Eleven days after the war in Ukraine started, a bomb fell on the building next to Rozalia’s home, where she lived with her husband and two-year-old son, Andre, in the northern city of Chernihiv.

Rozalia knew she had only a brief window of opportunity before more bombs fell. She grabbed the bag she had packed earlier and left the city with her son. A priest drove them to Kyiv and they crammed into a train to the Polish border. The journey took three days, but Rozalia bats away any suggestion it was an ordeal.

“It wasn’t about the difficulties of the journey,” she says. “It was about finding a safe place for my son.”

Rozalia, who worked in local theatre as an actress before the war, has not heard from her husband in Chernihiv for three days. She and Andre have a roof over their heads in Warsaw thanks to a Polish journalist who offered them his spare room. What she lacks is cash to buy what she and her son need until they can register for the identification documents that will give them access to Poland’s social security system.

“Our fridge is empty, so we need to buy food,” she says. “Some people have tried to give us food, but I feel ashamed. I want to buy it myself.”

Poland has provided refuge to more than 2.8 million people fleeing Ukraine, with more arriving every day. While some have moved on to other countries in Europe and beyond, the majority have remained in Poland where they can be closer to home and relatives who stayed behind.

While refugees from Ukraine can access social services and employment in Poland, there are delays due to the sheer volume of people seeking help. UNHCR’s cash assistance program fills the gap for refugees like Rozalia while they wait for social security.

Rozalia Kucherowa and her son Andre register at UNHCR’s cash assistance centre in Warsaw. © UNHCR/Maciej Moskwa

“Some people have tried to give us food, but I feel ashamed. I want to buy it myself.”

The cash enrolment centre includes a child-friendly space for young children like Andre. © UNHCR/Maciej Moskwa

The program helps refugees meet their immediate needs while also supporting the local economy, with refugees shopping locally and paying rent.

With the opening of its cash assistance centre in Warsaw, UNHCR has reached more than 6,000 refugees and aims to roll out the program in other cities across Poland. Eligible refugees receive 710 Polish zloty (US$165) per month for at least three months, with a maximum of 2,540 zloty (US$605) for a household per month.

A similar program is also being rolled out in Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and in parts of Ukraine, where more than 6.5 million people have been internally displaced and need urgent aid.

“Cash puts the decision-making about what is most needed into the hands of the people being assisted,” explains Andrew Hopkins, chief of UNHCR’s digital identity and registration section, who is in Poland to help set up cash enrolment centres like the one in Warsaw.

The enrolment centres also provide an entry point for UNHCR and its partners to identify vulnerable refugees’ other needs, and to connect them with the appropriate services.

“[During the enrolment], we only have a few minutes with each refugee family and, in that short exchange, we make sure we have mechanisms in place to be able to support them not just with cash, but with a full protection response,” says Hopkins.

“Blue Dot” help desks, jointly run by UNHCR and UNICEF, will be set up at every cash centre to provide counselling to refugees, and to refer them to specialised services, including for unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, LGBTI+ people, or women experiencing gender-based violence.

“Cash puts the decision-making about what is most needed into the hands of the people being assisted”

Some of the staff working at the centres are themselves Ukrainian refugees. Ilona fled Kyiv with her two children on 2 March. She says she felt powerless to help anyone there.

“We didn’t believe this could happen until we woke up one morning and heard the bombing. Before that, we went to bed believing the diplomatic process would work,” she says.

“I had to make a decision to go somewhere I could do more. This program is about helping other refugees. Also, I work and I’m busy and it takes me away from being on social media all day.”

Ilona is helping refugees like 80-year-old Liubov, known to her family as Luba, who crossed the border with nothing but a small bag of documents, including the title to her house in a village outside Kyiv.

“It was all she could carry,” said her daughter Larysa, a physiotherapist who has lived in Poland for 11 years and accompanied her mother to the cash enrolment centre.

“At the beginning, she refused to leave her house and her village where she had lived all her life. But with the stress of the situation, she was hardly walking, and I insisted to bring her here.”

Liubov arrived in Poland on a minibus driven by some of Larysa’s friends.

“We’re praying for the war to end so she can return home. She tells me that an old tree can’t be replanted. She has her roots there.”

In the meantime, Liubov has moved into Larysa’s tiny studio apartment in Warsaw. They will use the cash she receives from the program to pay for some crutches and other medical needs.

The cash centre is full of mothers with tired children. When one of them starts crying, Liubov is reminded of the cries of a child in the church where she rested for a few hours during her long journey to the border.

“I want peace and no more war,” she says, wiping away her own tears. “I don’t want the children crying.”

Your donation can help refugees like Rozalia and Liubov meet their immediate needs.

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Ilona Sharova (left), a refugee from Ukraine, helps to register other refugees for UNHCR’s cash assistance program in Warsaw. © UNHCR/Maciej Moskwa

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