Stories of War Refugees – Ukraine to Poland

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Stop War

KYIV – NEWS – After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, these three girls found themselves in Poland. However different their stories might be, each of them has left their lives behind. How did they get to Poland and what are they doing to come back to Ukraine?

Article is provided by representatives of Kyiv-Mohyla University who have made their services available to provide accurate, timely, on-the-ground reporting about the war in Ukraine, including nuanced localized ongoing updates on what is happening across the country, as well as commentary and analysis.

Tania, Katia, and Nata are now in Poland, a country that has become a humanitarian frontier for those seeking security and hope outside Ukraine. Their stories differ in many ways, but all of them are determined to come back to Ukraine one day to reunite with their loved ones. Today, the girls are doing the utmost of their ability in Poland to near this moment in their lives. Our journalist Kateryna Sydoruk talked with them to better understand the challenges they face and the messages they want to send to the world given their current situations.

Getting to Poland

Tania has left for Poland four years ago to study international migration in one of the oldest universities in Europe, Jagiellonian. To me, she confesses that from all the ways in which she hoped to be helpful to the migration within both the EU and Ukraine, this is definitely the experience she has never anticipated.

“From the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I have been trying to be useful in Poland. My friends and I have been protesting against the war in front of the Russian embassy in Krakow. Then I had gone to the Polish border with Ukraine,” says Tania. Currently, she is working for an international media group reporting on a refugee crisis in Europe.

 Katia’s story in Poland, too, begins with a pre-war period. Together with her husband, she left Ukraine to escape war: “We were at the start of our family life, and stability for us was important. Having been working for an American company, my husband was offered a place in Poland to live in case Russia invades Ukraine. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we embraced the risks and took this opportunity. I soon discovered that not all in my country shared this view and some were even skeptical about our decision to leave Ukraine.”

However hard it was to believe in the possibility of Russia’s full-scale military attack against Ukraine, when it happened thousands of Ukrainians, mainly women and children, took to borders with the neighboring countries. This is a case with Nata and her mother, whose departure to Poland involved danger to their lives.

“I never thought I was going to leave Ukraine. Even when Russian tanks were advancing in Kyiv, I wanted to stay with my family and my boyfriend. Only when I heard from my friends from the occupied territories of all the awful things Russian soldiers do to men, women, and children, I made that decision. I said to myself that I could never carry this burden if it happened to me,” says Nata. She and her mother packed their bags to leave Ukraine with their two dogs, while her father and boyfriend have stayed to defend Kyiv.

When I ask her what it was like to travel to Poland, she tells me in the most detailed way as if it was only yesterday: “We found a train to Warsaw, but when we arrived at the station there was no information about it. Since a lot of people leave Ukraine, access to such information is restricted for safety reasons. Somehow, we ended up in a wagon already full of people and left the station in the sounds of the bombing. We were lucky as many people stayed behind not having found a place on the train. People were standing or lying in the passageway as there were twice as many people in the wagon than should have been or, maybe, more.”

The road to Poland was undoubtedly one of the hardest things for Nata to endure leaving Ukraine. It took her and her mother a day and a half to get to a safe place. Once they found themselves in Poland, the new reality started to unfold in front of them.

The new reality

Tania has been one of the first people who the refugees from Ukraine see in Poland. In her words, the volunteers are engaging themselves in all kinds of activities to help them adjust to life in another country. “Very often people get lost once they cross the border. They are scared for those who they have unwillingly left behind and for their children for whom they do not yet know how to provide. Every day we listen to the stories of separation touching even the strongest from us. The volunteers, especially those who speak Ukrainian, are trying to give emotional support as well as any other kind of support for the refugees,” she says.

The same applies to Katia, who drives a few hours to the Polish border with Ukraine every day to take in refugees. She praises how easy it has been to do volunteering in Poland and how self-sacrificing Poles are in times of such tragedy in Ukraine. Katia says that Lublin, where she stays with her husband, comprises the biggest base for collecting humanitarian support for Ukraine in Poland. She assures that “people can help in various ways and sometimes being present to sort the goods is valuable just as sharing your house with someone or making donations.”

Being the one who crossed the border in wartime, Nata is just seeking opportunities for herself in Poland. However, one thing she knows for sure. It is trying to help her family from outside the country: “I understand how important financial stability is now. This is why I want to find a job in Poland. Provided that I have a university degree and that I speak Polish, I hope to make enough money to support my parents and the Ukrainian army.”

The challenge

When I ask what has been the most difficult in this war, the answers indicate that the challenge of life in Poland is built on the ability to lead a normal life in abnormal conditions. Nata cannot hold tears when she thinks about her father and boyfriend staying in Kyiv to protect her future. “I have stopped reading news. The stress from living in a country engulfed in war is enormous. I feel the need to distance myself from all the horrors of war to be helpful here, in Poland. I know that my family needs me and the thought of never seeing them again is the hardest for me.” She adds that she calls home every day and knows that they are constantly under fire. “My dad does not intend to leave Ukraine. My boyfriend has a high chance of being called to the army. Nothing is certain right now and it pains us all.”

One may think that being in a safe place together with your partner is easier, but this is not the case with Katia. “At some point, I was feeling guilty escaping the war before it all began. I am aware of the sufferings my family and friends are going through in Ukraine. However, pain can be different. For example, my boyfriend and I have never thought we would find ourselves in Europe running away from the war in our country. We never wanted to leave Ukraine so early in our lives. Now, it’s even hard to think about the future in Poland. Everything we had was taken away from us by Russia.”

The war is always hard on people and their families, however to Tania personal tragedies of the Ukrainian people were evident even before February 24th. She has been studying the 2014 migration crisis in Ukraine for her thesis. She is convinced that the refugee legislation of Poland and the EU needs further consideration. “There’s still much to be done to provide the refugees with legal support in Poland and other European countries. I want to be a part of this process,”Tania says.

Tania has also been providing legal support to the Ukrainians seeking shelter in Poland. “Very few people understand what being a refugee entails. My job is to explain to them what they are expected and not expected to do once they become refugees. These people should follow the procedure to qualify for international protection, which sets certain limits on their activity within Poland or any other state they go to. Once they are introduced to it, they may choose what to do next. It is not just communication, but rather a consultation of people on what they have to do in to stay in this country legally,” she adds.

The message

Not having an imminent danger to their physical existence, the three interviewees still have strong messages to send to the international community. The support Ukraine has received from Europe and the whole world in the last few weeks cannot be underestimated. This is exactly why it’s so important to listen to those who have been directly affected by Russian aggression against Ukraine.

“The war changes your view of life. Things that were once so important to you are overshadowed by the things that matter the most. Helping others has become my priority. I have lost friends in this war, which taught me to value human life. When death takes away people you know, you learn to think about the needs of others and look at life from different perspectives, not just your own,” says Katia.

For Nata, power is also measured in unity. She says that “Ukrainian people are protecting democracy in the whole world right now. We have to acknowledge human suffering in Ukraine and speak about it using all tools at our disposal. Inaction means accepting what is now going on in Ukraine. Only action can make a change.”

 “It’s important to couple words with actions. The international community should hear victims’ voices and help Ukraine, otherwise, the consequences of Russian actions in Europe are only going to grow. Right now Europe faces the biggest migration crisis since World War II. If there won’t be an effective response from the world, the difficulties of this war may present themselves in other spheres of people’s lives soon,” concludes Tania.