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Poland has worked a refugee miracle. But how much longer can it last?

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At a vast refugee centre in northern Warsaw, a table holds a generous mix of free goods: baby food, clothing, coffee and sim cards. A pyramid of dog food cans sits in the middle.

At the front desk, volunteers field questions. Yes, public transport is free; yes, everyone qualifies for a 300zl (£55) stipend; yes, you can register for a social security number at the national stadium. On the walls, QR codes provide information about onward travel to western Europe.

The Poles, it seems, have thought of everything. In six weeks, they have mounted an extraordinary response to a refugee crisis that has seen 2.5 million Ukrainians (along with thousands of pets) arrive in the country. Around one in 10 people in Poland is now Ukrainian.

“Maybe it’s a miracle,” says Jarosław Obremski, governor of Lower Silesia, one of Poland’s larger regions, which has taken in at least 250,000 Ukrainians. “In 2015, Germany took one million refugees in one year, and it was a big success,” he tells the Guardian. “We had to receive two million in a few weeks. It is a big difference.”

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An entire nation mobilised, from the railway workers who organised a mass dispersal of newcomers throughout Poland to the tens of thousands of volunteers who dropped everything to help out at the border, train stations and refugee centres. There is free food everywhere in the cities, from burger vans at the national stadium to food tents outside stations. Schools have welcomed new pupils, and hundreds of thousands of hosts opened their homes. Newcomers can stay for at least 18 months and everyone has the right to work.

Criticism remains of Poland’s refusal to allow non-Ukrainians refugees to enter the country. But few would deny that the efforts of the past few weeks have been remarkable. “On a scale of 1-10, I would say it’s 10-plus,” says Olena Bahriantseva, a child psychologist from Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine. “They have taken us in like their own family. I sit at home and cry for my friends and relatives but the Polish welcome still makes me smile.”

Children draw Ukrainian flags at a primary school in Krakow, Poland, which has welcomed refugee children from Ukraine, 18 March. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But now, the weeks are turning into months. The cities are heaving, and the all-important volunteers starting to drift away, returning to work or college. As resources stretch ever thinner, with no end to the war in sight and more than 20,000 still crossing into Poland every day, a big question hangs in the thin east-European air: how long will the Polish welcome last?

There are a number of reasons why this crisis is turning into arguably Poland’s greatest triumph since the end of communist rule in 1989. Firstly, there was a dress rehearsal: the 2014 war sent a first wave of more than a million Ukrainians west. “There was no problem because they worked, rented apartments, paid taxes,” says Obremski. “There was great respect for them because they worked hard.”

So when the Russians invaded Ukraine, officials already knew several things: there would be a lot of people; they would integrate well if helped; and most importantly, they would have to be dispersed throughout the country to avoid the burden of vast border encampments. There are far more Ukrainians now in Warsaw, Kraków and Wrocław than in eastern locations such as Przemyśl and Lublin.

We have about a million new children in Poland. It means I need, immediately, 80 new kindergartens and nurseries

The second vital strategy was to find homes for everyone. Ukrainians have been guaranteed a roof over their heads for at least two months. Crucially, the vast majority were taken into private apartments, either sharing with other Ukrainians or with a host family.

The third factor was the response from the public. Drivers turn up at border crossing points to take people where they want to go. Refugee centres are staffed by office workers taking a week’s holiday. Hundreds of schools have offered places to Ukrainian children, some even putting on lessons in Ukrainian to help the youngsters settle in.

At Warsaw central station a volunteer group has grown to 350 people, including students, marketing professionals, IT experts and even a psychologist. “I’m between jobs, and my plan was to go to Mexico, but when I was about to leave, the war started,” says IT manager, Jakub Niemiec, who is in charge of the housing and transport desk at the station. “I decided to cancel my tickets and stay here to help out.”

Volunteers help Ukrainian refugees at the central train station in Warsaw, Poland, 23 March. Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Yet volunteers have noticed a shift. Private accommodation offers are starting to dry up, so more people must be directed to huge refugee centres, where it is hard to feel settled. Major cities are very full – the populations of Warsaw and Wrocław have grown by about 15%. New arrivals are being urged to seek refuge in smaller provincial towns to ease the pressure.

Doris Maklewska of Grupa Centrum volunteers at Warsaw central station, goes to meet new arrivals from Ukraine. Photograph: Doris Maklewska

“We are not able to take in many more people,” says Doris Maklewska, a coordinator for the Grupa Centrum volunteers at Warsaw central station. “Warsaw is overcrowded. When people took in Ukrainians, they didn’t know how long it would be for.”

Indeed, there is great uncertainty over how long Ukrainians will be able to stay with Polish hosts, and when they may have to fend for themselves. Irina Tsymbal, who left her husband in eastern Ukraine and arrived in Warsaw at the start of March, found a family willing to host her and her boys. But soon she will need somewhere of her own. “They gave up so much for us and said we could stay, definitely for one month, and probably up to two months,” she says. “But after that, I don’t know.”

The refugee response will require Poland to spend perhaps 3% of GDP this year, according to Liam Peach, a regional expert with research consultancy Capital Economics. And questions are mounting as to who will foot the refugee bill.

Education is another big challenge. “We have about a million new children in Poland,” Obremski says. “It means I need, immediately, 80 new kindergartens and nurseries. And we must create a parallel Ukrainian curriculum because children without the Polish language will have no chance in the Polish system.”

Refugees from Ukraine queue to be given a national identification number at the National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland, 20 March. Photograph: Piotr Nowak/EPA

It is the same with healthcare: patient numbers could increase by 10% or more this year, particularly given the psychological problems that many haunted Ukrainians are bringing with them. The Polish health system will be sorely tested.

Beyond cash, housing and infrastructure, there is a more subtle issue. Will Poles succumb to a psychological fatigue if the war drags on, if housing issues flare, if schools and hospitals become crowded? If millions more come?

“I don’t believe we can take another two million,” says Obremski. “Even one million would be difficult.” Yet more than 20,000 have arrived every day over the past week. At this rate, the 3 million mark will be hit within another month.

“It’s clear that we will get tired – not of the refugees but of the situation,” says Niemiec. “But this is a moment for us to verify if the western values that we believe, are only values on paper – or are real.”

• This article was amended on 7 April 2022. Lublin is not a border town as an earlier version suggested.

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