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May All Migrants Be Welcomed

A letter from Ellen Smith, mission co-worker serving in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland

Fall 2023

Write to Ellen Smith
Individuals: Give online to E132192 in honor of Ellen Smith’s ministry
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Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery)


Dear friends,

Two migrant waves have come to Poland. The four million Ukrainians made up the second wave, and people were welcomed with open arms. The first wave began in July 2021, with people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-affected countries trying to gain access to the EU across the Belarusian/Polish border. They were, in fact, invited by Mr. Lukashenko with false promises of easy access to the EU. Lukashenko’s purpose was to weaponize migration in response to EU sanctions imposed on Belarus after the stolen 2020 election, violent crackdowns on subsequent demonstrations and finally, the Ryan Air incident, in which Belarusian Air Force planes forced a flight en route to Vilnius, Lithuania to land in Minsk so that a Belarusian activist in exile in Lithuania could be arrested.

Grupa Granica keeps a small warehouse of the supplies needed for interventions to help migrants

The refugees crossing from Belarus have come from Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Eritrea, Cameroon, Somalia, Sierra Leon and Kurdistan. They have also had migrants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even Cuba. These migrants have not been received like the Ukrainians. They have faced abuse and pushback on both sides of the border. Sometimes they have been pushed back multiple times across razor wire, swamps or the river. Those that have managed to get through have wandered the forests, often stumbling through swampy areas trying to avoid detection. There have been children in the forest and pregnant women. There have been elderly and disabled people among the groups trying to get through. People have died. A year ago, Poland completed a 186 km. border wall to keep the migrants back. Those trying to cross the new barrier are now younger and more fit, but double in number, about 3,000 per week. Grupa Granica has managed to get a hotline number well distributed, and they regularly receive calls from people in crisis in the forest. Trench foot is a common problem, as well as injuries from the razor wire and from falls trying to cross over the wall. Sometimes, people have poisoned themselves trying to eat what grows in the forest. The border guards often destroy cell phones as a deterrence, but these people have come from desperate places. They will keep moving forward. Strangers have come together trying to find the way. Grupa Granica has been responding to the desperate calls from early on. 

I began following the situation and the work of a Polish NGO, Grupa Granica, soon after the border crisis began. It took a year for me to actually meet with members of the group. A Reformed pastor in Warsaw arranged it for me, meeting in an upper room at his church. Kasia and Jakub were exhausted and agitated. They had an hour to talk with us, before running off to the next crisis, but they shared deeply about the work, and finally, I had the connection. About six months later, we met again in their offices in Warsaw for an update, and they offered me the chance to visit the border region where many migrants were crossing. About 10 days ago, in company with colleagues from Kerk in Actie, who also welcomed the opportunity, we traveled to Bialystok, Poland, first meeting in offices and then driving East to the border with another Kasia and Pawel. Pawel shared about his work with detainees. Migrants caught by border control are sent to one of two kinds of detention centers. They are seeking asylum, but that is a process. Most begin in a closed detention center from two weeks to months. If they don’t have documents (which are often lost or seized by traffickers) it can be a very long stay. It requires agonizing patience. They came with hopes and dreams based on the promises of the Belarusian regime. It is hard to wait. Once they have been fingerprinted (when detained, showing that they have entered Poland), they must wait through the long process before going further, or they can be deported. The law in the EU requires them to be processed in the original country of entry. When they move to an open detention center, they can move around and get work, but they still must not cross borders until they have been granted legal status. It’s a hard wait, but there is a process and Grupa Granica is committed to helping them through it, however long that might be, if they will only wait.

Olivia and the base house

At the town of Bialowieza, famous for its scientific research center, we parked in the national park and walked in for about a mile. There were all kinds of trails for Nordic walkers and other tourists, including maps of the trails. At the end of that mile walk stood the menacing fence – not unlike the one at parts of the U.S. border with Mexico. It is 18 feet high, covered with razor wire and runs along 115 miles of the border. It does not pass through the swamps or across the rivers. There was a group of soldiers among the trees at the edge of the fence. We looked at each other but made no other contact. A patrol car drove up as we turned to walk back. They drove past us, also making no contact. There are all kinds of sensors at the wall, so they know when someone is there. They are very aware when Grupa Granica comes because they know their cars. They know when the migrants are crossing the wall. The wall stands from 3-10 meters inside the Polish border, so once the migrants reach the wall, they are already in Poland. They can speak to the soldiers asking for asylum, asking for help. If Grupa Granica is there at the same time, they try to negotiate to pass water or milk for children through the wall. Sometimes the guards will allow the milk through. It is a hard situation. The Podlasie Forest is the last old-growth forest in Europe, spreading across Poland and Belarus. Now the animals of the forest, bison, deer and wolves, are also caught on one side or the other having lost their free range. Only about 10 percent of the forest is national parkland. Many villages lie within the forest, and many of the volunteers helping with the interventions live in the forest.

The wall

From the national forest, we drove to the base, maybe three towns over. Here, volunteers come to stay for varying lengths of time. They maintain a small warehouse of the supplies needed for interventions so that they have what they need at a moment’s notice. Other warehouses can resupply this base. The house was filled with volunteers from nearby and far away. We chatted with Olivia, who seems to coordinate everything. She lives two villages over. She introduced us to Anna from Warsaw, who is now studying to be a paramedic, because of her time helping in the forest. She comes when she can. Arva is from Germany. She speaks no Polish, but neither do the migrants. Her English is what is needed, and her energy and commitment. The helpline is at the base. People call when they are desperate. They do not want to be found, because they want to move on as fast as possible. They do not want to risk arrest, so they need to creep through the forest unnoticed, but things happen. Too often, people fall climbing over the wall, breaking limbs or getting serious cuts from the razor wire. If they try to cross the river or pass through the swamp, there are other dangers. No one knows just how many have died in the swamp. The group told us about a woman giving birth to a baby in the forest in the dark. Doctors Without Borders (DWB) is now working with Grupa Granica, often accompanying them on interventions. At the beginning, the Grupa Granica volunteers did all the first aid themselves, doing the best they could without enough training. The situation is better with the support of DWB. When people call, the team gathers as much information as possible – number of people, ages, sizes and injuries. The intervention teams move quickly and quietly to find the migrants. Sometimes the wounds are serious and they need hospitalization. Many don’t want that, because then they are caught and will end up in detention. The volunteers never force anyone to go to the hospital. They make sure the migrants make their own decisions. Sometimes the team from Doctors Without Borders makes serious recommendations when they see that the risks of going on are too great.

Traveling onward, we went to the hospital in Hajnowka. This is the hospital that the border patrols bring serious injuries or women in childbirth. Here we met another Kasia, who is in charge of a team of four who help to care for the migrants that come. Some hospital staff are not cooperative, but others will call when someone is brought in. The volunteers bring clothing and hygiene items and help the migrants sort through their belongings to see what is still good and what needs to be washed. Kasia does their laundry, either at the hospital or at her home. The migrants often find Polish food very difficult and ask for something with more flavor. The staff asks that the volunteers not to bring food, because then their food gets wasted, so they try to find sauces, spices and other things that can make the food more palatable. There have been deaths at the hospital. They are heartbreaking for everyone.

Nothing that Grupa Granica does is illegal, although sometimes individuals don’t know the law. They work to cooperate with local authorities, including the hospital staff and the detention centers. They are well-informed about rights and pursue justice for the migrants. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and World Mission have been able to support Grupa Granica in their work. Belarus is not the only country where migrants have been weaponized. People are on the move globally and most are not received with the generosity that welcomed the Ukrainians. I am thankful for the welcome that the Ukrainians received. May others be welcomed too.


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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