From hosting refugees in union buildings, to organising donations, volunteering at border crossings and reception centres and organising classes for children, education unions and their members in Poland have shown great solidarity with those fleeing the war raging in the neighbouring country of Ukraine.
ZNP: Providing Ukrainian refugees with quality education and decent living conditions
“We knew that some activities were needed even before the Russian aggression. We had to prepare a strategy quicky. We sent protest letters to Russian authorities. After, we mobilised teachers,” explained Dorota Obidniak of the Związek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (ZNP).
Her union organised many activities. With other unions and many Polish organisations, ZNP helped by lending properties to be used by refugees- 250 refugees are hosted in ZNP holiday and training centres. It also provided refugees with phones and SIM cards, washing machines, etc. “Now we organise holiday camps for students from Ukraine, as we got funds from the American Federation of Teachers,” Obidniak observed.
The first three weeks were dramatic as 2,800,000 refugees in total were in Poland. Some of them stay, some are in transit, she reported, saying that refugees stay in big cities, where the Ukrainian diaspora is bigger. At least 80% of refugees are women of all ages, with children, sometimes very small children. There are 300,000 Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, where the population increased by 20% in three weeks.
“The situation is dynamic and changes every day. More than 1,000,000 refugees returned to Ukraine,” Obidniak indicated.
At the beginning, only 20,000 Ukrainian children wanted to go to Polish schools, so there were no real issues, she said. As the Ukrainian Education minister chose to support remote classes, teachers in Ukraine taught remotely to students living abroad, “who got the feeling their lives were going on with a sense of normalcy,” including in Poland.
Preparing guidelines on how to work with refugees, the Polish education unionists looked for advice and were part of an Education International project. They organised an online meeting with Marlis Tepe of the German education union, Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft, and former member of the Education International Executive Board.
Obidniak recalled that while Poland got 2 million Ukrainian refugees in a few weeks, Germany welcomed one million in two years. She said that Tepe could estimate the costs of welcoming refugees, how much money is needed, how many schools are needed, the number of teachers they need.
She went on to say that ZNP sent a letter to the Minister of Education proposing to collaborate with the ministry. “We got 60,000 Ukrainian students in Polish schools before the war. So, some colleagues knew what to do,” she said. The education union, however, has not received any ministerial answer to the letter.
Besides a creating a 200 member-strong Facebook group, ZNP hired someone from Ukraine in its main office to answer refugees’ requests. “Valentina provides information for Ukrainians in Ukrainian. For example, she gets information from teachers’ unions from abroad and can help with visas.”
The confederation employs a psychologist from Ukraine, Obidniak added.
ZNP is also working to prepare Polish teachers to teach Ukrainian students, explaining that Polish schools apply for money to prepare their institutions for Ukrainian students.
She reported that her union trains Polish teachers to teach Polish as a foreign language. "These classes were quickly overcrowded, as 1,200 teachers registered,” she stressed. ZNP concluded an agreement with the University of Warsaw to organise these classes – 70 hours per group, 20-25 teachers per class –, she said. There is also a course for teachers’ trainers, to teach colleagues what they learnt. These teacher’s trainers get an extra 30 hours of classes.
Obidniak also pointed out that some children with trauma cannot go to schools; the mother/someone therefore needs to take care of them. “These adults do not work and have little, if any, time to try to find a job. You need social support for everything. More than 200 refugees are employed in Warsaw by NGOs.”
She highlighted another issue: the recognition of qualifications of Ukrainian teachers, for which “you need a long time, and it has cost implications”. ZNP therefore asks for quick and free recognition of qualifications.
KSOiW NSZZ “Solidarność”: Contributing to a brighter future for Ukraine
Tomasz Gryczan, international policy coordinator of KSOiW NSZZ “Solidarność” and a member of the European Trade Union Confederation’s Education and Training Committee, emphasised three main activities undertaken by members of his union to help refugees from Ukraine.
“Firstly, my union decided to organise our 32 regions, our hotels and training centers for refugees from Ukraine. We organised accommodation for them – mostly women and children, places they could live in,” he said.
Also, each regional union branch has an office with specialists for the labour market who know what is required to get a job. NSZZ “Solidarność” also has a database with vacancies refugees can apply for.
Refugees can ask for legal advice, Gryczan added, stressing that “our lawyers in every region support refugees and explain to them what kind of conditions they need to comply with. Sometimes refugees have registration problems with local authorities.”
NSZZ “Solidarność” also organised a special fund for refugees, and collected first need items, supportive citizens giving clothes for example.
Gryczan underlined that, secondly, the union engaged in social dialogue with authorities, “crucial in such a dramatic situation”, advocating for inclusion and psychological support or refugees. “We started negotiating with the Ministry of Education in Poland to find the best legal framework for pupils from Ukraine. We proposed a flexible system which should include all children and suggested a psychological support for refugees, especially children. We also said it is crucial to change the curriculum and set up special training for teachers.”
“On international cooperation, the education section of NSZZ “Solidarność”, with ZNP, welcomed on May 4th the delegation of Education International and the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) – Education International’s European regional organisation. The delegation with ETUCE President Larry Flanagan, ETUCE Director Susan Flocken, and Education International General Secretary David Edwards visited our office and we exchanged good practices,” adding that his union met with European Commission’s representatives in Poland, where it advocated increased funds from the European Union.
The education union also recorded a solidarity speech with a TV video recording company.
“Of course, the war has not ended, we are still monitoring refugees’ needs, especially preparing for the new school year. Students and pupils should have the chance to go back to Ukraine. It is much better to rebuild the country when they have quality education, and we strongly believe that our education will also be one of the things that support Ukraine’s future,” Gryczan concluded.