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 fourth of several dispatches from the border.
Over 6.3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded, in what is quickly becoming the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
The majority are women and children, as men between 18 to 60 years old are conscripted to fight. They’re leaving their brothers, sons and husbands behind to fight in a war that has claimed over 3,300 civilians. Human rights groups say that’s a conservative estimate.
The Deseret News talked to dozens of refugees who had crossed the Ukraine-Poland border.
Some left after the first air raid siren echoed through their city. Others hid in their basements for months as Russian soldiers committed potential war crimes outside. Most are electing to stay in neighboring countries, but thousands still are attempting to travel to the U.S. or Canada.
From a priest who fled the Bucha district with his pregnant wife, to a Mariupol woman who will soon find a new home in Arizona, here is a small window into the plight of the Ukrainian refugee.
‘A man of the universe’
In March, Serhii Kuzmenko left his village on the outskirts of Kyiv with his pregnant wife and three kids. His family has since grown.
“That’s my daughter,” says the burly, middle-aged Ukrainian Orthodox priest, pointing to a newborn sleeping in a stroller.
Myrcha, Kuzmenko’s village in the now infamous Bucha district, was relatively unscathed by the war when the family decided to leave. There was no electricity, water or cell reception. But compared to nearby Bucha, Irpin, Gostomel or Borodyanka — towns near the Ukrainian capital where Russian forces committed potential war crimes — Kuzmenko says he’s “lucky.”
“They occupied it, but in a ‘soft’ way,” he says.
Men under 60 are conscripted to fight, and unable to exit Ukraine. Unless, like Kuzmenko, they have three or more children. And on March 13, as rumors swirled of civilian executions, rape and torture in Russian-occupied towns just 20 minutes away, they decided to leave.
Kuzmenko’s wife was pregnant, her due date just weeks away. And as they crept through their eerily quiet village, Kuzmenko wondered if he made a mistake. He couldn’t shake the stories of Russians shooting Ukrainian cars carrying families.
They passed through several Russian checkpoints as they left their district. Each interaction was tense, but they were let through.
Then, as they drove into a village recently overrun by Russians, they came upon a convoy of “the invaders,” the soldiers perched on top navy green armored vehicles, or crammed in the back of idling diesel trucks, a giant, white “Z” plastered on the canvas.
They stopped the family, as soldiers searched the car and badgered them with questions, taking special interest in Kuzmenko. He’s jovial and kind, but at about 6 feet tall with broad shoulders and massive, calloused hands from a life of odd jobs, he would fit in well among the ranks of the Ukrainian army.
“This was God’s miracle that they didn’t kill us,” he said. “Because it was more simple for them to shoot the car and go ahead than to stop and examine it,” he said.
Less than 12 hours later, Polish border guards gave them a nod. In a few days, they would move into a sprawling building in the suburbs of Rzeszow in southeast Poland, once slated to be an apartment complex or hotel, but now home to almost 90 Ukrainian refugees. Weeks later, his daughter was born.
As if on cue, the sun poked through on what had been a cold and cloudy Tuesday afternoon in the quaint neighborhood where Kuzmenko now lives. A food truck manned by foreign volunteers was parked outside the house — speakers mounted on the truck usually blare ’80s rock and pop hits, but not today. Wearing a navy blue sweatsuit, Kuzmenko grabbed his guitar, plopped down on a picnic table and serenaded the small crowd with Ukrainian folk songs. Children danced, some jumping on a trampoline while women smoked cigarettes on the porch, smiling. Inside, his daughter slept.
Kuzmenko looks at home — although by his own definition, that’s a difficult label to use.
“Here, on earth (is) my home,” he said later, pausing as he fiddled with his scruffy, graying beard.
“Make sure he hears this,” he told a translator. “You know, home is an unsteady concept. We are all strangers and visitors. So for me, if it is Poland, or Ukraine or Great Britain, I don’t care. ... I’m a man of the universe.”
‘Many men are escaping Ukraine ... but my daughter is staying to fight’
Three generations of Chukhno women stood next to their suitcases, outside a Tesco, a sprawling grocery-store-turned refugee shelter just a few miles from the Poland-Ukraine border.
Karina Chernyskova and her daughter, Karolina, look like sisters. They giggle when asked if they are. Moments later Valentina Chukhno, the babushka, arrives with a cup of soup, joined by her grandson, Zhan.
Just two days earlier, they packed their belongings and left their home in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. And in about an hour, the family would be on a train. They know it’s going to Germany, but where they’ll be sleeping, eating, working or studying are questions for another time.
It’s a relief to be out of eastern Ukraine — “in Poland, they don’t shoot. It’s quiet, so we’re calm,” says Chukhno. But her heart is still in Kharkiv.
Wearing a purple sweater with a hood offering little protection from the light rain, tears well when she’s asked about her family in Ukraine.
“My daughter is in the military, she stays in Kharkiv,” Chukhno said, her voice wavering as she pulls Zhan in for a hug. “This is her son.”
The country’s second-most populated city, Kharkiv has been subjected to a relentless bombing campaign reducing many neighborhoods to rubble. Russian rockets, missiles and artillery left at least 2,000 high-rise buildings in the city unlivable, according to Ukrainian officials. Other residents continue to live in homes with collapsed roofs, shattered windows and bullet-riddled walls.
“It’s impossible to stay there anymore because of the war,” says Chukhno.
On April 19, following a violent weekend of shelling that left 18 dead, Chukhno and her family left home. They took one of the many “evacuation trains” ushering civilians from war-torn regions in the east to Lviv.
From Lviv, they took a car to the border in Medyka, Poland, where volunteers told them about the Tesco. They spent a night in the busy center, alongside hundreds of other Ukrainians, before booking a train ticket, free for refugees, to Germany.
It’s likely the family would still be in Kharkiv, or at least somewhere in Ukraine, if it wasn’t for Chukhno’s daughter in the army. She urged her family to leave.
Before they left, Ukrainian soldiers picked up Chukhno and her family, driving them to where her daughter was stationed to say one last goodbye.
Chukhno cries as she flips through her phone, holding up a picture of her daughter dressed in army fatigues, a Kevlar helmet and body armor, standing alongside Chukhno.
“Many men are escaping Ukraine because they don’t want to stay and fight in the war,” says Chukhno, lamenting the stories of falsified paperwork, smugglers, and remote regions of the border where deserters cross.
“But my daughter is staying to fight.”
‘All homes are like this in Mariupol’
Waiting in line at a bus stop in Estonia, Anzhela Kumurxhi was surprised to hear a familiar voice.
“Anzhela!” the woman, Natalia, exclaimed. “We go together to belly dance in Mariupol. ... I’m so glad you’re OK! How’s your family?”
Kumurxhi had been on the move for weeks. And she would be for many more, each day bringing a new city, a new bus, train or car, and a new place to catch a few hours of sleep. But for a moment, life slowed down, as she relived memories from before her city turned into a burning hellscape.
“Yes, it was nice, yes,” Kumurxhi says, smiling, as she sat in a heated food tent along the Poland-Ukraine border. She’s tired, but her sense of humor isn’t. “I don’t know how she recognize me, I look here like I aged 20 years!”
“All my life, I live in Mariupol,” Kumurxhi says. She worked for Oriflame, a Swedish-based beauty product company, and lived in an apartment with near mother.
But in February, the bombs started falling, and Anzhela’s quiet, comfortable life descended into “hell,” “horror.”
In the early days of March, she moved with her mother into the basement of her apartment building. “For two weeks like this,” she said, with some exceptions. She would emerge to stand in long lines for food, or water. Sometimes she would poke her head out to survey the destruction.
“Some bombs go into our house, and we have a big fire,” she says, pulling out her phone, and scrolling through pictures. The first shows her neighbors, crowded around an impromptu grave outside of her building as they buried a civilian killed by Russian ordinance. Next, a picture of her standing beside a charred car. Then a selfie, taken from the street, as flames pour from a crater in her building behind her.
“This is my home, my apartment. This is my home. All homes are like this in Mariupol.”
On March 18, Kumurxhi walked up to Russian troops and asked about a rumored green corridor. She was waiting for a bus about 3 miles outside of Mariupol with her 74-year-old mother, each carrying a backpack.
“Around us, shooting and flying projectiles,” she said. “We were afraid to go, but even worse was to stay in this hell in the basement.”
The bus arrived, bringing them to a nearby village. Then to a Russian stronghold in Donetsk, where for the first time in weeks, she was able to use a working toilet and wash her hands from the tap. Three days later, they were taken to the Russian border, where troops inspected everything — their clothes, tattoos, texts and social media networks. “Many questions were asked, especially men,” she said.
Eventually they were loaded onto a train bound for the Russian city of Tula. There, Kumurxhi messaged her sister who lives near Moscow. She says many refugees were ushered into Russian filtration camps, where reports of bleak conditions, even torture, continue to surface. But because her sister lives in Russia, “I was not filtered in the camp.”
People in Russia were kind, she says. No one accused her of lying when she opened up about Mariupol. “It was about 50-50,” she said. “Some people, they think it’s good thing that Russia comes. Some people, of course, like Ukraine. I don’t know, each person has their own mind.”
But everywhere she looked, she saw the letter “Z.”
Originally a tactical marking on the side of Russian tanks and armored vehicles, the symbol has become integral to the country’s propaganda machine, a show of support for what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation.” A quick search on Instagram or TikTok reveals drone footage of Russian children standing in a “Z” formation, crowds waving a modified Russian flag with a black “Z” painted in front of the white, blue and red — even a Russian gymnast with a “Z” taped on his uniform.
“I always see this in windows, on buildings, buses, in cars. I’m shocked. I’m tired from seeing this,” she said. “This is very heavy for me, psychologically. I can’t stay like this.”
So she left Russia. She got a ride to Estonia, a bus to Warsaw, making her way to the Poland-Ukraine border town of Przemysl to seek immigration advice.
She has a friend in Prescott, Arizona, and will be one of many taking part in the Biden administration’s United for Ukraine program. She cracks a somber joke when asked how she feels about moving to the U.S.
“America, Russia, Africa?” she says, her hands in the air. “Any country. Just far from this hell.”
‘Do we go to the basement?’
When he hears a firetruck or ambulance, Martha Sakhno’s youngest son, Velemyr, asks: “Do we go to the basement?”
“My son, on every firetruck, asks this. Every time,” Sakhno says, standing outside the single room she now shares with Velemyr and her oldest son, Sviatoslav.
She reassures the kids who, like many Ukrainian children, don’t know exactly why they had to leave home. Velemyr and Sviatoslav thought the missiles falling near their apartment in Lviv was a thunderstorm. The air raid sirens meant the storm was getting bad and it was time to run to the basement.
Even Lviv, just 50 miles from Poland, was not safe from the war — the day Sakhno spoke with the Deseret News, a missile strike in the city killed seven.
Sakhno thought she could wait out the invasion in her apartment. She even opened her home to her sisters and cousins fleeing Kharkiv.
But the air raid sirens wouldn’t stop. “Every day, alarms,” she says, scrolling through her phone to show row after row of notifications, akin to an Amber Alert, that in English read “Ariel threat. Take cover now!”
Three times the missiles fell close, rattling her apartment which is pushed up against the airport.
So Sakhno, with her children, left home. They traveled for a few days before moving into a house in Rzezow, about an hour from the Ukrainian border, alongside other Ukrainian refugees. The owner paid to finish and furnish the inside of the 13-room home, and volunteers from the nearby university stop by to deliver food and take care of the kids.
The community of mothers and children are all in transition. Some moved in semi-permanently, some for a few days while their visa processes, some look for long-term housing elsewhere, and some go back to Ukraine.
Sakhno will not be among the latter. But she still misses home, and the single mother breathes a long sigh when asked if she wants to return to Ukraine.
“Yes. I very much loved my country. I am a folklorist, I am a singer,” she pauses, letting out a defeated laugh. “I have a home, not a room. I have my apartment. I have a life.”
Sakhno spoke just four days after moving into the home. Living alongside other displaced women with their children, she’s starting to feel some semblance of community. She speaks fluent Polish, and good English. A former elementary school teacher, she translates for the women in the home, many of whom only speak Ukrainian. She wants to start Polish language lessons for the children.
Like millions of Ukrainians, she’s in limbo, a reality that’s painfully obvious every time she goes to the train station.
“Polish men, women, they have little bags because they only go from one place (in Poland) to another. And I have three big bags because it’s all my life and I don’t know what will happen, from one week to three months to four years,” she says, shrugging. “I don’t know.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Ukrainian refugee Valentina Chukhno’s name was misspelled in the photo captions.