ASU professor teaching in Poland volunteers with Ukrainian refugees

Jessica Hirshorn is on a Fulbright Scholarship for the semester and teaching at the University of Warsaw.
Updated: May. 3, 2022 at 6:00 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- An ASU professor never imagined her semester teaching abroad would involve working with war refugees. Jessica Hirshorn, who lectures on various topics, including Organizational Leadership, is on a Fulbright Scholarship for the semester and teaching at the University of Warsaw. She has Polish relatives and is hoping to explore more of the country during her time here, but most of her days off are spent volunteering to help Ukrainian refugees.

Hirshorn spends a lot of time at an expo center on the outskirts of Warsaw, specifically in a complex known as Modlinska 6. It’s become temporary housing for refugees, who get help with resettlement, food, clothing, and health needs.

“So many people in Poland have opened their homes to refugees, including my relatives, but with millions of refugees, a lot of people haven’t found a place to settle. This is meant to be a temporary place,” Hirshorn said.

The city of Warsaw’s population has grown 20 percent since the Russian invasion began, as refugees fled to Poland. The same is true for Poland’s second-largest city, Krakow.

The center at the expo park in Warsaw is not organized by a major multi-national NGO with humanitarian aid experience but rather by local volunteers from Warsaw. “The people who built this and run it are a teacher and a librarian. It’s all grassroots,” Hirshorn said.

With Hirshorn’s assistance, the Polish government granted Arizona’s Family unprecedented access to the refugee center. “They need the help. I think they want the world to see this,” she said.

The expo center, which typically hosts conventions, is full of cots. More than 3,000 refugees are living there. While the center is safe and provides various assistance to the refugees, the living conditions are not ideal. Thousands of people are sharing six showers. “And there’s only one hot water heater. So they could sign up to take a shower, wait a day or two for their turn, and then have no hot water,” Hirshorn explained.

As they wait for a water heater donation to come in, she said the volunteers were celebrating a recent “win.” They just received a donation of 20 new washing machines to do laundry.

There are other challenges. The center’s warehouse is short on necessities and overflowing with donations they can’t use. Comfortable travel clothes are in high demand, along with underwear and shoes. “There’s a shortage of everything from underwear to shoes and socks. It would be great if organizations like Goodwill would send excess clothing that doesn’t sell here to Poland for Ukrainian refugees,” Hirshorn said.

The warehouse is full of things the center cannot use. They’re overwhelmed with too many boxes of diapers, along with junk food and soda, which volunteers are not handing out. The volunteers have set up different rooms for children, including a preschool and daycare. Teenagers dial into remote classes and play basketball to keep occupied.

More than two months into the Russian invasion, there are questions about how long the center can operate without an influx of funding and assistance. “The main people running the center are completely burned out. They’re exhausted. They have full-time jobs, in addition to running the center. Plus, how long are people and businesses going to want to give and give? The long-term sustainability of this is in question,” Hirshorn said.

In the meantime, another room was being set up with empty cots as Modlinska 6 braces for another wave of refugees.