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Warsaw mayor pleads for a strategic plan as city continues to welcome refugees

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I'm Ari Shapiro in Warsaw, Poland, at an official press conference by the mayor of Warsaw in a very unofficial setting. We are on the banks of the Wisla River on a beautiful spring day, under a towering tree. And the mayor is sitting in a wicker chair speaking about summer activities on the water to an audience of Polish reporters.

RAFAL TRZASKOWSKI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: When he finished, I sat down with the mayor to talk about more serious topics - the way this city has been transformed by the influx of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war in their home country.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TRZASKOWSKI: Yes, pleasure.

SHAPIRO: This war has had such a major impact on the city of Warsaw. Is there one number you can point to that demonstrates the scale of the challenge that your city is facing right now?

TRZASKOWSKI: Yes. We have accepted, since the outset of the conflict, 300,000 refugees in Warsaw and the counties around it, which means that the population of my city went up by 15%, which is incredible and quite considerable.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the number of challenges that the city faces in providing care for Ukrainians, from housing to transportation to medical care to schooling, what's the weakest pressure point right now? What concerns you the most?

TRZASKOWSKI: Well, the most - the biggest problem is that the central government doesn't have any strategy, and...

SHAPIRO: You mean the national government?

TRZASKOWSKI: The national government doesn't have any strategy, and it doesn't ask the European Union to actually come up with a strategy either. And what you are observing in Poland is mostly based on improvisation and the goodwill of the people. This is, like, civil society showing its strength on the nongovernmental organizations and us. Most of the burden is on us.

So the biggest problem is the lack of strategy. We are having our own in Warsaw, but that's not enough because no local government can - could deal with a problem of such magnitude on its own.

SHAPIRO: You, of course, represent a left-leaning opposition party. The national government is a far-right party. Do you believe they are getting credit for what has globally been described as a really effective response to this war when clearly you don't give them credit?

TRZASKOWSKI: Well, first of all, we are centrist and progressive. And I don't think that those labels, left or right, mean anything in Poland anymore. But yes, this is a problem that the government is trying to portray what is happening in Poland as its huge success. And of course, the national government played its role on the border. But most of what you see, this incredible solidarity, is a result of civil society in action. So that's why the credit should be given to the people, not to the government.

And of course, also, all the assistance which the European Union or the United States of America is offering should go mostly to the non-government organizations, to refugees themselves and to the local government because we are on the first fronts of that challenge. And we are dealing with it day and night.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. Senate passed a $40 billion package that includes aid to Ukraine and other countries just yesterday. Do you expect to see any of that money and if so, what will you put it to use for first? What is the immediate need?

TRZASKOWSKI: Well, we already see some of the American money because the United States of America is wise enough to give money mostly to United Nations agendas and to non-government organizations. And we see them in action. For example, UNICEF, with American money, is paying for Ukrainian teachers to teach Ukrainian kids in our schools. And that's exactly what we need.

We need support when it comes to accommodation to Ukrainians because, you know, they're at our homes, and people cannot offer that indefinitely. So most importantly, accommodation, but also long-term problems such as those that you've just enumerated - of education, health care, social protection - because we offered Ukrainians citizen-like rights. And of course, that costs a lot of money.

Just to give you an example, I have 280,000 kids in my schools, and I have 120,000 additional Ukrainian kids in Warsaw. We've enrolled 20,000 of them already. But I mean, it is impossible to simply enlarge your schools by 45% overnight. So we need assistance here.

We need assistance when it comes to schooling, when it comes to doctors, nurses, psychologists - because most of the kids who are coming to Poland are traumatized. And now, the situation is this - most of my social workers work with refugees. All of my psychologists work with refugees. We cannot keep it up like that indefinitely, and that's why we need the whole world to step up.

SHAPIRO: This week, I spoke with some Poles in their 20s who have been working with refugees, and they are afraid that there will be a backlash, that the people of Poland who have been so welcoming will begin to resent all of the services that refugees are getting. Do you share that fear?

TRZASKOWSKI: Fortunately, it's not happening, but there is a danger of that. And that's why we need a strategy. We need a voluntary relocation scheme in Europe. We need for the European Union, mostly the national government, to start dealing with the problem in a systematic way because if no one helps us in Warsaw, of course, the quality of services provided by the city will go down. And that might provoke a certain backlash.

SHAPIRO: The mayor of the border town Przemysl told me that what is essential is that people keep moving west. He said if people clog his city, the system will collapse. And in a different way, that's true of Warsaw. People need to keep moving west. Do you feel that you are getting the support you need from countries to the west of you and even beyond Europe?

TRZASKOWSKI: Well, the mayor of Przemysl, who is a good friend, is, of course, absolutely right. And some countries are welcoming refugees, like Germany, which welcomed 700,000 refugees. But what we need is a system. We cannot improvise anymore. We're dealing with millions of people.

And two months ago, I was calling - in the middle of the night, I was calling my friends in different cities in Poland and in Europe and asking them for assistance. We cannot do it like that, calling people in the middle of the night. We need a systematic solution to the problem.

SHAPIRO: When I was here two months ago, what seemed like a very effective response also seemed like an emergency response. It was built on the backs of volunteers. And I'm surprised to hear you say now in mid- to late May that there still is not a systemic response, that it still feels like an ad hoc emergency response on the backs of volunteers.

TRZASKOWSKI: I'm very much surprised as well, but that's the role of the national government. I mean, it is the European Union which needs to be asked by the national government to actually come up with a systemic solution. We do have a strategy in Warsaw, but let me tell you this - I mean, if we have the best strategy in Poland and in Europe, that's going to actually, at the end of the day, work against us because otherwise everyone will want to come to Warsaw. And, of course, as I'm very happy to welcome more people and to help them as much as we can, you started yourself with a question about a backlash. If no one else is going to step up to the same level as we did, this solidarity of the people of Warsaw will sooner or later end.

SHAPIRO: We went to the Medyka border crossing earlier this week, and there was a line nearly 10 miles long to return to Ukraine. Do you think that this problem is subsiding, that as the Ukrainian military begins to drive back the Russian military, that people will return and the pressure on your city will decrease?

TRZASKOWSKI: Some people are returning. Like, the data from yesterday was that 25,000 left to Kyiv, so went back to Kyiv. But 22,000 came from the war zone, from Donbas. So that's the problem - that even though some people are going back, you know, we are witnessing some people coming in because of the escalation of the crisis in the east and in the south. And no one knows how this will develop.

But one thing is sure - there are hundreds and thousands of people in Poland and in Warsaw who have no place to go back to. And there are 7 million displaced people in Ukraine. So even if the war ends tomorrow, and let's hope and pray to God that it will, thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people will stay in Warsaw, and we need to be prepared for that.

SHAPIRO: Mr. Mayor, thank you very much for having us in your beautiful city by the river on this lovely day in Warsaw.

TRZASKOWSKI: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: That was Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski.

Our stories from Poland this week were edited by Courtney Dorning and produced by Matt Ozug, Ayen Bior and Elena Burnett, with help from Lucja Skolankiewicz here in Poland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.