A Fresh Start for Refugee Women in Poland

By Sharon Samber


Woman smiling and helping woman with paperwork across a desk

A Dobry Start Foundation for Migrants employee gives a gift card to a local supermarket chain to a woman who cares for her son with a disability at organization's women’s center in Warsaw, November 2022. (Courtesy of Dobry Start)

When Olena*, a 32-year-old woman from Ukraine living in Turkey, got pregnant, her partner became violent. The situation worsened after the baby was born. Olena’s partner intimidated her and used physical and psychological violence. Unable to return home because of war, Olena decided to escape Turkey for Poland.

It was in her new home that Olena’s life truly changed. She heard about Dobry Start Foundation for Migrants, a HIAS partner, who gave her the opportunity for a fresh beginning. Olena quickly received legal assistance and began meeting with a Dobry Start psychologist. Today, she and her child have settled in a safe place.

“Thanks to the support of HIAS, we were able to provide this woman with the assistance she needed most,” said Maria Sokurenko, the center’s manager.

Olena is one of many who benefit from the women’s support center run by Dobry Start (Good Start), an NGO founded in 2007. Women and their children can get different kinds of assistance, including regular contact with a case manager who assesses their needs and directs them to relevant kinds of support.

The center provides migrants and refugees with different kinds of protection services, such as legal aid, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), and gender-based violence (GBV) prevention. In addition, integration counsellors help women adjust to life in Poland, and psychologists teach them how to deal with difficulties in adapting. An additional project, that ended last year, helped with career support and financial assistance. Staff hope they can restart the project if they can secure funding.

“We give them hope, we give them information needed to navigate their life in the new place. Our center is indeed a safe space where they can grow.”

Elmi Abdi, president of the Foundation for Migrants GOOD START, which runs the women's center

Elmi Abdi, the president of Dobry Start, said that the staff is made up of migrants themselves who can share similar experiences and motivate, support, and guide the women.

“We give them hope, we give them information needed to navigate their life in the new place,” Abdi, himself a former refugee, said. “Our center is indeed a safe space where they can grow.”

HIAS is partnering with Dobry Start to help GBV survivors by combining GBV services and economic inclusion activities, so that survivors and people at risk can get support and learn to live independently. A second partnership combines the focus on GBV and economic inclusion services with an MHPSS component. HIAS is just now starting a third project with Dobry Start that will work to ensure these services for all migrants.

Ludmila*, like Olena, came to the women’s center with her small child after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. She found out about the center from postings on social media. On her first day, she signed up for a Polish course, knowing language proficiency would help her find a job. With help from the center’s career advisor, Ludmila landed shift work in one of the popular chain stores. Now that she has completed the course, Ludmila is trying to return to work in medicine.

“At the beginning, I wanted to find a job quickly that I could combine with learning Polish,” Ludmila said. “I am very grateful for the center’s help. I have a permanent job and I speak Polish better and better. I hope to return to my profession soon.”

A Partnership That Works

HIAS Poland staff say they believe in partnering with Dobry Start because it is well established and has deep understanding and experience, especially in supporting GBV cases. It is the first migrant-oriented NGO working in the field of GBV in Poland, and it has referral mechanisms to other specialized organizations, especially in Warsaw. Dobry Start plans to strengthen the referral system from local social protection offices to specialized and trained GBV workers, train staff on GBV protocols, and provide specialized intra-team supervisory support.

Chrysoula Papadaki, HIAS Poland’s program coordinator, says she admires the long-term solutions that Dobry Start works to achieve, but also the warmth and trust the organization has with their clients.

“Dobry Start has been a strong partner to HIAS Poland from the first year of the Ukrainian response and continues to provide vital services to empower GBV survivors and support their integration and independence in the Polish society,” she said.

ΗΙΑS and Dobry Start believe that providing support for GBV survivors in the context of an emergency is a major undertaking. In the future, there is the possibility of HIAS further strengthening its relationship with Dobry Start by providing relevant technical support for GBV programming and economic inclusion activities.

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