By Jon Zurfluh and Ligita Miele
The American School of Warsaw (ASW) in Poland won the Community Partnership Award at the 2023 International School Awards for a student-led community initiative with scale and impact.
In February 2022, when the war in Ukraine began, many people from many different nations allied to help those affected by the tragedy. Warsaw instantaneously became a refugee hub for people fleeing the war. Since then, over 5 million people have come to Warsaw, seeking safety, food, warmth and shelter. According to the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, there are currently more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees in Poland, and with the energy and infrastructure being targeted by Russia in these cold months, there has recently been an increase in the number of people fleeing Ukraine in the past weeks.
An immediate response
The #ASWforUkraine chapter began on 28 February 2022, right after our return from the school’s winter break. On that Monday, we launched a website where we communicated the needs of the Ukrainian refugees and how anyone in the ASW community or beyond could contribute immediately. ASW parents responded by offering help in so many ways: accommodation, legal counselling, babysitting, translation services, contributing to food preparations, transporting donations or picking up people or pets from the Polish-Ukrainian border. More than 70 ASW families opened their homes to more than 300 Ukrainian people, most of whom were mothers and children.
A fundraising RallyUp campaign was initiated where people from all around the world could donate money and items, including clothing, medicine, food and baby supplies to support #ASWforUkraine efforts. A core group of students was formed which decided how to best allocate all the incoming donations and respond to the requests for need, and ASW volunteers sorted and collated supplies to send to relevant destinations. Students made decisions on how to best support refugee centres in Warsaw and at the border, as well as orphanages and organisations for the disabled.
On 6 March, a bus carrying 29 people from the Pechersk School International, along with a few dogs and cats, arrived at the Ukrainian-Polish border from where they walked to the Polish side, and then got on a bus to finish their journey to the school campus. The group arrived at ASW late that night, greeted by the school director, school staff and PTO representatives. After a short welcome with warm drinks, all the Ukrainian families were invited by ASW families to their homes and provided with shelter, food and words of encouragement. Some of the fleeing families continued their journey to other countries, while the rest stayed in Warsaw.
#ASWforUkraine center became a well-known hub for humanitarian aid
On 7 March, a phone call from an ASW family began a new and very important chapter in #ASWforUkraine story. Lipowa Center was born: a refugee centre run by the ASW community in a store front location in the city’s Lipowa 35 area, where Ukrainian people from all over Warsaw could come to receive food and clothing.
Soon the #ASWforUkraine centre became a well-known hub for providing humanitarian aid and workshops for Ukrainian people, serving daily meals to refugees under the guidance of a volunteer chef and being a venue for student, parent and staff volunteering.
Student-led campaigns engaging with other schools have resulted in an ongoing flow of donations. Individuals and organisations from all over Europe organised transport so that goods could be further distributed through ASW channels to support the Ukrainian people around Warsaw, Poland and beyond. Trucks full of goods from the UK, Spain and Portugal came several times a week. Each week, more than 400 boxes left Lipowa to supply refugee centres in Warsaw and at the border. Students from all grade levels came to load trucks, sort donations, distribute food and greet people.
Since then, students, parents and staff have been working at the centre six days a week, including breaks and vacations. In addition, a total of 293 refugees have been housed by the ASW community, over 1,000 donation boxes have been distributed to Ukrainian refugees, US$293,000 raised to continue the support and 43 displaced international school students from Kyiv and Moscow have been able to continue their studies at ASW.
Photo: Fifth graders at the American School of Warsaw working at the Lipowa Center
Impact across communities
Our students have been deeply involved throughout the service learning initiative, some students as part of the #ASWforUkraine leadership team as well as entire grade levels through planned activities. Many have volunteered extensive hours after school. Participation has included significant community engagement to mobilise support, continual service engagement with Ukrainian recipients to ensure the most relevant needs are being addressed and practical help to maintain the Lipowa Center and ASW donation chain.
Support continues and donations are welcomed. Together we are helping where it matters.
Jon Zurfluh is Director and Ligita Miele oversees the Service Learning programme at the American School of Warsaw, Poland. Connect directly with Jon on LinkedIn