Joanna Lapinska was practically overwhelmed by reality. On the outskirts of Bialowieza, the Polish city where she lives, four kilometers from the Belarusian border, residents have seen an increase in the number of hungry, thirsty and freezing people arriving from the neighboring country since last month. She joined dozens of others in forming a parallel local network to deliver food, water and blankets to refugees and migrants, in coordination with Grupa Granica (Grupo Fronteira, in Polish), a network of 14 non-governmental organizations that manages aid alerts.
“One day I was shopping in a nearby village and suddenly I received a message. [do Grupa Granica, com o qual já tinha contato] saying that there was a group of migrants waiting for water. I said, “OK, give me a few minutes.” I bought some water and we just went there,” recalls this 42-year-old product manager, sitting on a bench near one of the entrances to the pristine Bialowieza Forest in northeastern Poland. “There were nine Iraqis and Turks and they were very grateful. One of them was barefoot and someone took his boots,” he recalls.
Thus began an activity that became frenetic as the migrant crisis escalated. The network receives requests for help from Grupa Granica telephone numbers, which are distributed among the refugees. As soon as they manage to sneak into Poland, they write through some kind of messaging app and send their location via mobile phone. “We ask them how many they have, what they need, and we take things from the warehouse system we maintain. We go there by car, we try not to be followed, we park in a place that is not visible, we go into the forest and look for people. Sometimes we can’t find them because they have moved. But we found them in others, and they are in a deplorable state,” says another member of the network, Kasia Vappa, at her home in Khainovka, 30 kilometers from the border. It’s a routine that Lapinska doesn’t get used to, and she thinks she’ll never get used to. “It’s very frustrating to give them water and watch them drink like it’s the end of the world. You give them food they haven’t seen for five days, and they vomit because their stomach hurts from drinking water from the rivers,” he says.
The local help network legally moves in a gray area. The exact tone depends in part on boldness or legal interpretation. For example, feeding or sheltering refugees in Poland is not a crime, although Lapinska fears that a judge might see this as aiding the human trafficking mafia. Carrying them in a car – even without crossing any borders – or posting them can be a crime, although no one on the network has been arrested for it. “It is clear that what we are doing is purely humanitarian, not criminal in nature,” he notes.
The speed with which the web was born has a lot to do with the fact that, in some sense, it already existed before. Many of its members have previously coordinated to fight a government project to cut down trees in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lapinska is involved in a local relief initiative called Green Lights. It consists of using this color light to let the refugees know that they can knock on that door to ask for help. “It is based on good will. Each person should help in any way they can. It also shows others that helping is cool and that they too can do it without fear. People are afraid to help or say they are helping. In a sense, this is a taboo topic. We live in an area that refugees will not pass through because there are some fences around it, it is not part of the routes, etc., so in our case this is another sign that “we are ready to help.” Plus the psychological effect,” he explains.
In fact, there are only a few dozen. Some have covered the window with green plastic and do not turn off the light in this room. Because she lives on the ground floor, Lapinska bought a green light bulb online and placed it next to the window. Others, like Marius Kozak, light up the porch of their house in nearby Pogorzelz with this color. “I haven’t had visitors yet, but the police go around my house every night after ten, lighting the garden with flashlights to see if anyone is there,” he says.
The promoter of the initiative, lawyer Kamil Ziller, translated the announcement of the initiative into several languages spoken by migrants, such as Arabic and Turkish, and distributed it. “But not everyone knows that it exists. They are in the middle of the forest, far away from everything,” says Lapinska.
Wappa doesn’t have a green light at home, but he admits he took in some migrants in distress. “My way of dealing with this situation is to help. Since a person is dying behind my garden, the situation is decided for me. I can’t say “I don’t care” and go back to bed.”
The family of this English teacher and translator has been living in Hajnowka for generations. They are Poles of Belarusian culture, a community with the smallest mass of population in the whole country, but the majority among the 15,000 inhabitants of this area – as evidenced by its high Orthodox church, the branch of Christianity that this group professes. Wappa believes that her minority status brings her closer to those she helps.
“One of the usual questions is: “Why do you want to help us? Everyone tried to deceive us or beat us up. Why are you bringing us drinks? Or external battery chargers, which is one of the most sought after things. Because without a mobile phone you are alone and you don’t know where you are going,” he says. As an example of this disorientation, he cites some Cameroonians who had their mobile phones stolen and were walking in the opposite direction, back to the border with Belarus. An NGO activist recently helped a family who thought they were already in Germany.
Usually the migrants she meets have not eaten for five days. “The worst situation I have ever experienced is 15 days,” Wappa says. They bring canned fish, eggs, sweets, chicken pate spread on bread… Things that are easy to transport, but which provide energy and do not contain pork, since most of them come from Muslim-majority countries.
“Sometimes they say they prayed for rain: on the one hand, it means getting wet and freezing, and on the other hand, it is water, so they don’t know which is worse – drinking or freezing. They are very weak, and the forest is very damp. Many have bruises from the blows of Belarusian soldiers. And they are afraid,” he says.
Everyone lives this new facet of their lives in their own way. Lapinskaya does not feel like an activist, but “for those who live here and can do little.” “It’s not that the whole village starts accepting refugees in their homes. What we do is just a drop in the ocean of needs,” he justifies. For Wappa, this is another way to “learn how to help” with an eye on the future, unlike activists from other parts of the country who went to help in an emergency. “People come and go, but we are always here,” he muses. “And I think the problem will be here for a long time to come.”
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