Hugs, hope and Harry Potter
Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter actor and British Red Cross ambassador, visited Poland and saw our work with Ukrainian refugees first-hand. He urges the public not to forget the millions of Ukrainian people who have had to flee their homes.
Last updated 19 April 2023
by Sian Merrylees, British Red Cross communications directorate
Off a main road in Warsaw, about a 30-minute drive from the Old Town, volunteers at a branch of the Polish Red Cross are opening up for the day.
Already, a group of Ukrainian refugees have lined up outside the small office block waiting to register. They’re joined by actor Jason Isaacs, who’s just finished filming in Wroclaw, southeastern Poland.
Watch Jason Isaacs describe meeting Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
"So many individuals stories have stuck in my head."
As a British Red Cross ambassador he wanted to see the heart-breaking situation for himself. Days after his visit he’ll be interviewed on breakfast TV and he’s keen to remind the world not to forget the conflict and those affected.
Over 3 million people have fled across the border from Ukraine into Poland since the start of the conflict in February 2022.
The tension and sadness are palpable. Ukrainian men, who are over 18 and under 60 – unless they have three or more children – must stay in their home country, so the majority of refugees here in Poland are women.
“Millions of people are traumatised by what they have seen and by the uncertainty of the future. But one of the things that is keeping them going is their sense of community and the support they get from organisations like the Red Cross,” says Jason.
Traumatised and afraid of the dark
Polima, 28, tells him she has been in Warsaw since March 5. She arrived from Kyiv by train with her 3-year old son, Ivan, and one small backpack. “It was a very hard decision to leave but I made it for the sake of my baby boy,” she says.
“We lived near Sikorsy airport and there was bombing every day.. The sound of sirens was drowned out by explosions and helicopters flying overhead.”
For ten days before she fled, Polima, her son, her husband, parents and a neighbouring family took shelter in her parent’s small basement. They were crammed into a 10ft by 10ft space, venturing out only briefly.
The noise of the bombing traumatised Ivan. He used to be happy-go-lucky but is now clingy, doesn’t sleep well and is afraid of the dark. For the first six weeks after arriving in Poland, he woke in the middle of the night screaming, and is only just starting to settle.
He misses his father, a former police officer, now delivering supplies to security posts. Choking back tears, Polima almost whispers: “We don’t know why it happened. Why were our lives destroyed in just one day?”
"Terrifyingly close to home"
Polima is renting an apartment with her cousin, Kodeya, who she caught up with once they’d separately arrived in the city. She is surviving on savings and help from the Polish government and the Red Cross.
Kodeya, has left family in the Donbas region and cries when she explains how worried she is about them. Her parents wouldn’t leave and her 24 year-old daughter has returned to Ukraine. ”I tried to stop her but she is pregnant and wants to be with her husband, ” she says.
Everyone has a story and Jason is clearly moved.
"Our lives are so similar, but a phone call or a bomb made them run out of the front door with nothing. It feels terrifyingly close to home," he says.
The rooms at the centre are crammed with carton upon carton of mini bottles of soap, shower gel and shampoo, next to mountains of boxes of rice, packets of biscuits and other food items competing for space.
A gazebo tent bearing the Swiss Red Cross emblem is a reminder that Red Cross national societies around the world are pitching in to help with the crisis.
Alongside the food and toiletries they can pick-up here, refugees are also given information on how to apply for cash cards. These will be loaded with money from the Red Cross that will allow them to cover their rent or buy things that they really need.
Tears and shared stories
Alicja Pck, an accountant for the Polish Red Cross, tells us that she used to just “work upstairs”, but now registers refugees.
“When they come here to register you can see from their face that they need a hug,” says Alicja.
“We try to offer hope and hugs, but really we need money. Donations have slowed. We need money to buy medicine, hygiene supplies. Everything.
Many of these Red Cross volunteers - and even a few of the staff – are Ukrainian refugees themselves. Strangers who discover they once lived in the same Ukrainian city embrace and swap tearful updates they’ve had from home.
Alicja’s words are echoed by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) County Cluster head Stephane Michaud. Stephane, oversees the IFRC’s response to the conflict in eight countries in the region, including Ukraine. He explains that most of the people who have crossed into Poland, don’t want to travel far.
“They want to remain close to the husbands they have left behind. And some have decided to return to Ukraine to check on loved ones. We also know that many intend to come back in the winter when it will be very difficult to get proper heating and a decent quality of life.
He explains that the IFRC are therefore expecting a new wave of refugees flooding out of Ukraine in the coming months, that might be “bigger than the one we are already seeing."
“The conflict is not over and new areas are coming under attack. Also, people who have managed to hold on are now running out of resources and can no longer do so,” he says.
At the moment, we have enough money and resources to help people, but we know in the Autumn what we have will not be sufficient to keep up with the need. We need the generosity to continue."
"He has made my day"
Jason assumed he could drop by incognito, but we’d underestimated the global power of Harry Potter: word has spread that “Lucius Malfoy” is visiting.
Within minutes, the storage room becomes a makeshift signing session with Jason happily scribbling messages on leaflets and various scraps of paper for Harry Potter fans.
Olesia Trishyna even manages to rush home, returning with a treasured Harry Potter book for Jason to scrawl inside.
“Life is difficult at the moment but today meeting a Hollywood star has helped me forget what is happening at home,” she says. “He has made my day and my kids won’t believe it!”
And for a spell, things felt normal.
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