These deals are free for 2 million Ukrainian refugees

Marina, a 28-year-old puppet theater actress from Kyiv, Ukraine, grabbed what she could get her hands on when fleeing her homeland in early March following the Russian invasion of her country. She came to Warsaw, Poland with her dog, a backpack and a small bag in heavy winter boots. But spring has arrived in Warsaw. She said she needed more weather appropriate clothing.

She found exactly the right ankle boots – along with toilet paper, shampoo and pajamas in a “free shop” in downtown Warsaw. A month ago, the space, which is adjacent to a skate shop and marijuana therapy clinic, was a hip bar. Today, refugees can walk in, browse the hangers, and choose what they need or want—whether it’s diapers, a cute dress, or an outfit for the job interview from a special shelf with office clothing. You can drink tea, coffee or a sandwich. Everything is free.

“We tried to find a direct way to help,” said Kasia Kujko, 26, one of the founders of the store, called Free Shop Latawiec (“Kite,” after the bar that was previously there and a nearby apartment complex ). Her friend runs several vintage markets, so they started by delivering clothing packages as they saw the need on various online forums. “We felt like we were choosing someone’s clothes for them instead of letting them choose their own,” said Kujko, nail designer and brand social media manager.

When they saw that the bar was closing, they immediately went to the city hall to ask about the space. They opened on March 14th. They rent it out with their own money, at least for now. Lacking a robust government response to the influx of Ukrainian refugees, the bulk of the relief effort in Poland is done on the ground, dependent on legions of volunteers working around the clock. Almost 2.2 million refugees crossed the Polish border most thought they had stayed in the country.

A woman browsing the store with her teenage daughter bought a pink dress and pants for her husband and faux leather leggings and jacket for her older daughter. She told Kujko she was also looking for a place where her daughters could play volleyball. One of them played in serious tournaments at home. Kujko, herself a former athlete, found a contact person for her within two minutes thanks to a group chat. The room also functions as an informal help center.

Inside the Free Shop Latawiec in Warsaw, Poland [Photo: Hanna Kozlowska]

The founders of Latawiec were inspired in part by a nearby squatter community that has its own free shop. Free businesses have served diverse communities for decades. They are set up for the homeless and for women in Domestic Violence Shelters. Lots surfaced in the US during the pandemic. In the 1960s, the countercultural Diggers ran free shops NYC and san francisco. Various groups in several Polish cities have opened their own free shops to help Ukrainian refugees.

A 20-minute walk from Latawiec is Centrum Pomocy Puławska 20 — a similar place but larger, with at least a dozen volunteers scurrying about On Friday afternoon. Since opening in mid-March, there has been a long queue around the clock. Everyone’s passports will be checked at the door to make sure they did in fact escape Ukraine, which is also a way to handle the crowds amid the pandemic. In the future, the founders hope that the room can serve people in all kinds of crises. People leave with Ikea bags overflowing with their finds.

Everything is very organized, with sections labeled “women’s sweaters”, “men’s pants”, “baby carriers” (linens and towels are requested). The space – a large partitioned shop front – is perfect for this purpose, having previously functioned as a used clothing store. The center was founded by people from the neighborhood and a local foundation that promotes Polish and European cinematography. The city made the space available to them free of charge.

“None of us have experience in non-governmental aid organizations or anything like that,” says Karolina Sulej, one of the founders. But they have relevant experience. For example, one of the organizers is a costume designer who knows how to manage large closets. Sulej herself is a journalist and researcher writing about fashion and the cultural and sociological importance of clothing.

Free clothes racks for Ukrainian refugees at Centrum Pomocy Puławska 20 in Warsaw [Photo: Courtesy Hanna Kozlowska]

“The idea was that it would work like a supermarket, where donated items would be more dignified than a quick delivery at a transit point.” The items are carefully checked: they have to be in good condition.

Reyna, 20, left Kyiv with only a thin windbreaker. She was freezing while waiting over two hours to get into the free shop, but when she got there she was able to find a wool coat – a little big for her small stature, but beautiful. She also picked up a light blazer to wear to church.

“Every person has a new, different need. We are constantly learning from them,” Sulej said. Both free shops post updates about their needs on social media, and Warsaw residents drop by throughout the day to drop things off.

Sulej wrote two books on the importance of clothing and personal belongings in World War II with a focus on concentration camps. She keeps seeing parallels to her work in the Free Store.

“My books are about how clothing can be a powerful tool to help or humiliate people,” she said. “You can invite people with clothes, show them that they have the right to be a person and an individual, because a person has personal things, things that no one can take from them. And we have these things here, things that can be building blocks for that feeling of ‘I’ve got something again’.”

It is clear that the focus is on the person of the refugee. You can get things beyond the bare minimum. On one of the counters is a small bowl of nail polish. One influencer delivered a large batch of makeup, courtesy of the brands.

At the pharmacy counter, a volunteer tried to describe what she was holding to a blond woman in a white jacket. The volunteer mimics the application of body lotion. “Oooh!” called the woman in a white jacket and understood despite the language barrier. She took it immediately.

The free shops set up in Poland for Ukrainian refugees also have a deeper historical significance. Throughout the communist era, many Poles received clothing gifts from Western countries, sent by immigrant relatives or humanitarian aid organizations. “Clothes sent to Poland by the United Nations aid program shaped Polish fashion for decades,” said Sulej.

But she sees the parallels even further back, to the last time Europe experienced such a massive internal refugee crisis.

“Things were taken from people in these countries and stored in very different camps,” Sulej said, referring to the Holocaust and the death camps. “These stolen things lost their owners and their identities, became garbage. Here we collect things that are gifts from the heart, that gain new identities, that help their new owners to start their lives anew.” These deals are free for 2 million Ukrainian refugees


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