The Polish community in Merseyside has united to support Ukraine and have called on Britain to welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms.
The UN reported on Thursday that over one million people were fleeing Ukraine with more than half heading west to Poland.
Others have found shelter in Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. Over 43,000 have also moved to Russia.
Merseyside Polonia was set up in 2009 to raise awareness of the Polish community and culture and build community cohesion.
The charity’s director, Gosia McKane, told LiverpoolWorld: “Everybody in the community is hoping that Britain will agree to welcome Ukrainian refugees, we need to make sure they can come here as I’m not sure Poland can cope with all the refugees.
“There has to be a shared burden with all the European countries to address what is happening.
“If you are from Poland you understand what people in Ukraine are going through. German troops invaded Poland in 1939 and the country still carries that trauma and fear.
“The feeling is that we have to do something and hope that we can learn from history to stop any aggression.
“Ukrainian friends in Liverpool and Polish people have said that rooms are being offered in Poland to mainly Ukrainian women and children as men are staying to fight the war.
“It is horrendous and heartbreaking.
“I have friends who live close to the border in Romania who are very concerned because they are so near to Ukraine.”
The plight of the Russian community
Ms McKane warned that people were suffering on both sides: “We know Russians in Liverpool who are concerned about their children in school being targeted when people know they are from Russian heritage.
“Those who have family in Russia have fears that they may not know what is happening because of propaganda and misinformation perhaps on a level we have not seen before.”
Russian-born Vasily Petrenko, who left his role as Royal Liverpool Philharmonic chief conductor last year, has confirmed he has decided to suspend his work in Russia until peace has been restored.
He wrote on social media: “The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine is already one of the greatest moral failures and humanitarian disasters of our century.
“The historic and cultural ties between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, of which I am proud, can never be used to justify Russia’s invasion. In response to these terrible events, I have decided to suspend my work in Russia, including all future commitments as Artistic Director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘E. F. Svetlanov’, until peace has been restored.
“I believe in the promotion of friendship and understanding across all boundaries. Peace must be restored as soon as possible.”
Ms McKane said that she has found solidarity in the Merseyside community: “In Liverpool when a group feels persecuted I know the community comes together so people don’t feel left behind and that nobody cares.”
Polskie Merseyside organise initiative to send donations to Ukraine from Liverpool
Tailor and trained engineer Michael Frackowiak moved to Liverpool from Poland in 2005 and started Polskie Merseyside a year ago alongside two friends Marcin Calka a mortgage broker and Bartosz Lisowski, a football coach who runs one of the biggest Polish-speaking football academies for children in the UK.
The trio rented commercial premises in Liverpool, paying £1,250 out of their own pockets in rent and bills per month, so they could have a base to help other Polish people in Merseyside and help them navigate the British system.
He said: “We felt it was the right thing to do to set up this organisation.
“We wanted people to have access to the knowledge we have, one of our volunteers is a translator and we wrote to local councillors asking for help. Only one got back, the Labour councillor George Knibb, we met him three weeks ago and he’s really interested in what we do.
“We were thinking about whether or not we could keep going with this when the war in Ukraine started.”
Overwhelming amount of donations to Ukraine
“We have sessions on Facebook Live to discuss serious community issues, we were getting so many questions about how to help people in Ukraine that we put out something on Facebook about donations and were overwhelmed with the response not only from Polish people but from British people too.
“Six Polish community groups across the north west have joined together to help the Ukrainian people through donations.
“Three lorries in Kirkby will be filled by volunteers to leave for Wrexham, to the main sorting centre, to then go to Poland. We also have two other sorting warehouses in Liverpool.
“In just three days we have received more donations in one location, then we thought we would have from six locations across the north west.
“Generosity is huge.”
There have been so many donations heading to the Wrexham sorting centre that the organisers are calling for more volunteers to help load the lorries.
Mr Frackowiak said: “We need as many people to volunteer in Wrexham as we can get so we can keep this going. Friday is the last day for donations in Liverpool but we now think across the north west we have collected enough for 80 lorries to be sent to Ukraine and we need to finance that so any financial donations are also welcome.
“There is big connection between the Ukraine and Poland and lots of Ukrainians on the western side of Ukraine speak Polish.
“My grandmother lived through WWII and was taken by the Nazis as an 18-year-old girl to work in agricultural villages in Germany for two years.
“It’s hard to believe what is happening in 2022.
“So many people could be displaced in this conflict, how do you get the infrastructure to help all these millions of people?
“What we’re doing in Merseyside is the very least we can do. I know tomorrow I will wake up next to my wife in a comfortable bed and see my three-year-old daughter.
“People are leaving their homes in Ukraine carrying one suitcase and setting off to walk for 40 km. What would you put in one suitcase if you had to? This is reality.”
Ms McKane from Merseyside Polonia organised a meeting with Liverpool City Council last week to discuss Ukraine and how the Polish, Ukrainian and Russian communities might be affected by any conflict in the country.
She is also in the process of finding out how Merseyside communities impacted by the situation in Ukraine can be supported through counselling.
Ms McKane paid tribute to Polskie Merseyside for organising donations to Ukraine and said: “What they have been doing is fantastic.
“We are all trying to support Ukraine in our own ways, the invasion has brought up so many emotions. The important thing is to stay united and help in any way we can,” she said.