Traveling to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland

After reading a New York Times article on “Voluntourism,” with its specific focus on Poland and efforts being made there to help Ukrainian refugees, I decided to see whether I could provide hands-on assistance. My paternal grandparents were both born in small towns near Lembow, Poland in the 1890s (now Lviv, Ukraine), so I feel a special connection to both Ukrainians and Poles affected by the current unrest.

One of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) mentioned in the article, “A Drop in the Ocean,” is a Norwegian NGO that aims to provide immediate and direct aid to refugees in various parts of the world.

A Drop in the Ocean is the lead NGO at a facility in Krakow called Szafa Dobra, which means colloquially “The Closet of Good” in both Polish and Ukrainian. It’s a place where refugees can come for free clothing ranging from shirts, pants and jackets to underwear and shoes. Because I’d been to Krakow before and felt comfortable negotiating the city even without speaking much Polish, it seemed like a potential fit.

Beneficiaries waiting for the shop to open

My application, which I completed on the group’s web site, resulted in a phone conversation with a field coordinator a week later. We spoke briefly about the work the organization is doing – specifically in Krakow – their needs, my experiences, talents, skills and abilities. We also discussed the prerequisites I would have to meet, including an FBI background check, travel insurance, and a passport with sufficient remaining validity. I would also need a mobile phone with access to WhatsApp, evidence of my COVID vaccination status, and they needed to know that I understood all travel-related expenses – airfare, hotel, etc. – were my responsibility.

Szafa Dobra before opening


Finding the right NGO can be a challenge. My co-volunteers at Szafa Dobra, which included people from pretty much all over the world, spoke of contacting various NGOs about volunteer opportunities, only to be told they had enough volunteers but could use cash donations. Understandable, but for those of us who wanted to get our hands dirty, not what we were seeking.

One of the requirements of A Drop in the Ocean was the ability to commit to a 40-hour work week and a minimum one week stay. While generally in decent shape, two years sitting in front of the computer during COVID instead of being out and about has resulted in reduced stamina and 40 hours a week on my feet seemed a little daunting, so I decided to continue investigating other NGOs.

World Central Kitchen, a charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, was another option I considered. That organization, which provides meals for refugees and others in need, is especially well-suited to people with professional cooking and restaurant experience, which I know first-hand is physically demanding. When I started my research, its only facility was in a town on the Ukraine/Poland border with the nearest lodging about an hour away and no public transportation available. I decided another NGO would likely be better suited to my situation, though when I arrived in Krakow, I learned that World Central Kitchen had established a feeding center in the same parking lot used by Szafa Dobra and another at the nearby Tauron Arena.

In addition to NGOs, there are voluntourism organizations that will make all the arrangements for a volunteer, who then pays the organization for the hard costs (travel, lodging, etc.) as well as a fee for their services. Preferring to do things myself, I kept looking and found Internationaler Bund Polska, a Krakow-based NGO with volunteers that were also working at Szafa Dobra. Their schedule was much more flexible, with the ability to commit to as little as a single four-hour shift. Because I intended to be there for close to three weeks, four hours on my feet at a time seemed much better suited to my situation.

The author sorting donated clothes

Next, I set about looking into the other things it would take to make the trip happen. Using a combination of accrued loyalty points and cash, airline tickets were purchased and hotel accommodations arranged. I also obtained 500 złoty, the Polish currency, from my bank for small purchases.

Polish złoty, the local currency

I boarded the plane from Seattle to Krakow via Frankfurt on a Monday afternoon and arrived in Krakow Tuesday afternoon. Once checked in, I scoped out Szafa Dobra, which was about 200 meters across a parking lot, walked around a bit to loosen up after all those hours crammed into a 17-inch-wide airline seat, then headed back to my hotel to shake off the jet lag.


One of the logical questions about volunteering in a country where they speak a different language is, “How will I be able to help if I don’t speak (fill in the blank)?” There are many different tasks, not all of which require language skills: tending the kitchen where fellow volunteers can grab a coffee, water, or a snack; sorting donated clothes; receiving donated goods brought to the center or counting the items each beneficiary was taking (minimal language skills required); restocking shelves; cleaning up various areas in and outside the facility; and general maintenance.

Pre-shift briefing

Locals, concerned people from farther away, and even volunteers themselves would provide cash donations and, about once a week, volunteers would take the money and go shopping for more clothes to be given away. While the NGOs accepted used clothes such as shirts, pants, dresses, etc., underwear HAD to be brand new. New shoes were also high on the list of items to be purchased, as any used shoes donated had to be in top condition or would be recycled.

Some items needed to be laundered before going to the floor. Others didn't make it at all.

While the center was open to beneficiaries from 10:00 to 16:00, volunteers worked two shifts, from 09:00 to 13:30 and from 13:30 to 18:00. Time before opening was spent organizing, orienting new volunteers (there were new folks virtually every shift), and going over any new developments that we’d need to know. The time after closing was spent cleaning up, restocking, and noting any issues that would have to be addressed the next day. 

Keeping it clean

Then, it was Miller time. Or, being Poland, Tyskie time (Tyskie is a very popular brew in Krakow). Sometimes we’d go for that beer with fellow volunteers, sometimes we’d just head back to our hotel - bone-tired, but knowing we’d played a (hopefully) significant role in something worthwhile.

Just how significant? Before Szafa Dobra closed at the end of August to relocate, volunteers had given out over 600,000 items of clothing to more than 72,000 people.  The groups also operated a warehouse where people could get food, personal items from toothpaste to laundry soap to other sorts of hygiene products as well as over-the-counter medications. That facility provided over 507,000 various products to almost 50,000 people. 


It is said that travel broadens the mind, and nowhere is this more true than in an environment where one is serving.

During my career, I worked disaster relief with the U.S. federal government and found that being on the ground for an extended period of time helped me to become familiar with the area in a way that made me more a “temporary local” than a tourist. The same was true of the type of volunteer work I recently completed.

While there was time to see sites such as the chair memorial to Holocaust victims in Krakow's former Jewish Ghetto, they were no longer the focus. You find a local convenience store or a shopping mall where you can purchase those things you inevitably left home without. Rather than sitting down at a restaurant and being served, you find places that have the best street food or take-away. You interact far more with proprietors of small shops, local businesspeople and the average citizen than those merchants, restauranteurs and tour guides whose primary function is to make sure tourists have a good time.

Chair memorial at the Plac Bohaterów Getta

You will also meet -- and may form a bond with -- people with whom you do not share a common language. The maintenance person at our hotel was one such person for me. 

I needed to borrow a small hex wrench to do some minor maintenance at Szafa Dobra but, rather than just hand me the tool, he insisted on coming to the center and doing the maintenance for me. On the walk back, with him speaking Polish and me countering - in Polish - that I don’t speak Polish, I caught a word I recognized: his name, Bodgan. That led to me introducing myself in Polish and, again using one of my few Polish phrases, saying, “Nice to meet you.” From then on, whenever we passed in the hall or lobby, we’d exchange fist bumps and a jak się masz (“How are you?”). While I would respond with the traditional Polish, dobrze, (“Fine”), Bogdan would often reply with, “Great!” or “Super-ski!”, a couple of his few English words.


Volunteer travel also provides the opportunity to meet and get to know other volunteers from other countries and cultures and get a sense of why they were drawn to serve.

Alen is a chef and lead at World Central Kitchen. Though he now makes his home in Barcelona, Spain, Alen was a 13-year-old boy in Yugoslavia when communism fell in 1990. He escaped alone, without parents or siblings, and spent the next four years in a youth camp.

“When I saw the news footage on the (Ukrainian) invasion, it brought back some powerful memories,” he told me. “I knew I had to do something,” so he called upon his 25 years of experience in commercial establishments and volunteered with World Central Kitchen. He has been in Krakow six months, has a two-room apartment, and is lending his second room to a Ukrainian mother and her 14- and four-year-old sons.

Boyd is a career civil servant. Determined to use his accrued vacation time for its highest and best purpose, he has made two trips to Krakow from his farm in Michigan to work at Szafa Dobra. On his days “off,” he’ll occasionally accompany others who are ferrying supplies and other humanitarian aid from Krakow to Lviv, Ukraine. When he's home, he gathers donations from family, friends and neighbors, then sends them to Poland at his own expense.

David is an American and a physician who was born in Krakow. His parents were fleeing Germany through Poland in the ‘70s and were in Krakow when it came time for his mother to deliver. His family continued to the U.S. where he obtained various degrees from Ivy-league schools before earning his M.D. and affiliating with a hospital system in Phoenix. He, his wife, and their three teenaged sons came to help at Szafa Dobra to give their sons a view of the world and experiences that many their age do not have.

Michael has experience with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and, like me, is well accustomed to deployments in the aftermath of disasters, whether natural or man-made. When he was unable to find an NGO that was accepting volunteers, he bought a plane ticket and came to Krakow from his home in Miami to see where he could help. Now, he works with World Central Kitchen as well as with a church that has turned 50 rooms of a three-star hotel that went bankrupt during the pandemic into a shelter for about 200 Ukrainian refugees.

Giovanni, one of the leads at Szafa Dobra, hails from Venice, Italy. Now 26 years old, he volunteered for A Drop in the Ocean to assist with a refugee crisis in Greece several years ago and found the work so fulfilling that he joined the organization as a full-time employee. Giovanni intends to make relief work his life’s vocation.

Paolo, who recently retired, is also from Italy and volunteered so he could remain productive. He also brought his dog Lucy with him. She was quickly adopted by the volunteers as our mascot and often sidled up to one of us to seek a tummy rub. She was seldom denied.

Center mascot Lucy


Among the facets of the operation I found most impressive were the attitude and energy of the volunteers.

Over many years of working disaster relief, I saw time and again how people came together immediately after a disaster and helped each other toward the common goal of recovery. However, after a matter of weeks – sometimes several, sometimes just a few – that spirit of camaraderie faded and attitudes returned to whatever they were before. 

Even though many months have passed since the invasion of Ukraine in late February and there are stories of the average Krakovian experiencing “refugee fatigue” to one degree or another, the volunteers at Szafa Dobra and World Central Kitchen were uniformly energetic about the cause and eager to do whatever they could to help meet the needs that still very clearly exist.

To a person, those with whom I worked embodied a quote from humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. He once said of the human race, “I do not know what your destiny will be but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be truly happy will be those who have sought and found how to serve.”

If you’re inclined to serve, consider volunteer travel. I found it equally enjoyable – and more fulfilling – than any other type of travel I’ve done to date. I encourage you to give it a try.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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