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‘Invisible’ migrants Ukrainian refugees in Poland brace themselves for a long war

Source: Meduza
A long line of Ukrainian drivers waiting to cross into Poland through the Shehyni border checkpoint. March 4, 2022.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Polish government and public welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms. But as the war grinds into its second year, and with spring offensives reportedly on the horizon, the reality that many Ukrainians won’t be returning home any time soon is setting in. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova traveled to Warsaw, Kraków, and Przemyśl to get a glimpse of what life is like for the 1.56 million refugees from Ukraine who have sought refuge in Poland.

This story was originally published by Meduza in Russian. The following translation, which has been abridged for length and clarity, appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza in English covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Liliya, a short, stout woman of 43, walks through Przemyśl’s main train station with a red duffle bag in one hand. Her train to Kraków doesn’t arrive for another hour, but she decides to wait on the platform despite the strong winds and snow. “I’m going [to visit] my children for the first time,” she says. 

Liliya’s journey from the Kharkiv region to Przemyśl took more than 24 hours. Her 25-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son left Ukraine early last March, shortly after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Liliya stayed behind to take care of her bedridden mother, moving from her fifth-floor apartment in Kharkiv to a village. 

“So many people have died! [...] Every day is frightening, we’re just getting used to it,” Liliya says, wiping her tears with a handkerchief. “What did they come to liberate us from?” she asks, again and again. 

* * *

As thousands of Ukrainians fled across the border into Poland last March, Dr. Maciej Duszczyk from the University of Warsaw’s Center of Migration Research estimated that the country could accommodate 800,000 refugees. Since then, Poland has granted temporary protection to more than 1.56 million refugees from Ukraine — and around 1 million are still in the country today. “The difference between 800,000 and a million isn’t so big,” Duszczyk assures. “It’s no big deal.”

As Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine enters its second year, Poland is prepared to offer temporary protection to more people if needed, the professor says. But it won’t be able to provide these newcomers with anything other than the most basic essentials (“food and water”); access to the labor market, education, and the healthcare system won’t be in the cards. 

This approach helps avoid “all kinds of tensions,” Duszczyk maintains. “If you invite five people into a one-room apartment, you’ll get along for a day, maybe a week, but not longer. Because this will be a lot of stress for everyone,” he says. “We must act responsibly.”

The border station

In the months immediately after the February invasion, the main railway station in Przemyśl — a small city 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Polish-Ukrainian border — was packed. Women, children, and elderly people with blank expressions arrived with their pets and hastily-packed suitcases in tow. Volunteers were also on site every day, offering food, water, hygiene products, and SIM cards with free calling to Ukraine. They found temporary housing for those staying in Poland and helped those headed elsewhere get free tickets and catch the right train. 

Ukrainian refugees resting in a shelter set up inside the Przemyśl railway station. March 3, 2022.
Markus Schreiber / AP / Scanpix / LETA

A year on, Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war are still arriving at the station, but the building looks empty. “There’s less help,” a volunteer named Dasha says. 

The free tickets for public transport that transit companies and the Polish government once provided have dried up (the Przemyśl–Hanover train, paid for by the German state, is a rare exception), and there’s hardly any free food. You even have to pay to use the station’s bathrooms. “We carry bags, [offer] tea and water. We help in whatever way we can,” says Dasha, though she admits that there’s also a lack of volunteers.

Dasha, 19, came to Poland from Kyiv almost a year ago. She’s been living with an American host family in Poznań — a city eight hours from Przemyśl by train. She’s volunteering at the railway station for the third time and visited Kyiv three times last year.

“When I arrive, I start crying. I don’t want to leave. Everything feels like home there,” Dasha says of Kyiv. “My family is there, my brothers and sisters. And I’m here — holding on.” She doesn’t know if she’ll ever return home for good. 

Sergey, a volunteer with Russians for Ukraine (RFU), left his hometown of Irkutsk in late February 2022, fearing criminal prosecution for his past volunteer work with Alexey Navalny’s local campaign office (the Russian authorities outlawed Navalny’s organizations as “extremist” after he was imprisoned in 2021). Sergey spent two months in Yerevan, where he heard about a group of Russian volunteers helping Ukrainians in Przemyśl and decided to join them. “I came to help for two weeks and got sucked in,” the 33-year-old says. “I still can’t leave.” 

Russians for Ukraine is one of the nonprofits that cropped up in the immediate aftermath of the February invasion. Its founder, 38-year-old Georgy Nurmanov, hails from Omsk but for the past ten years has lived in Warsaw, where he ran a pelmeni business with his wife. “I dropped all of that on February 24,” recounts Georgy. “On the evening of the 25th, I went [to Przemyśl] with two buddies to meet [our] friends from Kyiv. I arrived and realized that there’s something to be done here.” 

A Ukrainian family walks with a volunteer on a platform at the Przemyśl railway station after arriving on a train from Odesa. April 10, 2022.
Leonhard Foeger / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Assisting Ukrainian refugees has become a kind of “therapy” that allows him to “stay sane,” Georgy says. Most of the RFU volunteers are Russian citizens who oppose the war, together with Russian-speakers from other former Soviet states. For the past year, these volunteers have sorted humanitarian aid to send to Ukraine, met refugees at the border and the Przemyśl railway station, and helped them get to the local refugee reception center or to other cities and countries. 

Nurmanov says he can count the number of negative interactions between the Russian volunteers and Ukrainian refugees “on one hand.” “The most common reaction is stupor, for a while. We treat this with understanding. The main thing is not to push [them], not to shout that we’re ‘good Russians,’ like us, please!

The Tesco shelter

The local authorities have been less than welcoming to the Russian volunteers. Przemyśl police detained Georgy multiple times during the first weeks of the war, only to release him without charges each time. After the Polish authorities introduced mandatory registration for volunteers, some Russian citizens saw their applications rejected on the grounds that there’s “enough help” and “volunteers are no longer needed.” Then, over the summer, third-party volunteers lost access to the local refugee reception center after it came under the Polish Red Cross’s control.

The reception center is located in a former Tesco supermarket on the city’s outskirts. At the start of the full-scale war, it was volunteer-run and could accommodate up to 2,000 people. Upon taking over the reception center, the Polish Red Cross promptly shut it down for disinfection, forcing everyone out (most of the refugees were put on a bus to Warsaw). The center reopened in mid-August, albeit with a new set of rules. Now, only Ukrainians who are entering Europe for the first time since the February invasion can access the center — and their stay is limited to just two days. The number of spaces available was also reduced tenfold. 

Red Cross workers wouldn’t allow our correspondent to enter the building, citing a ban on press out of “concern” for the refugees. They also declined to comment.

Russians for Ukraine opened its own shelter for Ukrainian refugees in October 2022. Located not far from the former Tesco, it occupies one floor of an apartment building and can house 30 to 40 people at a time, Nurmanov says. Of late, most of the guests are people who left territories formerly occupied by Russian forces, and those traveling through Poland to other European countries for medical treatment. “Five hundred people have passed through the shelter already. Some come for a night, others stay longer,” Georgy says. “We let everyone in.” 

Lena, a retired English teacher from Kryvyi Rih, has been staying at the shelter since January. “I didn’t want to go anywhere at all,” the 60-year-old admits. “We had incoming shelling: either a dam or a house not far from me was being bombed. And so [there were] constant sirens. Now, there’s often no electricity.” 

A room at the shelter run by Russians for Ukraine

Having left Ukraine “for personal reasons” and without a concrete plan, Lena now hopes to go to Portugal. But she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay abroad. She mentions that some acquaintances are looking after her two cats back in Kryvyi Rih. 

“Today I spoke with my relatives from Belgorod — they’re like zombies. [At the start of the war] they didn’t believe it, now they say that we’re bombing ourselves!” Lena exclaims, after finding out that our correspondent is from Russia. “We were very close. We loved each other so much,” she adds sadly. “[In December 2021], when there were reports that there would be an invasion, [my] Aunt Vera and I laughed. And now I’ve told her: ‘We just don’t like all you Russians, end of story!’” 

120 days

Tamara, 37, agrees to an interview but asks for her name to be changed to protect her relatives. Her mother lives in Moscow and her father is in Donetsk. Tamara herself lived in the neighboring city of Makiivka for a long time, but when the war broke out in 2014, she moved to Zhytomyr in western Ukraine. “I thought the war would last a week. I took the dog and [my] things and went to stay with friends,” she recalls. 

Eight years later, in March 2022, Tamara ended up fleeing war once again after a missile struck a nearby house and killed her neighbor. Tamara and her sister, along with their children, reached the Polish border by bus. A hotel in Konin (a city in central Poland) took them in under a state program offering compensation to those sheltering Ukrainian refugees during the first 120 days of their stay. But as the deadline drew nearer, the hotel staff began urging Tamara and her family members to find somewhere else to live. 

Russian military aircraft bombing Zhytomyr. March 9, 2022.
NTA TV Channel

“It was clear that they [the Poles] really wanted to help. There was a lot of help — an abundance even,” Tamara says. “But one country [invaded] another country, and this has been going on for a long time. Where can they get so many [resources]?” 

After three and half months at the hotel, Tamara’s sister and her son returned to Ukraine; Tamara and her daughter meanwhile, spent several weeks at the reception center in Przemyśl before going to stay with a “friend of a friend” in Italy. But Tamara missed her husband terribly, and so they went back to Zhytomyr — only to leave again after a month. “Missiles started flying again, and I can’t stand those eerie sirens, they’re so vile,” Tamara explains. “It’s a kind of injustice: you’re in your own home, and you’re afraid.” 

Tamara and her daughter returned to Przemyśl, where a volunteer invited them to stay at the RFU shelter. Happy to be so close to Ukraine, Tamara offered to stay on and work there as a volunteer. Asked what she plans to do next, Tamara admits that the future remains uncertain. “Your mind doesn’t want to think that you’ll never go back. In principle, I can return and go on with my life, but I’m afraid we’ll be killed,” she says. “I’m still toughing it out. I’m on the border, and I see Ukraine from my window — as if I were home.”  

‘Gentle integration’ 

“People don’t know if they’ll be able to return to Ukraine in the coming months [or] in a year. And perhaps they’ll never return,” says Maciej Duszczyk, the University of Warsaw professor. Many Ukrainians who ended up in Poland didn’t plan on living here before the war, he stresses. Now, they need to be “gently integrated into Polish society” — not “aggressively pushed.” 

Most of the Ukrainians refugees in Poland are women, children, and elderly people (men between the ages of 18 and 60 were banned from leaving Ukraine on the second day of the full-scale war). In some cases, refugees are reuniting with family members who came to Poland earlier to work. According to Duszczyk’s estimates, 85 percent of women who fall into this category quickly found jobs and enrolled their children — who number around 200,000 — in Polish schools. Another 200,000 school-age children are enrolled in Ukrainian schools and study remotely. 

A seven-year-old girl from Kharkiv attends class at a Warsaw school. September 1, 2022.
Kacper Pempel / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The way Duszczyk sees it, these families are already integrated into Polish society. But for women with children who had no connections to Poland before the war, things are more difficult. Many of them are separated from their families and only half have managed to find jobs. “Finding work in Poland is not a problem,” Duszcyk says, although he admits that lack of childcare is a major hurdle for many Ukrainian women. 

Making Ukrainian refugees more active in the labor market and less dependent on state assistance is one of the biggest challenges the Polish government currently faces. Since March 1, refugees from Ukraine who have stayed in Poland for more than 120 days have been required to cover 50 percent of their accommodation costs in “collective shelters” (these payments are currently capped at 40 złoty, or roughly $9, per day). 

“To say that I received some [big] help here isn’t true. I’m always looking for a place to earn extra money,” complains Lena, a 45-year-old taxi driver in Kraków. The car is a rental — and it’s just one of the ways she’s trying to make ends meet. After coming to Poland from Dnipro in March 2022, Lena initially found a job at a construction site, but she was “kicked out” for answering calls from her 12-year-old son. She’s been cobbling together odd jobs ever since. 

Read more from The Beet

Dispatch from Dnipro How ‘Ukraine’s outpost’ and its people are faring after one year of all-out war

Read more from The Beet

Dispatch from Dnipro How ‘Ukraine’s outpost’ and its people are faring after one year of all-out war

“You have to grind, grind, grind without stopping,” Lena says. “In Ukraine, I lived — I felt better, honestly. And I made more money there. I’ll probably never want to go to Europe again in my life.” 

After spending two months living with a Polish family, Lena rented two rooms in a small building on the outskirts of Kraków for 1,000 złoty (about $225) a month. A family benefit from the Polish government covers half the cost, Lena says. Although her son initially enrolled in a local school, he struggled with the language barrier and switched to distance learning. 

Lena’s adult daughter and ex-husband are still in Ukraine. She plans to return so they can all be together again one day but confesses that she has a bad feeling about the future. “If only they were to say ‘the war is over,’ I’d drop everything and go back without a moment’s hesitation,” Lena says with tears in her eyes. 

‘Invisible migration’

According to Maciej Duszczyk, Polish attitudes towards migrants were “positive” for many years: the country was experiencing a demographic crisis, and migrant workers compensated for the deficit in Poland’s labor market. Attitudes changed during the European migrant crisis in 2015, however. “Poland’s then-government and the Law and Justice party saw migrants, especially [ones] from Muslim countries, as a threat to Christianity in Europe, a threat to our way of life,” the professor recalls. 

An annual march marking Poland’s Independence Day. November 11, 2015.

At the state level at least, this negative attitude toward non-European migrants persists. While refugees from Ukraine receive a warm welcome, refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq trying to cross into Poland from Belarus are thwarted in every possible way. 

“We have a very selective migration policy,” Duszczyk explains. “Right now, 15 percent of people on the streets of Warsaw are foreigners. The situation is the same in Paris. But in Paris migrants can be recognized [visually], whereas in Warsaw [in most cases] they can’t. That’s why we call migration to Poland ‘invisible migration.’” 

Poland has proven itself to be “incredibly responsive” since the February invasion, agrees 25-year-old Nastya Podorozhnya, who moved from Kyiv to Kraków to attend university in 2014. At the same time, she notes that the events of the past year have done little to change the many stereotypes about Ukrainians that prevail in Polish society. “[Ukrainians] are associated with the ‘steppe.’ The men are these violent Cossacks, and the women are charming, beautiful, and obedient wives,” she says. 

A few days before the February invasion, Nastya went to visit her sister’s family in Lviv — they ended up leaving Ukraine together. Back in Kraków, she began writing free guides for Ukrainian refugees and interviewing experts on combating human trafficking. Motivated by her own difficult experience dealing with the Polish police and navigating the legal system after she was sexually assaulted in 2019, Nastya went on to launch Martynka, an initiative aimed at protecting and supporting Ukrainian women fleeing the war. 

In addition to providing humanitarian aid, Martynka has its own chat bot and helpline, as well as 11 psychologists on staff. The organization has also responded to several “waves” of appeals from domestic-violence victims and even opened a dedicated shelter in Kraków last September. “Women’s rights in Poland are a complete disgrace,” Nastya says.

The Martynka shelter in Kraków

Access to sexual and reproductive healthcare is another major issue. Unlike Ukraine, where abortion is legal, Poland has some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe. Helping pregnant women access abortion illegally is punishable by up to three years in prison. Nevertheless, there are a number of non-profit organizations that provide abortion pills or help women travel to neighboring countries where abortion is legal. 

According to Nastya, Martynka — which cooperates with the abortion-care organizations Aborcyjny Dream Team and Women on Web — receives multiple inquiries about how to terminate unwanted pregnancies every week but does not keep statistics on the number of women it assists with abortion care. (The consultations Martynka provides via its hotline are not considered illegal in Poland.)

Women on Web told Meduza that Ukrainian women in Poland began reaching out to them in the first weeks of the war, and they have since helped more than 200 people access abortions. They received the most calls in April and May — the months immediately after Russian forces retreated from the Kyiv region. Several Ukrainian women who received help from Martynka said they were raped by Russian soldiers.

According to Nastya’s estimates, Martynka has provided humanitarian assistance to more than 600 women since its founding. And although she has received backlash online for her criticism of Poland’s policies, she remains determined to continue speaking up. “Ukraine is my home and Poland is my home,” Nastya says. “Human rights are not a national issue; they’re a universal issue. And you can talk about them anywhere.”

One year later

“If the largest European countries provided assistance to Ukraine on such a scale as Poland, this war would have already ended,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in February. Indeed, in addition to welcoming more Ukrainian refugees than any other European country, Poland is also among the leading contributors of military aid to Ukraine. And rising inflation, which is now typical across Europe, has done little to curb public support for continued assistance to Kyiv. 

A year into the full-scale invasion, many Ukrainian refugees in Poland are deciding to extend their stay. According to Maciej Duszczyk, the next task facing the Polish government is to provide them with “better tools” for integration, such as opportunities to have their qualifications recognized and find permanent housing. 

As the professor notes, Ukrainian refugees in Poland have already paid 10 billion złoty ($2.25 billion) in taxes. By comparison, Warsaw has spent 3.5 billion złoty ($778 million) on refugee aid. Experts from Deloitte say that integrating Ukrainians into the domestic economy could help boost Poland’s GDP. 

At the same time, Duszczyk notes that Ukraine’s postwar economic recovery will hinge on people returning and helping the country to rebuild. “[In Poland] there are demographic problems and a big deficit in the labor market. Of course it would be good if these people stayed. But it must be their decision,” he concludes.  

* * *

On the platform at the Przemyśl railway station, Liliya from Kharkiv sets her heavy bag down on a bench. Her daughter managed to find a job in Kraków, she says, and her son is continuing his studies remotely. But no matter how her children are living now, Liliya has no doubt that they’ll return home to Ukraine as soon as the war ends. 

“We’ll rebuild Ukraine however we can, because it’s our country,” Liliya says in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. “Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers grew up there, so of course they will return.”

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Reporting by Kristina Safonova in Warsaw, Kraków, and Przemyśl

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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