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War in Ukraine: In Poland, Ukrainians are torn by the dilemma of going home or remaining in exile

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

Picture: Ukrainian refugees both fleeing and returning frrom their homeland stop for food in the World Central Kitchen outside Przemysl train station in south east Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Weary of being displaced from their homeland for four months, many Ukrainian refugees are leaving Poland even as they are thankful for their neighbour’s hospitality in a time of war

Jeff Farrell

June 25, 2022

Business Post

Yeva and her family packed their bags for Poland just two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The 15-year-old fled with her mother and brother from her town 100km outside of Zaporizhzhya in the south-east of their country, which is home to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Russian forces shelled the facility on March 3, and fires broke out, sparking fears that the reactor was damaged and this could lead to a Chernobyl-like disaster.

That prompted Yeva and her family to make the journey of more than 1,000 kms west to Poland. They are now safe and sound after finding refuge in Przemyśl, a city in the south east of the country just 15kms from the border with their homeland.

But Yeva worries about her father who couldn’t leave Ukraine because, like all men aged between 18 and 60, the law means he must stay and potentially fight for his country’s army.

Yeva watches the news on TV of the Russian army slowly advancing across the eastern Donbas region, seizing towns and villages in its usual strategy – flattening urban areas with shells before sending the troops in to conquer rubble as the bodies of civilians pile up.

Agnieszka Buk teaches a group of 11 to 16-year-olds as part of an EU-funded scheme that provides language and culture lessons for free to all non-EU nationals who are settling into Poland.

Picture: Agnieszka Buk teaches a group of 11 to 16-year-olds as part of an EU-funded scheme that provides language and cultural lessons to non-EU nationals settling into Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

She knows her father can’t leave Ukraine, but she wishes he would at least follow the usual path of the seven million people displaced within her country and head north or west, away from the conflict.

“I see all the bombs in the news and I call my father and say: ‘You are at home in a bombing area’,” she said, shaking her head. “And it’s hard. I know he is an adult and very clever, but why stay there?”

Aid workers, who faciliated the Business Post’s interview with Yeva, asked for her surname and exact home address to be excluded given her age.

Finding a home in Poland

Yeva, her mother and brother are among the five million who fled Ukraine for refuge abroad, with more than one million staying in neighbouring Poland. They were lucky to find a home and a local Ukrainian-Polish school.

Yeva is one of about 30 students in a class made up of children who also fled the war and are now trying to get to grips with the Polish language, culture and history.

The Business Post sat in on the class and watched as the students went through the lesson as part of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) programme, an EU-funded scheme that provides language and culture lessons for free to all non-EU nationals who are settling into Poland.

The airy classroom was on the second floor, with the windows open out to where the wind jostled thin trees outside. The walls were pale yellow and at the front of the room a wooden cross was hung over framed emblems of both the Polish and Ukrainian military.

Agnieszka Buk was teaching the students, aged from 11 to 16. She usually works as an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Rzeszow, a nearby city.

She stood in front of the students as Polish traditional music played through speakers. She then held up the red and white Polish flag and, later, showed the 27 member states of the European Union and the members of Nato on a projector screen.

At break time, the students hurried out to a table down the corridor, where they tucked into a free lunch of bananas, apples, bottled water and fruit juice. They laughed and joked next to an A-frame adorned with student’s paintings and drawings about the war.

The illustrations were all in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, with one depicting a fist pumped into the air captioned “Stop the war”. Another showed a white dove soaring into the sky with the message “calling for peace”. One simply read: “Stop Putin”.

After another 45 minutes of the class, the students were finished. Buk sank into a chair in the corridor, waving a hand in front of her face amid the muggy air. She let out a deep breath and, after a minute, explained the purpose of the class.

“In the school we are realising a government programme for foreigners, to help them join our society, community, to know a little bit about Poland,” Agnieszka said. “So it’s a little programme for the children, they will get a six-hour workshop, about Polish history, culture, traditions, geography.”

Daria Kołacz is a full-time teacher in the school, where children are taught in both Polish and Ukrainian.

Picture: Daria Kołacz is a full-time teacher in the school, where children are taught in both Polish and Ukrainian. Photo: Jeff Farrell

“About 50 per cent of the students here are Ukrainian refugees and the other half their parents are Ukrainians,” she said.

The number of students has more than doubled since Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion poured over the border into Poland. “Before the war there were 120 students, now there are 130 more,” Kołacz said.

The school can accommodate the rise in pupil numbers, but it involves extra workload for the teachers.

“It was pretty hard the first week because they were all together, but then they were divided into two groups,” Kołacz said, explaining that classes used to be held just once druing the day, but now they are in shifts, one starting at 7am and another at 4pm.

Poland is not just dealing with Ukrainians looking to seek refuge in the country. It also is trying to help those who now want to return home.

Heading back to Kyiv

At Przemyśl Railway Station, a voice crackled over an intercom as volunteer workers in yellow and orange vests busied about directing travellers. Most hauled big heavy suitcases, the wheels clattering on the concrete. One woman carried a white poodle, another carried a child.

They joined a queue near a train, blue with a yellow stripe, that sat behind a rusty mesh fence topped with spikes.

This railway station in the south east of Poland is the main hub where the bulk of refugees flow in from cities in Ukraine and all first pass through Lviv, 100kms over the border.

Vitaliia Bashynska was sitting on the kerb wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, in an area next to Platform 5. But like everyone else she was not seeking refuge in Poland, she was bound for Ukraine on the express train for a 12-hour journey back to Kyiv.

Vitaliia said that she left her home city after the Russian army invaded Ukraine on February 24 and the Kremlin’s troops began to inch towards the capital before the local military fought back and pushed them out amid fierce battles.

The Russian invasion has so far prompted more than five million refugees to flee Ukraine, the UN has said. Most went west to Poland and funnelled through cities including Przemysl. Millions went further west across Europe to countries including Ireland, while more than a million stayed in Poland, filtering out north to cities including Krakow and Warsaw.

Picture: Vitaliia Bashynska is bound home to Kyiv here at Przemysl train station in south east Poland. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Vitaliia was among them. She went to Warsaw where her son was studying. “I decided to spend some time in Poland because it’s more safe here,” she said.

Poland has an open-door policy towards refugees. They have a right to immediately work and access the same benefits as a Polish citizen. Housing has been provided where possible, aid workers said. Much of it is with host families who are funded by the state. Others are accommodated in refugee centres for weeks or months hoping for a roof over their head away from the shelter facilities. Many are starting to worry about homelessness amid fears that the Polish government may have to stop funding for host families.

Vitaliia doesn’t consider herself a refugee, however. She said she has a job and travelled on her own money and she praised Polish hospitality.

“They provided free clothes, free train, everything for us,” she said.

She is now one of the thousands going back to Ukraine as the lure of home and her desire to be reunited with her husband became too strong to resist. There is no official count of the number of refugees in Poland returning to Ukraine, but aid workers in Przemysl estimate that 50 per cent of the people passing through the train station are leaving.

They do so knowing they may not be returning to safety. Russia is focused on a push in the east in the Donbas region, but there is no green zone. Russian ships in the Caspian Sea launch cruise missile attacks across the country, in cities including Odesa, in the south, Lviv, in the west, and Kyiv, the capital in the north east. More than 3,000 civilians have been killed since the Russian invasion, the UN has said.

Descending into the depths of an underpass, a tunnel that runs below the train tracks, there are many volunteers helping the refugees either arriving into Poland or leaving.

One American, who is in his early 30s, explained that he took his ten days’ annual leave from his job in real estate and hopped on a plane to do what he could for the refugees in Poland. “At the end of the day, we’re all humans, and I’ve an extra pair of hands so I decided to come out here and help out,” he said.

It was his first day on the job, but he said other volunteers told him why many Ukrainians were returning home.

“A lot are saying there’s a lot going back to Ukraine, they haven’t got any money left, no place to stay, so they’d rather just go home,” he said before rushing off to help a woman carry a heavy case down steep concrete steps.

Russ Hart is from Houston, Texas and is also volunteering. A retired restaurant manager, he came to help World Central Kitchen to cook for the refugees. The US-based NGO was first founded to help feed people after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and usually responds to natural disasters.

“I believe that the only meaning in life is what we give it,” he said. “So I came to give meaning to my life.”

Picture: Russ Hart, a retired restaurant manager from Houston, Texas, came to help World Central Kitchen to cook for refugees. Photo: Jeff Farrell

He also said he was driven to help out over anger at Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“Some people deserve to die, and Putin is one of them. All the lives that he’s devastated, because of some desire to be Peter the Great. There’s a rumour he has cancer – I hope it’s true.”

The sun was shining outside the railway station building and the temperature was close to 26C. To the right, refugees queued to get food from the World Central Kitchen. One woman in her 30s hauled a red camping backpack; another in her 70s stopped as she slowly pulled along a wheelie bag.

After being fed, many people head across town to Dom Ukrainski W Przemyslu, a Polish-Ukrainian cultural institute that normally hosts plays and musical events. Now, its theatre is home to more than 50 beds where refugees stay for two to three nights before shuttling off to bigger cities. Even the stage is filled with beds.

One woman was sleeping when we visited, another reading a book. Outside, others were sitting in a kitchen eating the dish of the day: pierogi, filled Polish dumplings.

A volunteer, Mariana, who declined to give her surname, said that in recent weeks she had noticed that many Ukrainians were returning home. “In May, this number started to grow pretty much. Sometimes, it looks like the same number that comes to Poland leaves,” she said.

Back at her temporary school in Przemyśl, Yeva stood outside after her class and confided that she too would like to go home in the future. But her mother knows for now that Poland is their best option.

“I would like to go back some day,” Yeva said, “but now it is dangerous.”

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