'I still can't believe this is happening': Ukrainians heading to Poland share shock and sadness at becoming refugees 'in just a blink of an eye'

Ukrainian refugees in poland
5 min read
Warsaw
08 March, 2022
Thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the invading Russian army have been welcomed in Poland. Nino Orto speaks to some of the displaced about the 'quick turn their lives have taken' from being residents to refugees, as well as with those helping them.

"Is this smoke from the bombs, mum?" Although in the safety of the hills around the Polish city of Gorlice, a small town around 100 km from the border, five-year-old fearful Georgiy now doesn't want to leave the house, mistaking the morning fog as missile smoke. 

While his mother, Karina, reassures Georgiy, the fear of what she experienced in her journey out of Ukraine is still evident.

"I still can't believe this is happening," she tells The New Arab. "It is a tragedy of such a scale that is hard to understand. The 32-year-old mother and her son are from Kharkiv, a frontline city facing fierce battles between the Ukrainian army and the Russian forces. 

"I left my house, my business, and my family and now I'm scared of what the future hold for me," Karina adds, as she firmly holds her child. 

They are now safe in a house provided by Polish activists, who rapidly set up a support network for Ukrainians arriving in the country, filling the lack of support by the government and the absence of a system capable of consistently supporting the skyrocketing number of displaced from the neighbour country.

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As the battles escalate day by day and pour in other cities, Warsaw is under growing pressure to cope with the wave of displaced seeking refuge and providing basic supplies to them.

So far, the bulk of the humanitarian support comes from citizens like Lukasz Ptas, the owner of the Pensjonat Pod Sosna hostel at Luzna, who turned his business into a reception point for Ukrainians seeking shelter. He offers the displaced a safe place to sleep, food, clothes, and all they need.

"Most of the people in my hostel are families with very young children and infants. They are a priority for us, and we try to support them also psychologically"

"I felt I had to help these people regardless of my interest. It is such a tragedy and this is why I provide free shelter and a safe place where they can rest," said Lukasz.

"Most of the people in my hostel are families with very young children and infants. They are a priority for us, and we try to support them also psychologically," he added.

"We are experiencing a dramatic situation in which people lack everything because they had to rush carrying with them just a small suitcase. They found themself with nothing," said Adrianna, a volunteer who coordinates the network in Krakow.

"I created a Facebook group named Krakow for Ukraine because I thought I must need to do something, but I didn't expect such a large support from people. The group has now reached 5,000 subscribers – they send whatever they can, including items that are needed the most like blankets, food, shoes, socks."

Like Karina, thousands of Ukrainians at Przemyśl, a small border town between Poland and Ukraine, still can't believe what they are experiencing and the quick turn their life took in just a blink of an eye.

"This is the second time I found myself in-between the hostilities. My family lives in Donetsk, and I was there when clashes between the pro-Russian separatist and the Ukrainian army occurred in 2014," said Olga, a 21-year-old student in Kyiv. She reached Poland after a 36 hours journey by bus and a sleepless night because of the cold.

"I moved to Kyiv in 2016 to avoid the reality of being in a state of constant fear and study to become a professional musician. Now I feel devastated by what is happening again. I don't know when I'll be able to see my family," she told The New Arab.

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The overwhelming numbers are stretching to the limit for the network of organisations in Poland that are helping the displaced – a situation that risks shifting into chaos if the security situation in Ukraine further deteriorates.

According to the UN, more than 500,000 Ukrainian have already left their homes and moved to Poland, while more are expected to arrive. Authorities in Warsaw fears that a military escalation could lead to devastating consequences that would bring millions of displaced to the border of Poland.

Financial support by the European Union is expected following the statement of the EU Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ylva Johansson. Earlir this month, the representative of the European Commission announced during a visit to a border camp in Romania that "countries receiving refugees from Ukraine should expect an increased financial support from the European Union."

According to a police officer who spoke to The New Arab, the actual number of people moving from Ukraine is unknown. In the last nine days, more than 5,000 people have reached the Medyka crossing daily by bus and train, while the majority are arriving in Poland with private cars.

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The Polish government has swiftly decided to approve a special regulation to speed up the status of Ukrainians and facilitate their access to the national health system and the public services in the country to help ease the precarious conditions many of the displaced are encountering.

The move aims to alleviate the burden on volunteers and temporarily guarantee legal status for Ukrainians hosted in Poland.

"They need everything, but we are here for them," said Asia, 59, a volunteer at the Przemyśl's train station. She provides hot drinks to evacuees wandering outside the central station waiting for their next ride.

"As a Polish, we know very well what it means to be displaced and have your home country occupied," she concluded.

Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @OsservatMashrek