Ukrainian Refugees Try to Find Their Way in Poland

THe walks slowly off the bus, cautiously. Little children are held by young women. Grandmothers right behind carrying over-stuffed suitcases—or dragging garbage bags of clothes. The mothers all wear sneakers. A few old men are sitting on their feet, looking sluggish. A few small dogs are present, but none of them bark. They barely raise their heads. Everyone looks beaten down, exhausted. A Polish volunteer greets them and is blowing bubbles for the children, but the kids don’t seem interested.

It is where Ukrainian refugees can enter Poland from Hrebenne. It’s one of the largest of eight Polish entry points for the more than two million Ukrainians who have journeyed to this nation of 38 million people. Normally this place is a passport control area, but these days, Ukrainians don’t need passports to enter, just any kind of identification that they are Ukrainian. A driver’s license. A telephone bill. There are cardboard boxes of used clothes—and toys. There’s a room with coffee, cheese sandwiches, and a giant tin of fresh pierogis. They will be processed by a dozen or so mostly Polish volunteers, who are unfailingly patient and refer to the refugees as “guests.” They have left Ukraine, but many, too many, do not know where they are going.

The majority of people in this bus hail from Kharkiv (in northeast Ukraine), where Russian bombings have been unstoppable and never-ending. The 30-year-old woman is wearing a Superdry pink parka with long, polished fingernails and a Nike baseball hat. Her Rhodesian Ridgeback Rhodesian Ridgeback is muzzled and leashed. I kneel to take her hand. She stated that she was just fleeing from Kharkiv.

“I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “When the bombing started, I first went to a school, thinking it would be safe. Then, the Russians attacked the school. After that, I spent weeks in a basement. I kept thinking the bombing would stop.”

But when her house was destroyed, she decided she had to leave with her mother, and what she called “my baby,” her dog. She still has her brother and husband. She fought for her husband. She laughed and stated that her brother was too small to fight. It’s clear she is a bit dazed.

“I can’t understand it,” she said. “It seems impossible that it is happening.”

And finally, we all look up.

“Why can’t he be stopped?”

I was in Poland with a team from CARE, the global humanitarian organization where I’m on the board. We accompanied CARE’s CEO, Michelle Nunn, who was visiting this start-up Polish operation for the first time. CARE will finance the greeting center’s operation. The staff is provided by a local partner, Polish Humanitarian Action. Inside the simple two room center, there’s a place where the refugees can register for cash assistance ($1500 a month for a family of four).

Continue reading: Read more about The Last War of the Age of Impunity

Dariusz is the leader of the Polish Humanitarian Action Team in Hrebenne. He is an ex-colonel in Poland’s army. He’s stocky, with a shaved head, and a clipped but sympathetic manner. He said they’ve had as many as 3,000 refugees in a day, but never fewer than three hundred. Over 90% of refugees are children and women. Many travel by bus, car or foot. At first, more vehicles were owned by well-off families with contacts and destinations. The children are there always. Darius stated that a mother brought a baby two days old with her. Dariusz also said that snakes were among the pets. Yesterday there were also two parrots.

It is now the 53rd Day of Invasion, which means that the options for refugees are limited. The second wave of refugees is more vulnerable, older, less well-off, and sicker than the first. Many people are disabled. These people are from the East and have been traumatized through bombing. “We don’t push them,” Darius said. “We let them catch their breath.”

One woman with four young children and a diamond nose stud came up to my translator and asked in Ukrainian, “Where should I go?”

Translator: “You mean in Poland?”

The woman said, “No, anywhere.”

Many people seem lost. Many aren’t sure of where to go next. Many of them don’t speak Polish. It is possible to get them on other buses that take you to Warsaw. This takes about four hours. Some refugees had been meeting their relatives and friends in Warsaw. One young woman and her son claimed that they were heading to Austria. One family also claims that they plan to go to Germany. Each family has a window of three months in which they can travel to any place within the E.U. They do not need a visa nor to apply for asylum. Dariusz mentioned a young mother with her children, who was going to Ireland to find a home.

Poland is open to Ukrainians. A Ukrainian is one of the five residents in Warsaw. They seem to be moved by the suffering of Ukrainians. All over Warsaw, there are yellow and blue flags. You will hear some people complaining that Ukrainians take over Polish jobs. However, most people hold the belief that we are saved by the grace of God.

The day before, we visited Warsaw’s refugee centre. It was less grimy than the border. Blue-and-yellow balloons were displayed in the tents. Little boys were playing soccer. The headquarters of a new program, supported by CARE, was also visited by Wojtek Wilk, a former U.N. official. They hire Ukrainian women to work in Polish schools teaching the 25,000 Ukrainian students. The majority of women who were hired were Ukrainian teachers. We went to the location where the interview takes place. It was housed in what was once known as Joseph Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science that was a gift of Stalin to Poland. Many Poles demanded that the dreary Socialist Gothic skyscraper be demolished since the fall the Berlin Wall. The inside looks more like a job fair. Teachers are hired and work six hours a day for $40. The goal is for 1000 teachers to be hired. So far, there have been 250. However, even this is small in proportion to the amount of Ukrainian children living in Poland.

Learn More: Ukraine’s Past and Future

Daria, a former Ukrainian teacher who was hired by CARE as a volunteer to assist in the recruitment of teachers, met me at the center. It had been a short time since she was last in Warsaw. After driving through Moldova and Romania and Hungary to reach Warsaw, she said that her mother drove from Kiev to Warsaw with her ten-year old son. “I thought it was safer that way,” she said. Her 63 year-old father refused to let her go. He claimed he had hoped to get into the military, even though his age was higher than the maximum. They made him a driver because he continued to show up. Sometimes, he drives late at night. But he can’t say where.

Almost all of the financial support for refugees in Poland is coming from the private sector—from international NGOs like CARE and Doctors Without Borders, with on-the-ground Polish partners. But the scale of the refugee problem—4.5 million who have fled Ukraine—two-and-a-half million in Poland, 600,000 in Romania, 450,000 in Hungary, 400,000 in little Moldova—requires international government support. Putin not only wants to destroy Ukraine, he wants to destabilize Ukraine’s democratic neighbors with a deluge of refugees. The West can’t let that happen. It will end soon. They will need psychological and social support. CARE projects that 80,000 Ukrainian mothers will have children in the next six-months. U.S., E.U. and U.N. must provide infrastructure and monetary support for the host countries of these Ukrainian visitors.

All the refugees I talked to wanted to return to Ukraine after the war is over. Or even before. People were not really trying to move elsewhere. People said they wanted to rebuild their houses—and their lives. On the way to the border station they saw more cars coming into Ukraine than going out. People seemed more confused than angry at what was going on. Many of them had been living with violence for several weeks. For most of their lives, they had been living near Russia. Nobody really knew the answers. They were all grateful for the Polish kindness. Most say “Spasibo” over and over, Russian for Thank you.

A tall man in his 80s stood with me in line before I left the border station. He was also from Kharkiv. He said he hadn’t wanted to leave, but he shrugged his shoulders and said his daughter had insisted. He turned out to be a physicist, who worked at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology for many decades.

“In 1941,” he said, “I was five years old and left Ukraine to go to Russia to escape the German invasion. Now I am leaving Ukraine to go to Germany to escape the Russian invasion.”

I inquired him about his thoughts on Putin attacking his homeland.

He shook his head and said, “I cannot explain it. It’s not logical.”

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