Migration and exile deprive people of agency. Myra seeks to transform the experience of people on the move (migrants and refugees) to one in which they quickly become active contributors to the common good in their new home and homeland.
The New Idea
Before February 24th, 2022, there were over one million Ukrainians in Poland. After the intensification of the war in Ukraine in 2022, the population increased exponentially, raising tensions. Every third Pole is unhappy with the idea of Ukrainian citizens staying "for a longer period". The sudden necessity of cohabitation creates space for polarization and even radicalization amongst both the Ukrainian and the Polish communities.
Myroslava, “Myra” was born in Ukraine. After arriving in Poland, she understood that "migrant integration" needs to be radically redefined. Myra seeks to transform the experience of people on the move (migrants and refugees) to one in which they quickly become active contributors to the common good in their new home and homeland. Her strategy is built on guiding questions that invite both, people on the move and the welcoming communities, to reflect on the different dimensions of migration and integration to the host country, and more importantly, to take action. These guiding questions are addressed in different instances. First comes where am I? We are here, followed by, what can we do? And finally, two questions about cultural identities and the sense of belonging of migrants, who am I? Who are we? The reflections and actions triggered by answering these simple but powerful questions by both groups, create the foundations for a common journey that involves short-term direct support and long-term efforts that nurture resilience and opportunity. As a result, relationships are built, and new policies and understandings come into play for stronger social cohesion.
Ukrainian House Foundation has created various outlets facilitating the process of asking those questions and finding answers. Our Choice runs News Portal, which allows Ukrainian speakers to know what is happening in Poland, programs to support people on the move in the labor market, and various meeting and engagement opportunities open for everyone. All institutions and initiatives by Ukrainian House partner with Polish organizations and local administrations. Myra and her team provide direct support to refugees and migrants settling in Poland while also engaging with Polish society to change mindsets towards migrants by leveraging research and publications as a basis for conversations with decision-makers and employers and active shaping of cultural and social life in Warsaw and soon in other localizations.
Myra's idea supports Ukrainians’ and Poles’ well-being, prevents conflicts, and builds social cohesion. She says her work aims to ensure that one day on Polish Independence Day, the Poles and the people from other nations will march together with Polish and other flags celebrating freedom and democracy for all.
Large-scale migration to Poland is very new. After World War II and under communism, Poland became a strongly monoethnic country, and Polish identity was built on that homogeneity. Poland is one of the European countries with the lowest percentage of ethnic minorities, representing as little as 3% of the population, according to official statistics.
The homogenization of Poland resulted from an active effort by the communist regime to build a unified national identity, a process known as 'Polonization'. These historical legacies have imprinted firmly on Polish identity, visible even in the current social and political discourses of patriotism. Even though Poland is politically safer than it has been in centuries, with stable borders and democratic rule, there are still narratives perpetuated by media and politicians that force perceptions of threats to Polish culture and sovereignty.
People on the move arriving in Poland, migrant integration, and the context of refugees were massively affected by three critical issues in the last three years. First, COVID and travel restrictions, later in the summer of 2021 the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, and finally the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022. According to Central Statistical Office estimates, in December 2019, 2,1 million foreigners lived in Poland. Most of them were citizens of Ukraine (about 1.35 million people).
According to Górny (2019), it has already been recognized that immigration from Ukraine to Poland has become a phenomenon that bears significant economic, social, and political consequences. From 2013 to 2018, volumes of various categories of migrants (e.g., seasonal workers, work permits holders, residence permit holders, students, and others) grew several times. The most spectacular numbers relate to seasonal migration which amounted to 1.6 million documents issued in 2018. The consequences of those dynamic changes in immigration to Poland translate not only into increasing numbers of migrants in Poland but also into the transformation of migration patterns and the role being played by migrants in the Polish labor market. However, public opinion polls in Poland prove that Poles are reluctant toward Ukrainians (2020), which changed for a moment after the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.
The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, caused millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes. According to UNHCR, on April 1st, 2022, there were over 3.2 million Ukrainian refugees; all together 6 million arrived. Poland has welcomed for the long term stay more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war. The scale of the influx is such that the population of Rzeszów, the largest city in south-eastern Poland, has increased by 50%. In Warsaw, the population has grown by 15%, while Kraków's has risen by 23% and Gdańsk's by 34%. At first Polish society and international humanitarian organizations mobilized to address the emerging difficulties concerning housing, income sources, and schooling. Authorities were also supportive initially, introducing special benefits such as payments to host households and free public transport; however, these measures were withdrawn in June 2022. The last was withdrawn in March 2023 as Deputy Interior Minister Paweł Szefernaker announced that the free-of-charge shelters would no longer be available because "we are convinced that many people in Poland can become independent and adapt." Influenced by politicians’ narratives, Poles are becoming less and less friendly towards refugees and migrants from Ukraine.
Myra understands that the experience of people on the move can only change with a transformation of the welcoming society. Ukrainian House's model is rooted in the personal experiences of migration and the reality of the Polish ecosystem, leveraging actions designed to change mindsets in both groups. Myra’s strategy is built on the flow of the questions: first, “Where am I? We are here.” The next step involves the question: “What can we do?” And finally, the questions accompanying migrations: “Who am I? Who are we?”
Firstly, Ukrainians must find themselves in a new reality after arriving in Poland. They need to deal with various formalities, learn the language basics, and understand how people around them live. They ask themselves: Where am I? Ukrainian House supports their journey to find the answer. To do this, the Ukrainian House provides direct support by running a consultation point that serves to help migrants and refugees to navigate the process of settling in, such as solving complex legal issues and receiving psycho-social support. The Ukrainian House Infoline, growing from 10 to 100 staff in a couple of weeks in February/March 2022, helped with 60,000 cases by phone and provided over 16 000 consultations in person.
After February 24th, 2022, Our Choice also established a housing department that matches refugees with host families– they have received over 27,000 applications from refugees (for approx. 81,000 people), and over 8,830 homes were shared by Poles and Ukrainians living in Poland. The program is currently developed in partnership with business partners (like Airbnb and real estate investors), in addition to individual families, whose involvement was necessary for the first days and weeks of the full-scale invasion. As Ukrainian House sums up: with an average accommodation for over a month, their beneficiaries have been hosted over 500,000 days, which is almost 1,370 years. They also proudly add that they have found housing for 1220 dogs, five snails, and two tarantulas. More broadly, Ukrainian House created a news portal and magazine to help Ukrainians stay informed about current events in Poland and learn about their host country. They cover news that might be particularly interesting for Ukrainians and general political, social, and cultural information from Poland. The portal is visited daily by up to 15,000 people.
On the welcoming society side, Polish society benefits from Myra's support in understanding that We are here, in the local community, in the labour market, and country where Poles and Ukrainians live together. Ukrainian House from the beginning accompanied Polish thought leaders in recognizing new concepts of being together. Research and publications like Working in Poland: violations of the labour rights of Ukrainian migrants in the construction and services sectors (2018), Myths and facts on Ukrainian labour migration to Visegrad group (2019), or The Impact of Covid-19 on Ukrainian Women Migrants in Poland (2021) were used as a basis for conversations with employers and decision-makers. The last report led to the creation of a Domestic Workers Union, the first of its kind in Poland. Besides providing direct support to domestic workers, The Union aims for legislative changes in this, still, unregulated market.
Secondly, the question that Myra leads to ask and accompany Ukrainians and Poles in search for the answer is, “what can we do?” to find and create opportunities for active participation by both groups. Work and job markets are critical for labor migrants and refugees. That is why Ukrainian House established a work department in the second half of 2022, where they consulted 500 people on work-related challenges. They have open hours every week for individual business consultations, where participants get legal support, tax advice, information on market context, and other topics. Moreover, The Our Choice portal team writes and shares articles and materials about the rights of employees and fair wages. In partnership with a corporate partner until August 2023, Our Choice will provide training for IT jobs for 600 people.
While adults need to work, children need to go to school. Due to the urgent need to ensure that Ukrainian children who flew the way complete the school year in Warsaw, Myra, in partnership with Klub Inteligencji Katolickiej, a Polish CSO experienced in running schools, opened the Warsawian Ukrainian School, following the guidelines of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine. Two hundred seventy children started "normal" classes in this school in April 2022, just a few weeks after the Russians' invasion, while 25 Ukrainian teachers found jobs matching their qualifications.
Besides work and education, which are essential, Myra realized that Ukrainians need their home in Poland. Myra developed a format for a community center called Ukrainian House, a place where everyone is welcome, and a cup of warm tea is offered. The co-creation of meeting and interaction spaces (300 meetings per year) speeds up the change of perception of a new person in their new community – from a newcomer to a member. Activities like choirs, libraries, exhibitions, and volunteering opportunities take place in the Ukrainian House. The Ukrainian House in Warsaw organized most events in both Ukrainian and Polish, and served as a micro-scale proof of deep cooperation between communities with many opportunities for doing things together from the literacy club “Next door,” to opening people’s doors for refugees. The concept of the Ukrainian House is currently scaled through the Federation of 60 CSOs in Mazovia Region and to Gdańsk, with 5 more localisations to open by the end of the year.
Myra very consciously builds coalitions and creates collaborations to engage Polish civil society and institutions at each stage and scale impact together. With Polin Museum (Museum of the History of Polish Jews), Myra was engaged in educational courses like "Poles, Ukrainians, Jews - history and the present", or the Polish-Ukrainian course "Urban Multicultural Stories" as well as been part of conferences and debates. Malta Festival Poznań, a theater festival aiming to reflect the increasingly diverse socio-cultural context in which it operates, is another vehicle to do things together in Poland. Furthermore, in a consortium of nine CSOs, Myra cocreated a base for National Migration Policy, a policy framework still missing in Poland due to reticence from authorities. She was also part of the working group about migration policy at the local level in Warsaw and the group at the Human Rights Ombudsman. Seeing the need for cooperation also within the community of migrants and the Ukrainian minority, Myra cocreated a coalition of minority organizations, which grew out of the Forum of Ukrainian Organizations, an excellent example of collective impact and collaboration above the competition. Established in 2015, the coalition creates an opportunity for new groups to take part in a course for community organizers, minorities, and migrants. Novice leaders take advantage of mentoring for organizations and informal groups and implement their ideas as part of the incubator of migrants and minorities’ initiatives.
The third question is, who am I? Migration is always a challenge for identity, an identity that does not have to be related to the work performed and may concern the developed passions. Informal contacts with other Ukrainians and Poles aim to rebuild one identity towards "being both," being Ukrainian in Poland, and getting the best of both sides. Ukrainian House helps to find a new identity of a Ukrainian person in Poland, by embedding themselves in the local context and working together. Starting with women, who were a significant group of migrants, Myra established Ukrainian Women's Clubs as a space of exchange and free expression for women. The first groups consisted mainly of cleaning ladies, who needed a space to express themselves as women, beyond their roles at work. There, they share their talents, hobbies, as well as troubles, and challenges. In 2022 there were 145 meetings of Ukrainian Women's Clubs in six locations.
And finally, the Who are we? question calls to embrace the new reality of a multi-ethnic Poland that reflects a new identity not only at the individual but also national level. This is enabled by Ukrainian House in Warsaw,and Myra's presence in public discourse and media, which influences Polish thought leaders, first, and later society. Myra is also a regular panelist at the Economic Forum in Krynica/Karpacz, the largest meeting platform in Central and Eastern Europe, where security, economic development prospects, contemporary challenges, overcoming crises, concrete solutions, and innovative ideas are discussed. Due to her participation and engagement in diverse key conversations around migration, Myra and Our Choice are recognized as opinion-making forces in this area, and numerous prizes prove it. Just to name a few, Myra received the "Golden Fans" award for activities for integrating immigrants and the Memoria Iustorum award of the Lublin Metropolitan Archbishop for activities for the Polish-Ukrainian dialogue. In 2020 she received the Honorary Badge of Merit for Warsaw. In 2022, she was nominated for the "Varsovian of the Year" award, making many realize that a Varsovian, who contributes enormously to the city, was born in Ukraine.
Joint activities of Poles and Ukrainians allow them to accompany each other in asking who we are and searching for answers together. Those answers are not only here and now; they reach far into the future. For instance, Ukrainian House is part of an initiative of Cultural De-occupation of Mariupol with Mariupol authorities, the Ukrainian embassy in Poland, the City of Warsaw, and the City of Gdańsk, as well as urban planners, architects, and community animators, have already started work on the reconstruction of the new Mariupol, commemorating the ones that fell. Myra has a long-term perspective in her work, knowing that the current experiences of Ukrainians and Poles will manifest in the future of both societies.
A new shape of societies in Central and Eastern Europe is indispensable. These societies will change as a result of migration and refugees. Myra is aware that new scenarios for co-creating the future will be essential. She prepares strategies that allow organizations run by people on the move themselves not to be support recipients but a force of positive changes for all. Myra creates formats for people on the move that will actively shape the future of societies in CEE and beyond.
Myra was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in a village 30km from Lviv. Social commitment and Ukrainianness were strongly present in her home and shaped her upbringing. Her father's family founded Prosvita (Ukrainian: просвіта, 'enlightenment'), a meeting place for cultivating Ukrainianness, but also for learning to read, which was operated in her father's family home. Her grandparents, father, and uncles were exiled to Siberia for leading this initiative. Myra's dad came back home after ten years in Siberia.
For this reason, the headmistress of her school, a true communist, disliked her family very much. Teachers were, therefore, unfairly harsh on Myra, so she was never confident about her performance in school. In addition, because of her skin disease, the children also bullied her. Despite the difficulties, Myra joined the Pioneers (Soviet scouts), where, among other things, she organized joint cleaning of houses and farms of the oldest inhabitants of their villages.
Myra’s mom encouraged her to continue her studies because she believed she would not find a husband due to her skin condition. She was wrong. But after studying history at a university in Lviv, Myra continued her education at the Central European University in Budapest until she moved to Warsaw for doctoral studies.
In 2004 a revolution broke out during the protests after the rigged presidential elections in Ukraine. Myra joined a revolution and began to act in Poland, not only with people from Ukraine but also with friends from the University. When the protests died down, Myra decided to evolve the work to continue creating a positive impact for Ukrainians and other people on the move, first as an informal group and later as Our Choice Foundation, today known as Ukrainian House. Myra left academia because she felt she could not make a difference from that position. Myra then committed full-time to building common grounds for Poles and Ukrainians, sharing past, present, and future.