Marina, a 34-year-old mother of a seven-year-old boy, waves a hand in what she thinks is the direction of Ukraine. “I have to stay near Ukraine, and my husband, that is where my heart is,” she says. “America, Britain, Spain, Italy, what would I do there without him,” she says, after I ask her whether she will leave Poland to settle somewhere else, if Russia’s war on her country drags on.
It took Marina more than a day to reach the Polish border on the train from just west of Kyiv. She says it was stultifying and claustrophobic in the packed train mainly full of women and children; the windows were shut tight and during the night hours and the lights were off to ensure the train wasn’t targeted. The babies wailed; younger children complained on the journey to safety.
Because of the ban on men of fighting age leaving Ukraine, Marina, like hundreds of other Ukrainian women, had to leave her partner behind, and it clearly pains her. “I did it for my son,” she says. “We were scared for him. There was terrible shelling. I was very frightened,” she says. She tells me this as she cleans my hotel room. She was the head of procurement for a Ukrainian company and with remarkable speed got this cleaning job. “Needs must,” she shrugs.
Many businesses in Warsaw and other Polish towns are going out of their way to employ Ukrainians, if just for temporary work. Ukraine’s neighbors have flung open their doors and hearts to fleeing Ukrainians, offering aid, free transport and accommodation as a wave of dispossessed humanity arrives hour after hour at border crossings and at train and bus stations in-country.
They are met by yellow or orange-vested volunteers as well as government workers. In Warsaw firefighters are taking a lead. They dole out hot meals, bottled water and blankets and help move them on to reception centers or distribute them among charitable Polish families to shelter. Mobile telephone operators T-Mobile and Orange offer free SIM cards that allow the refugees to contact relatives back home at no cost.
Warsaw’s central railway station is packed on the chilly evening I visit. Two trains have arrived from the border and disgorge a mass of disheveled, tired people, and blinking children, to join the already jam-packed main entrance hall, where families clutch bowls of soup and bottled water proffered by the volunteers.
On the trains, there was no food but “people would get bottled water into the train at station stops,” 25-year-old Yulia says. She has arrived with her eight-year-old sister and mother. They took a day to get by train to Lviv from Kyiv, where their neighborhood was under intense bombardments, and then they had a 13-hour bus ride from the border to Warsaw. “We had no plan when we traveled,” she said. “But on a Facebook forum I found someone in Warsaw offering a room even before we got here,” she added proudly. She had a job with DHL and they are carrying on paying her. “Not just a little but all my wages. Isn’t that unbelievable,” she says.
Most refugees aren’t as lucky or as organized. At the central station, they try to make sense of their surroundings; try to get the bearings on a future that’s unknown and unknowable; they struggle to take in the immediate options outlined by the volunteers, and their eyes dart to the commotion around them. Others take a blanket and gather belongings — a battered suitcase, plastic bags — and find some space to rest. One older woman sits slumped, sleeping on a stair. In a corner a play area has been set up and the toddlers and younger children become absorbed with a doll or a car or a balloon.
Outside the station others crowd into a marquee set up by a group of charitable groups. “We served 30,000 meals today,” a volunteer tells me. Other refugees file up for buses laid on by Warsaw’s firefighters to ferry them to reception centers. A skyscraper looms over the dystopian scene, with the LG brand lit up, flashing the marketing tag, “The Future Is Here.”
Stores and buses in Warsaw have taken to displaying the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag. The welcome stands in stark contrast to how Poland, along with neighbors Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, responded during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis. All resisted taking in asylum-seekers from the Middle East or burden-sharing with other more hard-pressed European Union countries.
Empathy, and history
There are historical reasons for the different treatment, Poles say, pointing to Ukraine’s proximity and the cultural and linguistic ties linking the two countries. But there’s also an underlying sense of what could be described as preemptive empathy. When asked, Polish volunteers of all ages say they are helping because of a compelling moral duty, but many also mention anxieties about the war spilling over. Some even worry they could suffer a similar plight to the hordes of Ukrainians they are trying to assist.
An historical anxiety feeds Polish alarm. Eastern European borders were decided on the battlefields of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and western Russia the past century. Historian Timothy Snyder has dubbed the region the bloodlands, noting in his book of the same name: “In the middle of Europe, in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people.” He adds: “Mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region,” he notes. With that history lodged in the background, Poland is undergoing a genetic shudder.
But as the numbers of Ukrainian evacuees climb remorselessly, some worry Poland’s welcome mat for Ukrainians may start to become threadbare.
In a sense it already is — not because of any hardening of hearts, although some fear that might happen if the numbers of refugees climb as high as some predict. Financial resources are short. On Saturday the Polish government approved an $1.82 billion fund to help cover the costs of the mass Ukrainian influx. Polish families will get $274 a month for the next two months for housing Ukrainians; and every refugee will get $70 a month.
But Polish politicians acknowledge this isn’t enough and volunteers are already complaining much more has to be done for the dazed and disoriented refugees turning up in Poland. Much of the burden is being carried by volunteers.
“I have had so far 20 Ukrainians overnighting with me since Russia invaded,” says Mia, a human resources manager. “Last night I had a woman who cried a lot, but I could see she was trying to control her emotions so as not to upset her two children. Another one a few days ago also had children but could not stop weeping. She kept showing me photographs, saying, ‘these are my dogs and cats, this was my house two weeks ago and this is my house now.’ It was destroyed,” she added.
Joanna Niewczas, a volunteer coordinator at the Torwar conference hall in central Warsaw, which has been transformed into a refugee center, catalogued last week in an open letter serious deficiencies in the aid effort. She warned the crowded and unhygienic facilities posed a “huge risk of an epidemic due to the lack of sanitary requirements.” She complained: “Volunteers are responsible for organizing several thousand meals a day by calling restaurants and asking for donations; we are not able to provide meals to refugees because of the number of them. We have not been given funds.”
The UN says about 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled their country so far. About 1.7 million have gone to Poland alone - the largest influx of refugees the country has seen since World War II. More than 214,160 have crossed into Hungary, 165,199 into Slovakia and around 90,000 into Romania. More than 300,00 have entered tiny Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, since February 24 and on Saturday its foreign minister, Nicu Popescu, said the country was facing a “humanitarian catastrophe” and had reached breaking point with its health and social services overwhelmed.
And Poland, wealthier and larger, is also struggling. Rafal Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s mayor, has warned the city’s ability to absorb refugees was “at an end,” and that unless an international relocation system was established it would be overwhelmed soon, too.