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Escape from Ukraine: ‘I want to start a new life in Ireland – and to live a safe life there’

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

Picture: Anna Provozon with her daughter Maria, 13, and son Artem, 10, at the Full Market refugee centre in Rzeszow: their application for a visa for the UK was rejected and they have now applied for a third time. Photo: Jeff Farrell

In the Full Market centre in Rzeszow, Poland, Ukrainian refugees who are making their way further west – to Ireland and England – say they hope to make a fresh start for their families

Jeff Farrell

July 2, 2022

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The family are in Ireland now, but when the Business Post encountered them last week in Rzeszow, a city in the south east of Poland, they had just fled Odesa, more than 1,000 kilometres away, as Russian forces ramped up their bombing of the Black Sea port city.

“We saw the missiles flying over our heads and we heard the sounds of the rockets and the explosions,” Maksym said. “They started to shell every day. It’s very dangerous to be there.”

The 40-year-old was sitting on a bench in a canteen in the makeshift refugee centre based on the second floor of the Full Market mall on the outskirts of Rzeszow.

As Maksym spoke, an overhead light flickered and a refrigerator hummed. The corridors and rooms were once storage areas for the shops on the first floor of the mall below, but are now places to sleep. The second floor is now host to some 500 fold-up beds in dark rooms. It is far from home for Maksym’s family, which means it is safe from shelling.

“We were lucky we were able to come here to a safe place,” Maksym said, putting his arm around his son Kirill, 11.

They had an arduous journey from their home in the south of Ukraine, 18 hours by train. They first stopped in Przemysl, a city in Poland about 13 kilometres from the border with Ukraine, and then travelled again by rail two hours further north to Rzeszow.

Picture: Maksym Rakovskiy wiped the sweat off his brow after a long journey with his wife and three children. Photo: Jeff Farrell

“We had to leave everything in Odesa and go to Ireland,” Maksym said through the aid of an interpreter. “We left all of our life in Ukraine — it’s difficult.”

Difficult but necessary. Russia intensified its shelling of Odesa last week, and at least 19 people, including two children, were confirmed dead on Friday after missile strikes on an apartment building and resort, according to Ukrainian officials.

It was one of a number of Ukrainian cities hit by Russian missiles last week. Another was Kremenchuk, where eight people died in a crowded shopping mall in an act described by G7 leaders as an “abominable” war crime.

More than five million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded its western neighbour on February 24, according to UN figures.

Most have moved towards Poland which neighbours Ukraine to the west. Some have continued to other countries in Europe, but about one million have settled in the country.

Picture: Full Market makeshift refugee centre in Rzeszow, Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Refugees rely on the goodwill of host countries to provide them with shelter when they arrive, but as the numbers have increased, many countries are struggling to find spaces for them.

Maksym is fortunate because his family – his wife and their three children – are to stay initially with their relatives in a house in Citywest in Dublin. “They came earlier in the war and they are there waiting for us. We will stay for a few days with them and then we don’t know,” he said.

Another draw for Maksym to bring his family to Ireland is that it sits on the edge of western Europe, with Dublin almost 3,500 kilometres from Odesa, a long way from the conflict.

“We want to go as far as possible from the dangerous place in Ukraine,” Maksym said.

His family spent just one night in the Full Market refugee centre before their scheduled flight to Dublin. Looking around, it is not a place for a family to spend too long, but it does provide a roof over their heads, food and a comfortable place to rest for a day or two before their next destination.

‘Thank you Polska’

Wandering through the dark corridors of the refugee centre, I saw how people had adapted to life in the shopping mall. In one area, a woman loaded clothes into an industrial-size washing machine. At the reception, volunteers in red bibs checked in refugees who walked up stairs carrying their lives in suitcases and plastic bags. Wearing lime green bracelets to show that they had been admitted to the centre, their eyes brimmed with pride and stoicism.

Beside the reception desk, a poster stuck to a window read: “Thank you Polska”. It was hand drawn and featured love hearts and the Ukrainian and Polish flags, a sign of solidarity from the refugees to their hosts.

Further along the corridor, I met Anna Provozon, 41. EU countries including Ireland have opened their doors to war victims from Ukraine – but not Britain, where Anna is aiming to go. War victims have to apply through a visa scheme and for many, including Anna, it has not run smoothly and she has been in the refugee centre for three months waiting for a visa.

Picture: Full Market makeshift refugee centre in Rzeszow, Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

She explained that she applied three times; the first application was rejected, she said, because government officials didn’t approve the house where a family would host her in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, south east England.

She showed me a picture of the house which showed a farm dwelling on several acres of land. She also showed me the rejection letter from the British Home Office. Having got no reply to her second application, she said she was trying for a third time to secure a place through the family visa scheme, this time using the neighbours of her original sponsors.

Stepping out from an area she has cordoned off around three beds for her, her son Artem, 10, and her daughter Maria, 13, Anna sighed at the process she has been through to get out of Poland.

“Right now I am exhausted,” she said. “It is difficult, I can’t live my own life. I must always wait for visa. I wake up, open my email, and every day unfortunately I don’t see emails that we get visas. And from time to time I am crying, but we live better than most people in Ukraine.”

Picture: Anthony Ezerioha, a doctor from Nigeria who studied in Ukraine, is helping out as a volunteer at the Full Market refugee centre. Photo: Jeff Farrell

That’s because Anna is now far from the conflict near her home in Sumy, a city in north eastern Ukraine, about 50 kilometres from the border with Russia. She said she and her family cowered in a cellar as Moscow’s forces shelled the area after the invasion started. Anna showed me photos on her phone of her children curled up in a makeshift bed in a basement in their house wearing heavy winter coats and hats.

“One night my son didn’t sleep because all the night he was listening to the shelling,” Anna said. “All the night: ‘Mum, mum, I am frightened, I am scared’, and I ask him for praying, please pray and stay calm, please. And then . . .” She paused and looked away, as tears welled in her eyes. “It was so difficult to watch how he was frightened, and that’s why I decided to go and leave my husband, my parents, and we applied for visas for this [UK family visa] scheme.

“But three months we are here waiting for our visas, and right now this is our third application and I hope, I believe, they will be successful for us.”

Anna, who was an English teacher in Sumy, is adamant that England will be her future home, even though she could easily move her family to open-door countries such as Ireland.

“It was my biggest dream to be in England, to go to England and improve my English skills, to travel the country, it was my aim before the war. I am not angry over the delays. Two, three weeks ago, my friend said to me: ‘England, is like a man that I fell in love with, there is a lot of distance, but I must believe we will meet soon’.”

Picture: Full Market makeshift refugee centre in Rzeszow, Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Anna said that it was difficult to leave her 37-year-old husband and her parents behind. Her husband can’t leave Ukraine because all men aged 18-60 must remain and potentially be called up to the army to fight. The only flexibility in the rule is that any men with three or more children can leave the war-torn country.

“I didn’t want to leave during the war,” Anna said. “I had some doubts about leaving or staying in Ukraine.”

Anna was born in Siberia. She travelled to Ukraine with her Ukrainian mother when she was 18 and never left.

She could easily have gone east into the country of her birth, but she holds nothing but hatred for Russians now after seeing how her former school mates reacted to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Anna posted about the shelling of her city on social media but her old school mates didn’t believe her account of the bombing.

“Thanks to god I am Ukrainian, not Russian, because all my classmates in Russia, they unfortunately don’t support us, and they say in the first days of war, they say it is Ukrainians killing Ukrainians, that Russia didn’t start the war. Russia didn’t bomb your cities, they believe this. They believe [Vladimir] Putin and their government; it’s crazy and I don’t understand.”

For now, Anna still has her aim of getting to Britain, but she is thankful to Poland for their hospitality in the meantime.

“I am very grateful to Polish people for helping me, to live here. It is thanks to god, and thanks to Polish people I don’t pay for food, roof above our heads, and I am very thankful,” she said.

Sign of solidarity

Konrad Fijołek, the mayor of Rzeszow, told the Business Post that the Full Market refugee centre and other similar facilities were temporary and they will eventually be closed.

Fijołek said that the plan is to provide more permanent accommodation for the refugees who want to stay in Rzeszow, many of whom are currently staying with host families.

“Now we give them their own houses, own flats, because most of them lived, until today, in the flats, the houses of our citizens. Now after four months, refugees, they need to go to their own flats, to be independent, so now it’s the first challenge to find them these houses, flats, and to give them work first of all, because in the work they can pay for these flats,” he said.

Picture: The Ukrainian flag flies in solidarity with Kyiv at the town hall in Rzeszow, Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

That’s the plan, at least, but realising it is likely to prove difficult. Fijołek said that as of now there was not enough cash in the local government coffers to finance the housing plans, nor schooling for the extra children the city expects when classes resume in September. The city's population stood at 200,000 before Russian invaded Ukraine on February 24 -- it has now swelled to 300,000.

Picture: Locals outside the town hall in Rzeszow, Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

“We’ll try to figure out this challenge and these resources, but we are sure the resources we have will not be enough in the long term. We hope that the Polish government will support this process financially – we will see.”

More than 38,000 victims of the war in Ukraine have settled in Ireland, according to figures from the Central Statistics Office. Fijołek said he was grateful to the country for taking in refugees.

Picture: Konrad Fijolek, the mayor of Rzeszow, Poland, at his office in the town hall. Photo: Jeff Farrell

“This is a very important sign of solidarity, and we wouldn’t have been able to cope with this situation so well if not for countries like Ireland and other European countries that let the refugees come to them. Hence, we would like to thank Ireland and the citizens of Ireland for that.”

Maksym, who was bound for Citywest in Dublin on Thursday, said he saw his future in Ireland for him and his family, far from the shelling in Odesa. “I want to start a new life in Ireland, to study English, find a job, and to live a safe life there,” he said.

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