his wife and son, volunteers directed them to ul. Modlińska.

‘We liked it,’ says Tatiana (55 y.o.).

‘Really?’

‘We were living under bombs there,’ she explains.

‘And you are able to sleep here?’

‘It’s better than in the basement,’ replies the woman. ‘And the food is good. Three times a day and very tasty.’

I return to the dispensary. Clothes with tags are hanging at the other end. There are new shoes, tracksuits, panties, bras and socks in cartons. A long queue has formed for them.

‘Polish volunteers are handing out new things. People listen to them more than to us,’ Olga explains. ‘They were supposed to come in the afternoon.’ We wait.

Olga came from the outskirts of Zhytomyr. She was an accountant in Ukraine; here, she cannot find work. She is living with a Polish family for the time being. She comes to volunteer to keep her hands and head busy. And also to eat and bring something back for her daughter.

The queue is growing. There are no Poles, Ukrainian women open a stand with new products. A teenage girl helps them. The crowd storms the stall, but the goods are scarce. Hustle and bustle, pushing and shoving.

Finally, the 15-year-old girl shouts: “That’s the end. Go away! We haven’t got anything more to give you!’

Centrum Pomocy Humanitarnej Expo Modlińska, lipiec/sierpień 2022
The relief centre at ul. Modlińska in Warsaw. Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz
Centrum Pomocy Humanitarnej Expo Modlińska, lipiec/sierpień 2022
The hall, Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz.
Centrum Pomocy Humanitarnej Expo Modlińska, lipiec/sierpień 2022
Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz.
Centrum Pomocy Humanitarnej Expo Modlińska, lipiec/sierpień 2022
Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz
Centrum Pomocy Humanitarnej Expo Modlińska, lipiec/sierpień 2022
Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz

People go on holiday. I go to the Expo

Maria first bought cosmetics, clothes and shoes and sent them to Global Expo. In April, she came to look around, received a badge with the number 1925 and ended up in the lower dispensary.

‘Everything we give out here was provided by donors. They also donated washing machines and dryers,’ says Maria. ‘Thousands of volunteers were looking for jobs and housing for the refugees. All the voivod did was to turn up. Once or twice.’

Maria doesn’t know how many volunteers actually helped. Because some dropped by for a day, others came for weeks. Many came from abroad.

‘It was difficult to set an attendance schedule, because most of us work and have children. We usually dropped in after work for half an hour, which turned into four or six hours or the whole night. Because a lot of people were coming. Some injured, in a serious mental condition. I was asking: “What do you need?” They were unable to utter a word.

They stood in queues for three hours at a time to get to the dispensary, some were fighting, brawling. There were also women aged 50+ who pushed others away, took everything they could, sent it to Ukraine or sold it at the bazaar. Some people, mostly men and disabled people, were afraid to approach.’

‘We bought them underwear, socks, shoes and tracksuits with our own money ... many of us messed up our duties, our work. I spent a few thousand zlotys and neglected my health. But, in such a place, nothing matters anymore. I don’t go to barbecues with my friends, I don’t meet my family, I didn’t plant any flowers on the balcony. People go on holiday. I go to the Expo.’

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Diver’s suit and princess outfit

At the lower dispensary, Olga whispers in my ear that she has fallen out with her friends. Because the Ukrainian women don’t want to give people things. They take the best for themselves.

Opposite the dispensary is the so-called ‘lumpex’: used clothes, shoes, backpacks brought by donors. Anyone willing can take them without restrictions. Men’s T-shirts and sweatshirts, which I hung on hangers, disappeared in seconds. There is also a ‘lumpeks’ at the upper dispensary, where you can get new things for children and cleaning products. Next to it are shelves full of used children’s clothes and shoes.

‘So-called “strange things” also end up here: a diver’s suit or a princess’ outfit. The kids have a lot of fun with them,’ explains forty-year-old Anna. She prefers to remain anonymous. She’s afraid of hate speech in the Internet.

‘I read a lot and see how people comment even on something that is neutral or positive,’ she explains.

She has been coming to the Expo since April. Before that, she collected food and clothes from friends. She used to buy what could not be used. Mainly panties. She donated some to the Expo, some to families who took in Ukrainians at home and needed support.

Eventually, she went to see the centre for herself and find out what people needed. She had to fill out a questionnaire entering a lot of details, including her PESEL number, and they hustled her to the lower dispensary.

‘There were a lot of elderly people sitting in the lobby, staring blankly into space. Children were playing at being volunteers or riding in wheelchairs. I felt sorry for their lost childhood. I was sick after the first day at the Expo,’ Anna recalls.

Next time, she went to the upper dispensary and stayed there after that.

‘It’s quieter, I can talk to people, which is what I like most. I speak Russian, so they are happy to drop by to chat. But I was worried about being seconded to translate for the doctor or psychologist. Even without that, I listened to so much that I would come home broken. I would sit and cry. It took me an hour to recover.

Gypsies are also difficult. They act as if they were the only people in the world. ‘Give me modified milk. Give me another one, because I have two children.’ The worst thing is that they come in whole groups and smother a person. But there are also various Ukrainians. Some are traumatized, very nervous. We used to pour washing liquid into plastic glasses, because there was nothing else. A woman was upset that we were giving it out “like a glass of vodka.”

Another told us that her mother is bored in the hospital. She is over 80 years old, and won’t occupy hereself with her phone.’ Anna started looking for books for her. Through Facebook and friends. Her Russian teacher donated a large number of volumes and a pile of clothes.

‘Everything disappeared in five minutes. Lists posted by the centre are one thing, but needs are something else,’ explains Anna.

‘For example, there were never any dresses for them, but when I brought them – one click and they were gone. People were also asking for spectacle cases. Seemingly nothing much, but necessary.

Sometimes someone gave me a phone to charge. There is a number on it. The same as on the armband the residents wear on their hands,’ says Anna. ‘The Ukrainians say that these numbers are like those in a concentration camp. But they make our work easier. So does the paperwork on which we write down what we give out. Because it happened that someone wanted panties every second day, put them on once and threw them in the bin. But sometimes I ignore the paperwork. The children who help me here never do that. They observe the rules, more than the adults.

tablica ogłoszeń
“... there are no medicines. If you need a doctor, ask the volunteers downstairs.”’ Notice board. Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz.

There is room for swindling

The Mazovian voivod has been financing the centre’s operations since March. In late April, the court declared Global Expo bankrupt and approved the sale of the main part of its assets, a plot of land and two buildings, to a mobile network operator from the Polsat Plus Group. The sale did not take place because GEx appealed against the decision.

The bailiff tried to take over the halls at ul. Modlińska in May, but the security guards apparently refused and sent him to GE Operator.

The voivod did not find any irregularities in the centre’s operations for three months, even though his officials were on site every day. He conducted an inspection on the tenth of June and found that GE Operator was overstating the number of refugees. The voivod counted 1018 people in the hall, while the centre’s operator reported 2224 that day. The voivod’s officials also had doubts as to whether the company could use the facility, but the court ruled on 6 June that it could. Until October 2023.

At the end of June, however, the voivod turned off the tap to the money, and encouraged the refugees to move to the Ptak relief centre in Nadarzyn. Thirty kilometres from the capital. He ordered coaches to come to ul. Modlińska. The refugees did not get on them. The voivod claimed that the centre’s operator prevented his officials from conducting this event.

Articles about this appeared in the press and in the Internet. ‘Puls Biznesu’ found out that the governor paid the operator of the point more than PLN 12 million for less than four months, ‘Wyborcza’ found it was more than 13 million. GE Operator was supposed to pay Global Expo 50,000 zlotys a month for leasing the facility.

‘We were disgusted by this. Many volunteers backed out then,’ says Maria. She is also thinking about quitting.

‘I have no love for the voivod, but the point worked well as long as he was paying. Now, food has been limited to twice a day, and they’re turning off the air conditioning,’ Maria says, and asks to be anonymized. ‘I realize there is money in such points, a lot of it. There is room for swindling. I’m not brave enough to risk being hit by a car afterwards,’ she explains. ‘Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but people who have spoken out publicly about what’s going on here have been banned from entering.

Also, no one has spoken to us or informed us about the changes. We’re not sure what we are involved in. Does someone here want to help, or is it all about keeping the building occupied? Have the refugees become hostages of the situation?

Some volunteers speak badly about the centre. It’s difficult to expect such a place to work perfectly when it is based on the work of thousands of people with no experience. But we have come up with successive solutions, and I think people now have pretty good conditions here.

Only that when the volunteers left, they stopped posting the lists of needs on Facebook and fewer and fewer donations are coming in. I recently opened a window, handed out five T-shirts, and then had to say many times: “There aren’t any”. The enthusiasm is waning, inflation is rising. I’m wondering whether to buy something else from the wholesaler again. Will I buy fifty? Not enough. On the other hand, at least that many people will get something. Because I realize that whoever manages this centre now will not buy panties for the refugees.’

Duże jajko z papieru w barwach Polski i Ukrainy
The reception desk of the relief centre at ul. Modlińska in Warsaw. Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz

Whose fault was it? The volunteer’s.

‘The Ukrainians have recently been saying that it’s been too long. They are complaining that it’s difficult to sleep because people walk around late at night,’ adds Anna. ‘There was a shortage of washing powder and liquid for a few days and we were out of wet wipes. There was a lack of T-shirts, backpacks and belly bags.

And these are necessities. The refugees cannot leave anything by their beds, because thefts take place. People frequently walk away disgruntled from the window because they didn’t get a T-shirt or a suitcase.’ Anna felt responsible for all this and would go home with a feeling of guilt. She went away for a week in July and gained some distance from this.

‘I also made sure that I would be at the Expo a maximum of four times a week, for no more than 2–3 hours. I think that’s why I made it until now.

Some volunteers gave 100% effort. I met a girl who only failed to come once in three months. There were times when I arrived at seven in the morning and was greeted by a colleague who had been there since five. I think some people dealt with their problems, their loneliness, in this way.’

When I ask Anna why she comes to the Expo, she remains silent for a long moment.

‘I feel needed. My circle of friends has also increased. At the expense of a great deal of emotion, but I’ve got somewhat used to that.’ And people talk less about what happened to them. They start to live with what will be.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult here. They have started to keep an eye on whether someone is taking food out of the canteen and that no one but the centre’s residents is eating there.

The voivod sent in soldiers of the territorial army. They sometimes helped carry something, but four sleeping people were more typical. I would come in, and they were sleeping in the stores. Or the shelves. They almost fell on me. I say: ‘It would be nice to screw them in place.’ ‘We don’t have anything to do it with.’ I heard. ‘I’ll bring a screwdriver.’ They didn’t respond. Well, but they were there and kept watch. When the voivod left the point, the soldiers marched out. The Ukrainians are now helping each other, because there is no one to help.

No one talks to them. The voivod came once. The Ukrainians asked him: ‘What will happen to us? We won’t go to Ptak, because we don’t even have anything to pack in.’ The voivod said: ‘Call the embassy.’

‘A shto takoye ambasada?’ [What is ‘ambasada’?] asked the Ukrainians. I translated: ‘posolstvo’ [the embassy]. It ended with one shouting at the other.

No one informed the volunteers about anything either. I learned from the Ukrainians that the voivod was withdrawing funding for the point. They were also being threatened that if they did not get on the coaches for free, they would then have to make tracks to Ptak at their own expense. And the police would help them.

People tell me that they don’t know what to do, because there were rumors that the Expo was due to be renovated in August. Then that there will be some kind of exhibition in September and they have to disappear. ‘So,’ they say, ‘I think it would be better for us to return to Ukraine now.’

Articles have also been published about errors in reporting the number of people at the Expo. Whose fault was it? The volunteer’s who rearranged the registration cards somewhere,’ Anna is annoyed.

I ask if this discouraged her.

‘No. Should I be offended at people because the voivod was running a scam? Instead of hiring more people, pay them a salary, he ploughed on with volunteers? I try not to think about that.’

I am not a blood-thirsty capitalist

I, for one, am thinking intensely, who is responsible here and for what? Perhaps a conversation with someone who manages GEx will clear this up. Because what I have found out so far, I know from residents and volunteers.

I call several numbers listed on the Global Expo website. The voice on the other end does not introduce itself, but promises to involve a colleague – a professional.

We meet in a café, because the PR person, Piotr Płocharski, does not have time to go to the Expo today. At the beginning of the conversation, he points out that he is a volunteer, not a blood-thirsty capitalist who decided to make money on the refugees.

‘I help with communication issues; I don’t take a penny for it. I decided that I’d be more useful doing this than holding a mother and child by the hand,’ explains Piotr Płocharski, representative of GE Operator’s management board.

‘A letter came in January from the voivod asking if he could count on refugees being accommodated in the centre at ul. Modlińska in the event of an armed conflict,’ recalls Płocharski. ‘Our answer was affirmative.’

At its peak, about four thousand people were living at Global Expo. For the past two months, the number of residents has oscillated around a thousand.

‘The voivod’s allegations about overestimating the number of refugees are nonsense,’ explains Płocharski. ‘There is no way of precisely determining how many people there are by counting the number of occupied beds. And this is what the voivod’s inspection was like. People don’t have to report when they leave. Some people work, they come back at various times. It happens that someone leaves the place. Although he should deregister, he doesn’t do that. He returns after a few days, a week or a month. We also talk about a situation of total chaos, when a volunteer threw two hundred questionnaires into a drawer, which were found after several days. Of course, some mistakes were made in March and April. I’m sure there were also mistakes to the centre’s disadvantage. On this scale, there is no way of counting people with an accuracy down to five people.’

‘The voivod alleged a difference of more than a thousand,’ I point out.

‘This is absolutely impossible. Besides, the centre never received a single zloty more than the voivod accepted. And that was a month and a half after the invoice date.

‘The Mazovian Voivodship Office claims that you obstructed the transportation of refugees to Nadarzyn.’

‘The voivod is avoiding the truth. How were we to stop a thousand people?’ asks Płocharski and shows photographs of banners that the centre’s residents prepared. They have slogans such as: ‘Poland Global Expo, thank you for your help’, ‘Thank you’, ‘We feel good here’... – We should also admit that 55 zlotys per person is not big business.

‘It’s hard to say without knowing the costs. As far as I am aware, the voivod paid 95 zlotys for the first month. Whereas the volunteers claim they did most of the work.’

‘That’s true. But they didn’t even have a fixed schedule.’

‘Why weren’t people hired to operate the centre?’

‘There are Global Expo employees, but I can’t say how many of them support the centre. As for the operating expenses, I don’t think anyone has calculated them. But I will try to check that. Do you want to ask about the bailiff and the right to use the property?’

‘The volunteers suggest that the refugees may have become hostages of this situation.’

‘Global Expo is a highly modern event centre,’ explains Płocharski. ‘Revenues were of the order of 12–15 million a year. Costs and servicing of loans were around 9 million. With the pandemic, turnover dropped to zero. Problems appeared with their repayment and negotiations started on debt restructuring. Two banks wanted to negotiate, the third, owned by Zygmunt Solorz, didn’t. Solorz takes over the properties his bank is financing, which are starting to have problems with loan repayments. My impression is that the bailiff’s actions are not incidental. The article in “Puls Biznesu” was not entirely unbiased either. This is a battle. Whereas Global Expo is an ideally located property, with a partially repaid loan.’

‘Who finances the food for the refugees?’

‘Central World Kitchen,’ admits Płocharski. ‘But we have to pay the rent, electricity, water, waste collection, gas, security, cleaning... Money is running out, the stream of donations is drying up. We are looking for funding, talking to charities abroad, to embassies. What will happen if we don’t find sponsors in a month or two? No one knows.’

Additionally, the PR specialist does not know the answers to several other questions, but assures me that if I send them, he will try to answer truthfully. I send them. He does not respond. Instead, I get the contact details of one of the centre’s managers from him.

A madhouse, but a well-organized one

Olga complains at the lower dispensary in August that everything is in short supply, most notably the men’s boxer shorts. There seem to be fewer people in the big hall on the ground floor. But the palm tree is still standing. Julia lives beside it.

She came from Vysokopillya near Kherson, while her husband is from a village eleven kilometres away.

‘Russian soldiers are already living in his house,’ cries Julia.

She managed to leave on 18 March. She first ended up at the Expo. When her husband arrived, they moved to Ostrołęka. They started to live in a school. Ruslan worked on contract to the mayor’s office at construction sites and renovations. The labour office paid 1,400 zlotys a month, while the city paid the rest. It came to a total of 2,500 zlotys.

‘But he got rheumatism,’ says Julia. ‘His arms and legs swelled up. We returned to the Expo. He was bedridden for a month, taking pills, already thinking about going to work. Whereas yesterday they came and said: ‘You’re leaving. Give back your ID.’ And that’s it. On u rieki zhyviet.

‘Where is he living?’ I asked, because I thought I misunderstood.

‘By the river. He sleeps in the field. On the ground. It’s warm for the time being, but...’ Julia’s voice breaks. ‘I have to move out by 18 August. Because you can only live here for 120 days. We didn’t know that.’

She entered herself and her husband in the queue for a job at a chemical factory a few hundred kilometres from Warsaw.

‘I hope we get it,’ she sighs. ‘And that they give accommodation. I’m 59, my husband is a few years older. We can still work.’

‘Ti-ru-ru...’ the interview is interrupted by an announcement from the radio station.

‘That’s strange,’ says Julia. ‘They’re calling my husband. They threw him out, and now they’re calling him. I’ll go and find out what this is about.’

I would also like to know. I wait for her for a long while, but she doesn’t come back. I look for her a few days later to find out what happened to them, but I didn’t meet her again.

For the time being, I wander up to the first floor. There is a large room for women with children and a smaller one for pregnant women and those with the smallest toddlers. The difference is that, instead of five hundred camp beds, there are fifty of them there.

There’s also a room with computers and a playstation, a children’s playroom and a large hall. Someone is playing a piano standing in the middle. A couple is sitting on a bench holding hands. Volunteers have arrived from Mexico. The girls dance twirling their frilly skirts. The boys are showing the children a dance routine. Youths are playing table tennis, the kids are playing football. They are also riding bikes and scooters.

‘Durdom, as the Ukrainians would say,’ says Anna. ‘A madhouse.’

Four boys are helping her at the dispensary today. The biggest is handing out nudges. A seven-year-old is walking around with a dummy in his mouth.

‘When the parents go to work or for a walk, they leave the children on their own. They come to me with every little matter: to untie their shoes, to tie their shoe laces, untangle a knot...,’ she explains.

Irina is on duty today with her. She came with her son from Kharkov; they have been at the Expo since March. They want to go to Canada. They have already obtained visas and are waiting for cheaper tickets. For the time being they cost 4,000-4,500 zlotys. ‘My sister is going to help us, but she can’t afford such prices. They should come down in the autumn,’ hopes Irina.

Natasha, who came with her eight-year-old daughter from Kherson, is also waiting for a visa to Canada. Also in March. As an English and Ukrainian teacher, she is confident that she will easily find a job when she starts looking for one. For the time being, she cannot leave her daughter on her own for many hours.

‘Write that this centre is very good,’ says Natasha. ‘You can ask about anything at the information desk; there is a doctor, the food is very good and plentiful, there have never been any queues to the toilet. Everything is very well organized.’

The centre’s residents have the date of registration and the term of their stay printed on their ID badge. Irina’s expired on the seventh of August, but no one is bothering her. Or Natasha.

‘Probably because we have children,’ Irina thinks aloud.

‘And besides,’ adds Natasha, ‘I’m not breaking any rules, so why would they throw me out? They don’t expel anyone without reason.

But when the voivod wanted to take us to Ptak, we didn’t go. We heard it was terrible there,’ says the Ukrainian woman.

plac przed biurowcem, dzieci rysują kredą na asfalcie
The square in front of the centre for Ukrainian refugees at ul. Modlińska in Warsaw. Photo Agnieszka Rodowicz

We did not get any money from the government

I meet with Jarosław Kalicki at Global Expo on Sunday evening. He is on call. He used to manage events and exhibitions here.

‘We had to find our place in a new role overnight,’ says Kalicki.

‘The beginnings were difficult, but we quickly got to grips with it and I think the centre is working really nicely now. The UNHCR officials stayed with us for a long time, checking, watching. They acknowledged that we were setting an example for the whole of Europe.

When we walk through the centre to Kalicki’s place, every now and again kids run up and call out ‘Jarek, Jarek!’. They hug him, hang onto his neck.

‘Some have been here from the beginning, relationships are formed...,’ the manager explains and describes how the centre operates.

New guests are given photo IDs and wristbands at the registration desk. Security guards at the entrance scrupulously check them. People can stay here for a few hours, a day, a week, a month... There is no limit. But there is no admission for people under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

‘We isolate such a person in a prepared room the first time. If the situation repeats itself, we ask him to leave the centre,’ Kalicki explains. This can also happen to aggressive people or people caught stealing.

A woman in a wheelchair approaches us. She asks if someone could open the door at least a little in one of the halls. Because it’s hot. Kalicki says it’s too late for that, but asks an employee to switch on the air conditioning.

And then he shows the medical room, where an internist and a nurse are on duty every day. At their expense.

‘This was previously provided by the voivod. Just like other expenses,’ he explains. ‘We have been providing assistance to the refugees staying with us with our own funds and with the help of donors since the end of June. The maintenance costs amount to millions. Electricity alone is several hundred thousand zlotys a month.

We pass by the lower dispensary.

‘We have to buy many things ourselves now,’ claims Kalicki. ‘Previously, there was quite a large amount of help from companies and individuals. It has been declining over time. We recently sent more than a hundred emails to the biggest brands in Poland asking for support. We did not receive any responses. The same is with volunteers. 5–10 people come. They’ve all burned out or have got on with their own lives and holidays.’

We move through the accommodation halls, while Kalicki shows phone charging stations, changing rooms, six containers with showers, and a dozen or so washer-dryers. Some from donors, some bought by the centre’s operator. Next to it are rooms for laundry linen and blankets to be ozoned.

‘The laundry itself is a huge cost,’ notes Kalicki. How huge? He prefers not to comment. He does not deal with finance.

We move on to a sleeping woman.

‘She was taken to a psychiatric hospital on 18 June. Her daughters – aged twenty-two and nine – stayed,’ says Kalicki. ‘I looked after them, we went to visit their mother at the hospital, she was recently discharged. We are also helping a woman, whose children the court took from her, to get them back. There are various problems here. Russian- and Ukrainian-language psychologists from a foundation with which we work are on duty with us every day,’ says the manager, and shows a muted, daylight-deprived room for 30–40 cancer patients with disabilities. They have decent beds, which, as in the large halls, are not separated by anything.

‘We thought about curtains to offer more privacy, but fire regulations prevent this,’ explains the manager.

Instead, there are firefighters, electricians and other specialists at the Expo 24 hours a day. There are about 50 people overall supporting the centre. Most are GEx employees. Some were recruited among local residents. In addition, a dozen or so people from external companies who clean, as well as security staff.

‘While we were “under the voivode”, the army and the police were also there. They were useful when we needed to intervene. We asked the Białołęka police station for support. For the time being, a patrol shows up several times a day. Of the approximately 1,100 people living with us, about 70% are mothers with children. It seems to me that the services should be here,’ notes Kalicki.

I ask how he feels as a relief worker.

‘It was shock at first. People were crying, after several days on the road. It was mentally difficult... But even though the voivod has “left”, we are still operating. The people did not want to leave us. We are no substitute for their homes, but we try to make sure they are taken care of. Many people will need help for a long time. The government and the EU should wake up and create some kind of care programme for these people.

When I ask if he has found his place as a relief worker, he starts to cry. He cannot recover for several minutes.

The devil is in the detail

After a week, I get a long response from the management board of GE Operator.

The management board explains the matter of restricting the length of stay to 120 days, but no specifics on the company’s costs.

GE Operator’s ability to provide aid is severely limited and every day we face dilemmas as to what to do. For this reason, the people staying at the centre for more than 120 days, who have taken up employment or are to some extent independent, are asked to look for other accommodation,’ writes the management board. And makes the assurance that it usually operates in advance so that people have time to find a new place.

What’s next for the Relief Centre at Global Expo?

If we do not obtain funding, we are considering charging for accommodation, which would be a better solution for many refugees staying at ul. Modlińska than relocation somewhere outside Warsaw,’ writes the management board.

This is one of many options under consideration. For the time being, it is too early to discuss the details.

But the devil is in the detail.

The personal details of some of the protagonists have been changed at their request.

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Agnieszka Rodowicz

Reporterka, fotografka, studiowała filologię portugalską. Nominowana do Nagrody Newsweeka im. Teresy Torańskiej za reportaż o uchodźcach i migrantach w pandemii (2020), zdobyła też wyróżnienia Prix de la Photographie Paris 2016 i 2009.

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