Polish trade unions: ‘We do not call them refugees; we call them guests’


Following the military invasion by the Russian Federation on the Ukraine, that started on the 24 February 2022, millions of people have been displaced fleeing the war zone to the neighbouring countries, the majority of them are women and children. Most of the persons leaving the Ukraine and seeking refuge elsewhere, are crossing into EU and other neighbouring countries such as Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary. Many education trade unions in these countries have already expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian people and stepped in to support refugees, especially children and youth.

Today, we spoke to Monika Ćwiklińska from NSZZ "Solidarność", Dorota Obidniak from ZNP and Aniela Bialowolska Tejchman from the National Science Section of NSZZ "SOLIDARNOSC", three ETUCE member organisations in Poland, about their actions on supporting Ukrainian teachers and refugees coming to their country.


1.  Due to the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine, Poland is experiencing an unprecedented influx of refugees, most of whom are women and children. Could you tell us what is the current situation in your country and what impact does it have on the education system?

Dorota Obidniak : More than 2.6 million Ukrainians have crossed the Polish border since the outbreak of war. We do not call them refugees; we call them guests. This is twice as many as Germany took in during the so-called migration crisis in two years, not in 6 weeks. Ukrainian children have the same right to education as Polish children. Guardians, who are generally mothers, aunts, grandparents, or even friends of parents (when children's parents had to stay in Ukraine) can enrol the child in school. The problem is not the regulations but the physical shortage of places and teachers. Schools and kindergartens accept pupils despite the accommodation problems and the lack of teachers. It is estimated that in Warsaw alone, there are approximately 100 000 students (700 000 in Poland). Every day, around a thousand new students are registered in schools. The average Polish school has 500 pupils, so you can imagine that it is as if you had to create two new schools every day.

Monika Ćwiklińska: Since the first day of war, Poles quickly organised help for refugees: they set up admission points in the vicinity of border crossings, supplying the arrivals with food, clothing, hygiene products, and provided medical assistance. Many fundraising campaigns for refugees from Ukraine have been launched. Polish teachers are particularly active in helping. Together with their students, they organised all forms of help. The educational personnel are also taking great care of the refugee children coming to schools, trying to alleviate their stress and war trauma. Our law on education enables the creation of preparatory classes for foreigners, where children and young people can learn Polish language. Additionally to the lack of space and teachers, there is still a legal problem with additional remuneration for the increased efforts of teachers and other school administration employees. 

Aniela Bialowolska Tejchman: Many universities, across Poland, who are members of the National Science Section made their student hostels and dormitories available to refugees, amounting to 200-300 places. Almost in every university or higher education institution, a special office or unit was established dealing with providing the help to Ukrainian students, academic teachers and researchers according to their needs including housing, financial help, clothes and other necessary support.  Many Polish universities also declared that Ukrainian students can be enrolled on special conditions without having to pay for their education. They also get free student hostels and necessary help. The same applies to teachers and academics: as the Polish labour market is open for them, they can be employed without problems by education institutions. Furthermore, the Polish Academy of Science launched a special, well-financed programme for Ukrainian researchers.

2.  What actions is your union taking to address these issues? What would you demand from your government?

Monika Ćwiklińska: The Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarność has been actively involved in helping refugees. Many women with children are admitted to our training centres, and they are provided with a comprehensive assistance. Our regional trade union branches collect and donate funds to the newly arrived Ukrainians. Locally, they help individual refugees by providing them with all the goods needed for a normal life. It should be noted that we are expecting from the government a  proposal for changes in the law on education to introduce obligatory Polish language classes in schools and kindergartens enabling Ukrainian children to learn Polish.

Aniela Bialowolska Tejchman: The National Science Section stays in contact with the Parliament members, Ministry of Science and Education and government to signal the most important issues to be dealt with, to solve the emerging matters and challenges.

Dorota Obidniak: Local structures of ZNP organise the collection of donations for Ukrainians in almost every Polish school and kindergarten, in cooperation with local governments because, at local level, the needs of Ukrainians in a given municipality or city district are best understood. Thanks to this, food, hygiene products, medicine, etc., reach those in need as quickly as possible. ZNP has taken measures to support the education system at the central level while supporting Ukrainian and Polish teachers and school administration. These include online training organised in cooperation with experienced, highly qualified specialists, funded by ZNP or from funds raised by ZNP: e.g. free webinars for school principals on how to recruit and employ intercultural assistants and education support personnel, how to organise work and develop a assistants' work plan according to the needs of a particular school or education institution. In addition, free courses are being provided for intercultural assistants, which equip them with basic information about the education system in Poland, knowledge about the role of the assistant tasks, possible forms of work, the Polish education system and basic regulations important for pupils and guardians, as well as about places and possibilities of obtaining counselling. Moreover, there are free courses on teaching Polish as a foreign language for active primary and secondary school teachers.

ZNP has employed a teacher from Charkiv in its Warsaw office, whose task is to run a column in Ukrainian on the ZNP website, acquire and publish up-to-date information important for Ukrainian teachers, students and their guardians, create a database of Ukrainian teachers willing to work and answer questions on educational issues. Additionally, ZNP co-finances the stay of 200 people at the ZNP Centre in the town of Zakopane and rooms adapted and equipped by the trade union at its headquarters in Warsaw and Katowice.


3.  How could ETUCE and education trade unions in other countries support your union in dealing with these challenges?

Monika Ćwiklińska: In our opinion, ETUCE, as a European social partner, should exert strong pressure on the European Commission as regards the urgent mobilisation of funds for the Member States that directly help refugees. In this matter, a long-term and systemic legal solution should be created. We expect substantive support from our partners from member organisations and sharing of good practices in the field of the migration crisis, which culminated in 2015-2019.

Aniela Bialowolska Tejchman: Perhaps it could be financial help, perhaps new ideas or advice. We do not have any experience in this new situation which is developing every day. Therefore, I think this point requires a wider discussion between different trade union representatives on how and in what way they could help. 

Dorota Obidniak: In recent days, we have learnt about the scale of the need to admit Ukrainian pupils to school. In every place ZNP has visited recently with different delegations, we asked how to help. There are things that we have no control over at our level because it is the government’s responsibility, such as housing, jobs, fast-tracks to labour market, free validation of qualifications. What ZNP can do to help schools and teachers is to train, train and train again. I mentioned that we are organising a course in Polish as a foreign language. There is a lack of such specialists in Poland because Polish is not as popular as French or Spanish. We planned a course for maximum 100 teachers, but on the second day, we had to close the application programme because 1200 people had applied. Together with the university, we managed to find a solution to train all those who wanted to attend, but the cost of this courses is 40,000 euros. It is very important to us that the training is free of charge, because teachers in Poland earn very little. Taking care for several, sometimes more than a dozen new students in a class, preparing educational materials for them or conducting additional classes for them, is connected with additional and burdensome work. And yet, there are people waiting in line for training for intercultural assistants (assistants for teachers and parents), so we also pay for podcasts on Ukrainian history for teachers, we prepare educational materials for students. Ukrainian children in Poland are provided with health care and food, but training is financed by only few worldwide aid organisations. From our visit to the border towns, it appears that material and financial assistance is needed on the Ukrainian side for the towns in western Ukraine where a large number of war refugees who do not want to leave their country have taken refuge.