The Polish hotel turned humanitarian ‘embassy’ for Ukrainian refugees

By Miguel Ángel Gayo Macías

Chelm, Poland, Mar 2 (EFE).- Poland has already taken in half a million refugees in transit to other EU countries since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last week. To deal with the wave of humanity heading west to escape the bloodshed, authorities and civil society are joining forces to provide them with shelter.

The Hotel Duet in Chelm, a family establishment just a few kilometers from the Ukrainian border, has joined the national effort, becoming a place for thousands of refugees to get a bite to eat – free of charge – and receive medical, legal and psychological assistance.

It all started with a message posted on the hotel’s social media channels, where its owner, Alicja Brzozowska, said she would organize the reception and distribution of aid to refugees from her establishment.

In a matter of hours, she told Efe on Wednesday, she received not only packages from local businesses and residents of Chelm, but also calls from people willing to help from as far away as the Netherlands and Germany.

Donations were followed by offers from volunteers such as Ukrainian interpreters, a psychologist, a doctor and even a hairdresser.

Following Mrs. Brzozowska’s decision to provide free accommodation to those who need it, the volunteers have helped turn the Duet Hotel into a kind of humanitarian embassy for refugees.

What happened at the Duet Hotel encapsulates the Polish people’s spontaneous and emotional reaction to the wave of refugees arriving from across the border, with which they share many cultural and historical ties.

“We give help, but we also need it,” the hotel owner says as she opens boxes of diapers donated by a nearby pharmacy.

“By dedicating the hotel exclusively to refugees, we have incurred economic losses that for now are not important, but the price of heating and other expenses are a concern if no one supports us.”

The hotel owner complains that she has not yet received any promises of help from the state, but insists that this will not stop her, “because it is necessary, and that’s it – look,” she says, pointing to the queue of people stretching out of the door.

Lying just 30 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, Chelm is one of the main cities on the route between Kyiv and Warsaw. Three or four train convoys arrive at the station from Ukraine every day, each carrying more than 1,000 people fleeing the war.

According to UN data, as many as five million Ukrainians could leave their country because of the conflict, the majority through Poland.

All the facilities at the hotel, from the rooms, which are serviced and cleaned daily, to the dining room, the laundry and a 24-hour buffet, have been made available for the refugees, most of whom are women and children.

Part of the dining room has been set up as a kindergarten where kids are cared for and have toys to play with.

The faces of the hotel’s regular staff, who have volunteered to work overtime without pay, are visibly fatigued after a harrowing few days.

In the hotel car park, crowded with vehicles with Ukrainian license plates and a bus from Lviv, Chelm residents continue arriving with grocery bags full of food or packages of clothes.

In the dining room, while some adults watch news of the war on TV, Bogdan, a six-year-old Ukrainian boy, goes around the tables to show them the hamster he keeps in a large glass jar.

Yulia, a mother of two girls from Kyiv, becomes emotional as she recalls how she fled from Ukraine, and says that if she hadn’t decided to leave right away – she left on Friday – she would probably be trapped now and with no chance of getting to Poland.

No one takes more than they need, and as blankets, powdered milk and baby food pile up against one of the room’s walls, some refugees lend a hand by unloading packages from cars.

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