‘We came to nowhere. We know nothing’: The plight of the refugee in Poland filled with both good and bad

As the Eastern European country is overwhelmed with nearly 2.8 million refugees, faith groups, private citizens and NGOs swoop in

Editor’s note: Deseret News journalist Kyle Dunphey and photojournalist Kristin Murphy traveled to the border of Ukraine in Poland and surrounding countries to view the impact of the refugee crisis. This is the first of several dispatches from the border.

MEDYKA, Poland — A biting wind ruffled Katerina Taran’s hair as she walked across the Poland-Ukraine border, suitcase in one hand, child in the other.

She steered Vova, 6, and Artyom, 4, under one of the many humanitarian aid tents lining the Polish side of the gate, and sat down. A volunteer handed her a steaming cup of soup, and the children pizza.

The family has been on the move since the beginning of the war. In early March, they fled their home in Kharkiv as Russian shelling intensified. They stayed at a friend’s house west of the city for about a month, until the Ukrainian military moved in — Russian missiles followed.

So with her 17-year-old niece, Taran and her children left the country.

“We’re safe now,” Taran says, a gust sending bursts of rain under the tent ceiling. She cups the soup, sitting below an overhead space heater as Artyom plays with a red matchbox car, one of the few toys he brought from home. A volunteer blows bubbles toward the kids, and she flashes a weary smile.

She knows their journey is far from over.

“We came to nowhere. We know nothing,” she said, speaking through a translator.

Taran is one of 2.8 million Ukrainians who have crossed into Poland, the country bearing the brunt of what is quickly becoming the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. In just two months Russia’s invasion has displaced 12.8 million Ukrainians.

A staggering 5.1 million of them have now fled the country — that’s enough people to fill the iconic Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California, 56 times. Half of the new arrivals are children.

Katerina Taran, from Kharkiv, holds the hand of her son, Artyom Chepel, 4, after crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border with Taran’s niece and other son in Medyka, Poland, on Thursday, April 21, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Like the Taran family, many refugees finish their escape from Ukraine in the small village of Medyka, Poland. And like the Taran family, many arrive with no idea what’s in store for them.

At times, the crossing fields up to 11,000 refugees daily, due largely in part to the railway running through the village. Trains from Eastern Ukraine usually arrive three times a day, evacuating refugees from war-torn regions like Kharkiv, Donetsk or Mariupol, stopping in the country’s capital, Kyiv, before arriving in Poland.

Once a quiet backwater town surrounded by farmland, Medyka has transformed into ground zero for Poland’s, and the world’s, response to the crisis.  

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Vans and trucks filled with aid pour into Ukraine, while a recent move by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to remove taxes and simplify customs clearance for vehicles has resulted in a multiday wait for people driving new cars into the country. The Deseret News talked to multiple people who had been in line for three days.

The port of entry has seen so much traffic in the past two months that crews constructed an entirely new road that parallels the old one — still, the line of cars going into Ukraine is often miles long.

Piles of trash line the road, the air thick with fumes from idling diesel engines. Nearby at the pedestrian entry, the steady rumble of roller suitcases from Ukrainians, both coming and going, interchanges with languages from around the world, as volunteers from every continent descend on the region following the invasion, to work with nongovernmental organizations set up along the border.

A few miles to the west sits Przemysl, which much like Medyka was a small, unassuming city filled with historical buildings and retirees. Now, hotels are booked, the train station is packed and the city is crawling with NGO workers. A World Food Kitchen truck sits outside of the main train station, where long lines of mostly women and children stand waiting for their ticket. 

Where are the refugees going?

For many, Poland is a place to wait out the war. They saw Russia’s withdrawal from the Kyiv region as a sign that Ukrainian forces are gaining the upper hand, despite a now renewed invasion along the country’s eastern front.

The country has opened its doors, allowing Ukrainians to legally live and work in Poland for at least 18 months, with the option to extend. They can obtain a Polish ID card, access social welfare, health care and schools. 

A tragic reality that perhaps differentiates this humanitarian crisis from others is family separation. With men between the ages of 18-60 conscripted and unable to leave Ukraine, 90% of the refugees are women and children. They’re leaving their husbands, sons and fathers behind in a war that has so far claimed at least 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers, according to Zelenskyy, and a civilian death toll that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says is on track to surpass 2,000. 

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When the situation stabilizes, experts say, it will likely trigger another mass migration of Ukrainians.

“Families won’t stay separated,” Olga Sarrado, a spokesperson for the UNCHR, said. “So we need to see what will happen, if women, children and elderly will go back to Ukraine, or if it will be the fathers and brothers reuniting the families outside.”

In Medyka, it’s now common to see more foot traffic going into Ukraine than leaving. The UNHCR estimates 800,000 of the 1.1 million Ukrainians that have returned home since the war started are reentering through Poland — people like Iryna Andrii, who is going back to her job at a bank in Kyiv, after a two-week stay. Her husband found housing in Poland and now works construction. But the family still needs the money.

“I need to go back to work, to have funds in my life,” she said, moments before she walked through the checkpoint. “But I’m afraid.”

Some are just passing through, having secured visas. Others plan to stay in neighboring countries, after the European Union reinstated a temporary protection directive, which allows refugees to access the labor market, social welfare and move freely within the 27-nation bloc.

The directive eased the burden on the UNHCR, which typically spearheads resettlement during humanitarian processes.

“The European Union is actually responding and allowing for this shared responsibility,” said Sarrado. “We’re still in an emergency phase, but at the moment, we don’t need to conduct any resettlement.”

Sarrado says most refugees will elect to stay in Eastern Europe, unless they have family elsewhere. That includes people like Valerie Kozak, who planned to fly to Mexico with her 6-year-old daughter, Uliana, request asylum, then live with her mother in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Mariana Lakatosh feeds her daughter soup at the Ukrainian-Polish border in Medyka, Poland, on Monday, April 18, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

‘They’re doing what they can’

Poland remains the final destination for most refugees. The UNHCR estimates 1 million Ukrainians have applied for a Polish social security number, a sign they’re settling in. Thousands more, maybe millions, are living in temporary housing, still waiting for a safe window to return home.

“We get many people with no direction,” said Karolina Butkiewicz, the main coordinator for a retrofitted Tesco grocery store just 10 miles from the border, which is now a first stop for thousands of refugees leaving Ukraine. At any given time, between 600 to 1,100 refugees stay there.

Aid tents, food trucks, trash and makeshift seating areas line the outside of the center, which has a heavy military presence. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air as mothers watch their children play soccer in the parking lot, to the tune of diesel engines from buses streaming in from the border.

For the refugees standing outside the building who spoke with the Deseret News — media is not allowed inside — the food, shelter and safety of the Tesco are all they could ask for. They have access to psychologists and physicians. There’s a women-only room. They get a free phone plan, there’s travel and cash assistance, day care, kindergarten, even a veterinarian.

“I like everything here,” said Inna Zholtanova, of Kharkiv, going into her third night at the center. “The Polish people do a lot for Ukrainian people to make us feel comfortable ... food, beds.”

She smiles, flashing a thumbs up as she takes a drag from her cigarette.

Ukrainian refugee Valentina Chukhno shows a photo of when she said goodbye to her daughter, who is fighting in the war against Russia, outside of an old Tesco store that is being used to house refugees in Przemysl, Poland, on Thursday, April 21, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Still, the Tesco has a bit of a reputation, described by some volunteers as “flea-ridden,” “horrible” and “dangerous.” The government doesn’t intend for it to be a permanent solution — with a few exceptions, refugees are given 24 to 48 hours to find transportation to other camps or more permanent housing. “This is not a good place for living,” says Butkiewicz. “There are whole families here with pets and kids, living in a room with 500 beds.”

The center had to shut down at one point due to a flea infestation. Police stop every car that leaves the parking lot with a refugee, taking a picture of the license plate and driver in an attempt to combat human trafficking. Fights have broken out between refugees.

“People are tired, nervous, and they start arguing with each other,” said Butkiewicz.

Even the volunteers don’t always get along. Immediately after her interview, Butkiewicz had to mediate a disagreement between two NGOs — “they are from different countries, I guess they don’t like each other, and they started fighting ... we have kindergarten classes here, but I call this my own kindergarten class,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Some aid workers are quick to criticize Poland’s response — Sarrado said considering the scale of the crisis, the government’s response is impressive.

“Polish authorities, they’re doing what they can to move immediately,” she said. “Of course, there are a lot of gaps. But that’s why humanitarian organizations, like UNHCR, are working together with the authorities.”

Ukrainian refugee Nina Andreevna and volunteer Julia Hnatio react as they are offered pizza from volunteers at a food truck outside of a large house where Andreevna and about 80 other refugees live in Rzeszow, Poland, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Where the Polish government falls short, the grassroots response shines

The sun broke through for a brief moment in an otherwise dreary day on the outskirts of Rzeszow, in Eastern Poland. Just in time for Serhii Kuzmenko to break out his guitar.

As he sang, volunteers with the Scottish charity Siobhan’s Trust dished out pizza from a food truck to mothers and children.

It’s here, in a quaint, suburban neighborhood, where the grassroots response to the refugee crisis is on full display.

Kuzmenko is among the 80 Ukrainians now living in what was once a sprawling, unfinished home that sat empty waiting for an investor. It could have been a hotel, or built into apartments. But now it houses refugees, from a 1-month-old baby, to an 86-year-old man.

It’s a stark contrast from the Tesco center. The refugees are given private rooms, most of them with bathrooms. They have access to a fully stocked kitchen, and the utilities are all paid for, funded by donations. Some of the women formed an English-speaking group as they prepare to start a new life in Great Britain or the U.S. Others were teachers in Ukraine and plan impromptu lessons when they can pull the kids away from the scooters, toys, soccer balls or trampoline.

There’s a now well-established network of families and volunteers across Poland, coordinating with NGOs and local governments to take in refugees. From free hotel rooms, church basements, schools, even the upstairs of a car mechanic shop, regular Polish people are dipping into their personal bank accounts and spending hours volunteering in response to the war.

“This solidarity has been impressive — the civilian response to this unprecedented crisis has been impressive,” said Sarrado, with the UNHCR.

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Most of the residents in Rzeszow are waiting for a visa — others will soon go back to Ukraine. Sometimes they pass through for a night or two, in search of some semblance of home. “It depends on the family,” says Agnieszka Lenhart, who has volunteered at the home since February. “But here, they feel at home. They can eat Ukrainian food, talk in Ukrainian.”

It’s instilled such a sense of community that several families, strangers just a month earlier, are now coordinating travel plans and visa applications. Take Inna Melnychuck, an accountant from Lviv, and Lena Gorchunska, a physics teacher from Kyiv. Soon, Melnychuck will start a new life in England with her mother-in-law. She convinced Gorschunska to follow suit.

“I hope I can find a sponsor,” Gorchunska said in broken English, laughing, when asked if she was going to England with her new friend. “I hope.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Ukrainian refugee Valentina Chukhno’s name was misspelled in the photo captions.

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