Not settling for less than home

The Challenge

How might we design services that meet the changing needs of people fleeing war?

The Context

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent millions of women and children across the country’s border. Poland experienced the largest influx of refugees, registering more than 1.4 million Ukrainians since the 24th of February. After a few months into a war with no clear end in sight, fewer people were seeking out emergency services and an increasing number of people were returning to Ukraine. As movement patterns began to shift, many humanitarian agencies were struggling to figure out how to best support those fleeing the war.

UNICEF Poland was just one of many international organisations at the frontlines, navigating changing needs in a crowded service landscape. In May, we were asked to help UNICEF reimagine services around what Ukrainian women and children needed most, as they crossed the border to forge new homes and crossed back to reclaim old ones.






Our team travelled across six cities, visiting refugee reception points to better understand the journeys of refugees.

We wanted to know what services were available to them, the decisions they were making, and the context in which they were making them. 

By the end of April, of the 5.3 million people that had fled Ukraine, almost 3 million crossed into Poland.1

At that point, approximately 700,000 refugee children in Poland were of school age (6–18 years old).2

However, only 200,100 children had enrolled in Polish schools.3

What We Heard

Through conversations with service providers, service seekers, and those excluded from services entirely, we uncovered tensions that lay beneath the service: a country eager to equip Ukrainians with a new life; and a diverse group of individuals displaced by war, eager to return home.

We also found that no journey was the same. Despite their differences, many expressed a desire to:

  • preserve their Ukrainian identity while in Poland
  • stay on track professionally and academically
  • be a good guest in Poland
  • thank Polish people and the Polish government for their services and hospitality
  • return to Ukraine

Our Solution

Through a rapid HCD process, our in-country team collected qualitative data from 18 site visits and 37 interviews. Supported by a remote team, we distilled our data into insights and developed design principles to guide our ideation, prototyping and testing. 

We found that one of the greatest challenges to service provision was the number of decisions, particularly long-term decisions, that refugees were having to make. Services needed to consider the emotional capacity of people fleeing war, and remain flexible and mindful of the changes in a rapidly unfolding emergency and the desire to return to Ukraine despite it. 

We crafted a modular service blueprint that can be implemented at UNICEF service centres, state-run operations and community driven efforts. This blueprint allows hubs to cultivate service offerings adapted to local needs, seasonal changes, and services available in the surrounding area. While every hub will differ, they should be equipped to support all visitors regardless of where they are along their journey, and whatever their next destination may be. 

Journey Map

To support the uptake of services and service provision, we developed supplementary tools: a seasonal planner with important deadlines and information, an intake form to ensure the needs of service seekers are documented and addressed during consultations, and a series of community events to help connect displaced Ukrainians with their culture, and each other. 

Denys, a consultant at the Institute of Migrant Rights completes an intake form
Natalia, a Ukrainian mother, flips through the planner
Masha, a Ukrainian mother, ranks our various community-building concepts

These prototypes are a first step towards adapting services that help people feel safe and in control when faced with adversity.

We can do great things together.