By Michele Giovia
In the early hours of Feb. 24, 2022, Mission Poland’s American Citizen Welcome Center in the southeastern border town of Przemyśl received its first visitors—a family who had fled Ukraine as news of Russia’s invasion earlier that day spread. Staff sprang into action, helping the family locate a place to stay and bracing for the inquiries that were soon to come. In the seven weeks of the welcome center’s operation, staff from Mission Poland and temporary duty employees from around the world met with or spoke to more than 2,000 individuals trying to evacuate Ukraine and their concerned families back in the United States.
In the first weeks after the invasion, crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border often required a walk of several miles to the checkpoint due to lack of transportation and a multiple-day wait in cold weather among crowds of other evacuees. These initial visitors to the welcome center needed a place to rest after the long journey, or simply a place to charge their phones after fielding calls from frantic loved ones. Visitors needed to decompress, speak to someone in English, and get resources for their next steps. Americans from all walks of life passed through the welcome center: athletes, schoolteachers, newborn babies, and even cherished pets. People were processing the shock of it all—one moment they were living a normal life, and in an instant, they were rushing to the border fleeing an invasion.
As the initial traffic slowed, the welcome center took on more complicated cases, such as supporting families of babies born via surrogacy or assisting U.S. citizens with medical issues cross the border and find care in Poland. Staff worked with Americans at their most difficult moments, and these efforts helped visitors leave with a bit of hope and guidance for the immediate future.
Due to a decline in demand for services at the border, the welcome center closed, March 31, but this important support effort continues at Embassy Warsaw and Consulate General Krakow.
Michele Giovia is a consular officer at Embassy Warsaw who served at Mission Poland’s American Citizen Welcome Center