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Polish young adults talk about the war in Ukraine's impact on their generation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are certain events that define a generation, like 9/11, the global financial crisis or the pandemic. Since the war in Ukraine began, about 3 million refugees have come to Poland in just a few months. Polish people have offered their time, their money and even their homes. And so I met with three Polish young adults to see what impact they believe these events will have on their generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE LAUGHING)

SHAPIRO: We gathered at a crowded outdoor cafe in Warsaw on a warm spring night. People smoked and sipped drinks as the sun sank behind the old city. One of the young Poles in the group is actually someone I first met at Poland's border with Ukraine in early March at the beginning of the war - a 24-year-old film student named Tomek Mondry.

TOMEK MONDRY: The thing which changed me the most, I think, was that I came back with a refugee.

SHAPIRO: He used his car to shuttle Ukrainians from the border, and then he offered his bedroom here in Warsaw to a refugee he'd never met before - a young man from Morocco who'd been living in Ukraine.

MONDRY: I was sharing the bedroom with him for almost a week.

SHAPIRO: So you had a roommate?

MONDRY: Yeah, I had - I mean, yeah, I had a roommate, and it was really demanding.

SHAPIRO: He was a total stranger.

MONDRY: Yeah. He was at - I met him at the border.

BASIA OLSZEWSKA: I have a story similar to Tomek.

SHAPIRO: The day the war started, 25-year-old Basia Olszewska couldn't stop crying. So she and her roommates decided to do something.

OLSZEWSKA: We took a group of three people from Congo. They were studying in Kyiv. But it was - like, in the morning, there was eight people in my room.

SHAPIRO: These young adults say the experience of rushing to help, of inviting people into their homes, of bearing witness to their neighbors' suffering - it has changed them.

LILIA NGUYEN: So I would say that my perception of everything changed when I first came to the border.

SHAPIRO: Twenty-two-year-old Lilia Nguyen is working in the legal department of a pharmaceutical company while she gets her law degree, and the last few months have made her reevaluate her whole life.

NGUYEN: Those five days were the most intense days in my life. After that, when I came back to Warsaw, I needed to reevaluate everything that I do in my life, actually.

SHAPIRO: That's a huge statement.

NGUYEN: It is a huge statement because I have a corporate job. So it was really two different extremes, you know? And now I just want to quit my job and start a foundation with my friends.

SHAPIRO: Can you say that on the radio? Are you going to get in trouble if you say that?

NGUYEN: No, no. I actually talked with my boss today.

SHAPIRO: As late afternoon turned to evening, the facade of Poland's National Theatre across the street lit up in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. And I asked Lilia, Basia and Tomek whether they think these changes will last.

If the war ended tomorrow - if the Ukrainian refugee crisis ended and everybody went home - do you think your lives would go back to what they were before the war?

NGUYEN: Definitely not, and I already have planned ahead to start and help in other regions of the world, not only when it comes to Ukraine. But my first thing, my initial thing to do after - if the war ends, I would want to be involved in rebuilding Ukraine and a few of the regions there, and I already am in contact with different organizations that are already planning it.

MONDRY: I mean, like, definitely the thing I think we all need to do - I mean, maybe not all, but, like, tons of people need to do - need to rebuild the Ukraine. So we have no exactly idea how to do it, but I think we'll manage somehow.

SHAPIRO: Basia?

OLSZEWSKA: I think I should do the things that I can do. I don't see myself rebuilding Ukrainian country. I'm sorry, but it's not for me. I can organize - I don't know - counsel children. It is the thing that I usually do. I can't go back to the situation that we had before.

SHAPIRO: You three, you're all pretty socially conscious. Do you think the changes that you're describing personally have affected the Polish population more broadly?

MONDRY: I think with all - with this refugee crisis and all the stuff, with the right wing saying before that we shouldn't accept refugees and right now, like, kind of switching its premises and all those stuff, but I think it will change something. I don't know how much, but I definitely hope that it will change something.

SHAPIRO: Basia, what do you think?

OLSZEWSKA: It's true. Our generation now, we know exactly where is the small city in Ukraine and from where did the refugees come, and it is a fantastic thing because we are interesting. We love these Ukraine people. We really care.

SHAPIRO: Five years ago, there was a refugee crisis of people fleeing the war in Syria, and Poland was not very welcoming. Now there is this Ukrainian refugee crisis, and Poland is very welcoming. If five years in the future there is a refugee crisis from a country that is not on Poland's border, do you think this experience will change Poland's approach to refugees, even if they're not from a country that's the next-door neighbor?

OLSZEWSKA: I'm not very enthusiastic about that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NGUYEN: Yeah, I should say that it's the same as me. Like, I wouldn't say it's very realistic, to be honest, if it's a country from the Middle East or anywhere from Asia or Africa because we do live in a very Catholic country, and also we need to be actually honest with each other, you know?

SHAPIRO: So you think this has changed a generation, but maybe not transformed a generation?

NGUYEN: Not transformed, like, completely.

OLSZEWSKA: Yeah, it is...

NGUYEN: It's a long way ahead, seriously.

MONDRY: But maybe this is the first step.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Some progress is better than no progress.

NGUYEN: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

NGUYEN: But it's also hard to predict how everything will go further in the future because some people will get at some point annoyed that there's so many Ukrainians in Warsaw, you know, and...

SHAPIRO: There could be a backlash.

NGUYEN: Yeah, that everything is, like, now focus on the Ukrainians. We need to accommodate them somehow, you know, and the government is making major decisions, and some people might not like it.

SHAPIRO: I'm thinking about the contrast between the tragedy that is happening on the other side of the border and the awakening that you and people of your generation are feeling and the sort of gratitude of being able to play a useful role. And so could I just ask you to briefly describe how you balance those two things?

NGUYEN: I think it is quite - not beautiful, but I would say overwhelming that you are able to help in this times of crisis and being a good help as well. And I am actually astonished by how literally strangers work with strangers to help strangers, you know? And for me, it is quite, like, moving, actually.

SHAPIRO: That's Lilia Nguyen, Basia Olszewska and Tomek Mondry speaking with me in Warsaw about how the Ukrainian refugee crisis has changed their generation.

Tomorrow, African students who fled Ukraine when the war began see a double standard in the Polish response.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are so tired of being here. Nothing is happening. Our life is - we are just, like, stuck in a cage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.