Updated: Apr 7
We’ve all heard the antiquated phrase ”a photo speaks a thousand words,” first popularized in the 1920s by Fred R. Barnard referring to illustrated advertisements. However, in this age of social media especially with the popularity of apps like SnapChat, Instagram, and Pinterest, I think it is fair to say we are a society that thrives on the unspoken word. For whatever reason, we as a species are moved deeply by photos, pictures, illustrations, really all forms of visual depiction. After all, be it cave paintings from early hominids to the high art of the European Renaissance to the street art of modern artists or even the common graffiti found in any public bathroom, pictures have a way of transcending all languages, cultures, social ladders, and even time itself.
For this reason, and because I am still trying to catch up on sleep after returning home from Krakow, I would like to present my blog this week as an illustrated experience. Depicting for you, dear ducky friends, through my camera lens, a glimpse into my experiences in Poland working alongside aid workers and volunteers who are truly making an impact in a humanitarian crisis unlike any other our generation has seen.
Krakow Stands With Ukraine
One of my first observations of Krakow was the immense outpouring of support from residents and businesses in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. I was blown away by the amount of yellow and blue that festooned the city. On every street I found Ukrainian flags flying from buildings, signs of support and hope for Ukraine in business windows, even government buildings and monuments displayed banners proclaiming the unity of Krakow with the people of Ukraine.
Locals I spoke to were pleasantly surprised by the amount of support their friends, neighbors, and government expressed toward Ukraine. Many seem to feel that Poland’s history as related to WWII and the Cold War, as well as their recent responses to other refugee crises, demand a strong response from individuals and the government alike.
Aid From Home - As Much As I Could Carry
Despite everyone telling me not to bring goods and supplies for donation with me, rather purchase everything in Poland, I didn’t feel right showing up empty handed. So I packed up as many suitcases as I could manage full of items for women and children who had fled their homes in Ukraine. While US dollars certainly do go farther in Poland than here at home, the items I brought with me were greatly needed and much appreciated by volunteers and refugees alike.
Seeing the excitement and joy from volunteers when I would show up every day at the Krakow Refugee Center with a suitcase or two full of “kid care packs” that I had assembled the night before in my hotel room was overwhelming. But even more powerful was the moment of relief expressed by Ukrainian kids who received candy bars, stuffed animals, crayons, coloring books, and other comfort items from aid workers. I think the face of the Girl Scout who accepted Itsy Bitsy’s Girl Scout Troop’s donated cookies says it all.
Daily Protests - Refugees and Residents Making Their Voices Heard
Within a couple days of arriving in Krakow, I began to notice that the Main Square in Old Town Krakow was playing host to Ukrainian refugees and Krakow residents alike who were protesting Putin’s War. By day and night protesters would meet in front of the famous Adam Mickiewicz statue to demand that more be done to support Ukraine and stop Putin. The most moving was when the protesters sang the Ukrainian national anthem. Hearing the melodic voices bouncing off the walls of the historic buildings surrounding the square was haunting. More than once I had to wipe away tears as protesters sang.
One of my favorite photos that I captured during my trip to Poland is the one of girls joining the protest, using makeup pencils to draw Ukrainian flags on their hands and faces.
A Growing Need - Ukraine’s Long-term Need for Support and Aid
One of my goals while in Poland was to meet with volunteers, aid leaders, and government officials. I wanted to determine what the current and future need of Krakow and the Ukrainian refugee crisis was and would be. Through these meetings, and understanding that the needs now are great but the ongoing need for support will be even greater, I tried to come up with a plan to help any way I could while in Krakow. These images were ones that showed not only who I was meeting with but also the current state of Krakow’s humanitarian response.
As I started posting more and more photos on social media, I started to get a huge amount of support from people back home. That support helped sustain me and pushed me to volunteer as a “gopher” by going-for supplies and goods needed by distribution hubs at the refugee center, like the one shown above managed by Caritas.
Help From Afar - Every Dollar Counts
Quickly the emotional support I was receiving from home turned into questions about monetary support. I began posting more often on social media with photos and descriptions of the kind of aid that the refugee center, distribution hub, and volunteers were seeking. However, one of their challenges in getting the needed items for refugees was a lack of “gophers.” They needed people who could show up, with cash in hand, ready to go out and buy what was needed that day.
As I publicized the need for funds and gophers, all of you wonderful ducky friends came through. You all started donating through my website or directly to me through Venmo. In a 5-day period together we were able to raise more than $5,000 USD. An amount that translated into nearly $18,000 PLN purchasing power. Just look at all the good you did!
Wow and THANK YOU! That is all I can say. Wow for the overwhelming support you all gave and THANK YOU for caring about Ukrainian refugees. You will never know how much good your donations did for refugees and aid workers.
Now What - Long-term Support for Ukrainian Refugees
Having the opportunity to speak with aid leaders, government officials, and residents of Krakow helped me better understand the current and on ongoing needs of the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis. By the time I made my last drop-off of donations Sunday morning, March 27th, I was already formulating a plan for how we all can provide support from home.
It is my hope to use the next 5 months to raise awareness, share all that I have learned, and send continued donation support to Krakow for the aid of Ukrainian refugees. Let us all continue to follow the news regarding Putin’s War and the impact his actions are having not just on Ukraine, but his own people, Europe, and the world at large.
Keep following Fat Mama through my website, blogs, and social media. I’m gearing up for a humanitarian fight and hope that you will be right there with me standing united with Ukraine and those providing her citizens the aid they so desperately need.
If you want to get involved now and start donating to organizations on the ground doing good work with Ukrainian refugees in Krakow everyday, please do so. Here is a list of 5 organizations I either worked with directly or witnessed providing daily support to refugees. I have provided links to information about their work with Ukrainian refugees, and if available, links to where you can donate to support their ongoing humanitarian work.
Soroptimist International - Krakow: These amazing women are supporting both refugees in Krakow and supply chains of goods to be taken into Ukraine. Currently their website does not have a link/page for donations direct to these works but donations made to the Club can be earmarked for Ukrainian humanitarian aid in the comments of your wire/bank transfer.
Caritas Poland: This is a Catholic humanitarian aid organization working every day at the main train station in Krakow where the Municipality has set up their largest refugee center. Caritas is the organization I volunteered for as a "gopher" and they were in charge of distributing all the goods I purchased with your generous donations. They are doing an excellent job at addressing the daily needs of refugees. To donate to Caritas Poland's refugee aid programs, click here.
City of Krakow: The local Municipality of Krakow is addressing the refugee crisis in three main ways.
First, they have created multiple Ukrainian Refugee Centers with the largest one being at the main train station in Krakow. Here refugees can apply for identification cards that grant them access to all the same welfare benefits as Polish citizens, they can get a hot meal, and pick up goods (like food, hygiene items, care packages, etc.) they may need.
Second, the municipality is working to arrange temporary and permanent housing for refugees. From housing within Krakow, to host families, to shelters, to coordinating with other European countries, the municipality is working hard to help refugees find housing.
Third, the municipality is doing what they can to help Ukrainians find work and jobs in Poland as well as education options for their children. To these ends the Polish government, and many EU governments, are providing free transportation to refugees on all forms of public transportation.
This is only a snapshot of the work the municipality of Krakow is doing. There really are not words to describe the full scope of their aid projects. To donate directly to the municipality of Krakow click here.
International School of Krakow: The ISK is a private American school in Krakow originally founded by the US government to service the educational needs of government employees working in Poland. Now an independent accredited American school, the ISK is working to meet housing, food, and educational needs for Ukrainian refugees.
Their PTA is using the school's cafeteria facilities to prepare meals for refugees and then deliver those meals directly to Ukrainians who have found housing. The school is also preparing to start a school supply fundraiser as the children who fled their homes are starting school but do not have any of the needed materials (backpacks, paper, pencils, technology, etc.). For more information and to donate, click here.
World Central Kitchen: While I did not work with the WCK directly, I did see them at the refugee center providing meals. Other volunteers I spoke with informed me that the WCK has been at the refugee center for weeks providing 5,000+ hot meals a day for the Ukrainian refugees. Additionally, when you watch the news and see reports directly from the Ukrainian border or refugee centers across Eastern Europe, you regularly see glimpses of their logo on tents and banners. I highly recommend donating to this organization, you can do so by clicking here.
Fat Mama Tip: Please consider making your donation a reoccurring weekly or monthly contribution. Even if it is only $5 a month, that ongoing support will help the organization of your choice plan and prepare their aid efforts for the future. Every dollar really does count and without ongoing long-term support the current crisis will only escalate.
Want to do More?
If you are like me and are not content with “just writing a check,” don’t despair. There is a ton you can do from home to support humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
First, please check out my blog We Can Do It - Humanitarian Aid For Ukraine. It is full of ideas to show your support from home without having to spend a dime.
Second, follow the Fat Mama Travels blog, website, and social media for updates on the crisis in Ukraine and Krakow’s current needs to continue supporting refugees. I plan to stay in contact with the people I met on my aid trip to Krakow and will be passing on their updates to all of you. But additionally, I will be using my platforms to raise awareness for any new fundraising or events I participate in for ongoing support of the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis.
Third, I am working with my own community to start collecting physical donation items that we can then ship to Krakow. Yes, I know all the arguments for sending money rather than items. I experienced first hand how far monetary donations from the States go in Poland. But I also understand the desire of people in the States to send physical donation items (our local girls softball team just finished a stuffed-animal drive for the kids of Ukraine). So right now I am working hard, doing the research, and rallying support for sending donations overseas. But, if you are are able, writing a check to your favorite charity supporting Ukrainian aid will go much farther.
Fourth, I am making myself, my writing, and my photography available to others to help raise awareness for the great need for humanitarian aid in dealing with the Ukraine crisis. I am already booking speaking engagements and am happy to meet in person, via zoom, or any other communication format that will help get the story of aid workers and humanitarian efforts out into the world. I am also working on developing a photograph show series featuring my photography from this aid trip to Poland. If you, your community, or an organization you work with are interested in help planning a fundraiser or would like me to speak or write an article for you please contact me through FatMamaTravels.com or by clicking here.
Fifth, and last, I am in the early stages of organizing a second aid trip to Krakow. As long as my contacts in the city still feel it is safe and productive for me to bring a group of Voluntourists to Krakow then I intend to go back. According to the Deputy Mayor of Krakow, volunteers booking accommodations in "tourist-centric" parts of Krakow, buying their own meals, and purchasing city-tours, souvenirs, and other tourism goods and services will help the city of Krakow.
Before COVID-19, Krakow's economy was highly bolstered by the tourism industry. The revenue and taxes Krakow collected from tourism have greatly dried up, making it only more difficult for the city to meet the ever growing financial obligations of taking in Ukrainian refugees. Therefore, as long as the Voluntouists are self-sufficient, not using city services or programs available to refugees and professional aid organizations, and are helping rebuild Krakow's economy through both tourism and the purchase of goods/supplies for refugees, then city officials are for it. They key is to be giving more to the city and refugees than you take from local resources.
Fat Mama Tip: What does it mean to not use local resources as a Voluntourist? It means splurging a bit. Don't stay in a hostel or budget hotel. These establishments offer housing at a price point refugees and professional aid organizations can more easily access. Rather, stay in accommodations that cater to non-budget-conscious tourists. This way you are not taking a bed away from a refugee, instead you are helping provide jobs and revenue. Additionally you need to be aware of your surroundings and local sentiment.
I felt very welcomed in Krakow, even while I was acting as a tourist, rather than an aid worker. There was a general sense of "thank you for being here, supporting Krakow, and witnessing our support of Ukraine." But, had the protests I witnessed been hateful rather than welcoming. Had I witnessed food or supply shortages. Had there been refugees sleeping on the streets or filling local cafes during the day; then I would have felt differently. It would have been time for me to leave.
At that point, when a city is strained beyond capacity. When shortages are visible across multiple industries. When there simply are not programs or facilities available to refugees. Then it is time to leave, regardless of the cost. If a Voluntouist stays in a city experiencing those kinds of struggles that Voluntouist is now using resources that are need for refugees and residents. That is when a Voluntourist becomes a burden rather than a help.
My hope is that in early August I will be able to bring a group of between 10-30 people with me to volunteer with ongoing aid efforts as well as take the opportunity to learn more about the history of Krakow and Poland. If you are interested in more information about an aid trip to Krakow in August, please click here to contact me.
Stay Calm, Quack On, and Watch This Space…