Saturday, April 13

Here at the Polish-Ukrainian border, I see nothing but humanity towards refugees | Anastasia Lapatina

When I hopped on a train from Krakow to Przemyśl, a small Polish town near the Ukrainian border, I expected to be confronted with a humanitarian catastrophe, produced by a million people fleeing their homes due to war. But what I saw was instead the best of humanity.

As Russia has launched a bloody full-scale war against my country, thousands of Ukrainians have escaped by train to this railway station. There, they are met by an enormous banner in front of its entrance that reads, in both Polish and Ukrainian: “You are safe here.” Inside, dozens of Polish volunteers provide Ukrainian refugees with “everything for free”, as another sign says – food, water, clothes, phones with prepaid plans, accommodation, legal advice. While I was there, the volunteers mingled among the crowds, helping displaced Ukrainians find food, hot beverages and somewhere to sit. Little islands of people surrounded power extensions, clinging to their phones for news and texts from loved ones who were still in Ukraine.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said one Ukrainian woman in her sixties, bursting into tears. “I was crying from how they met us. Everything was very well organized at every step. We were told where to go, what to do. I was shocked that they even carried our luggage. It is so touching.”

More than 1.5 million people have fled Ukraine in just 10 days, with about 1 million of them crossing into Poland. No specific funding legislation has been passed yet in response to the effort, but local government in the Polish Podkarpackie region, which covers about half of the Ukrainian-Polish border, has spent more than €10m to date. Meanwhile, the European Commission has said it will allow EU states to use resources from a large Covid-19 recovery package to help Ukrainian refugees. On Wednesday the UN launched a $1.7bn appeal to provide assistance both in Ukraine and in the countries welcoming Ukrainian refugees, while the UNHCR is also present, helping to register and provide accommodation for refugees at the Polish border.

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Yet it’s the response of ordinary Polish people that has been most astounding – with more than 90% of Poles in a recent survey supporting the admission of Ukrainian refugees into Poland, and 65% saying they are willing to help them personally.

At the station, about 20 people stood in a line for free sim cards. One of them, Viktoria, 30, had escaped from Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second largest city, in the country’s east. To reach the train station there safely, she told me, she had walked through the city’s underground metro tunnels. She escaped alone and had to leave behind her mother de ella, too elderly to travel. “My stomach hurts so bad,” Viktoria told me, her voice cut with exhaustion. “We drank water from fountains in the metro, now everyone has stomach pains, so maybe we caught something.”

As a Ukrainian, I felt many emotions at the scenes in front of me. There was shock at the sight of dozens of children playing with toys on the floor as their mothers tried to collect their belongings and their thoughts, figuring out what to do next in a foreign country. Then there was guilt – I came to Poland from France, where I studied, while my mother was hiding from missiles near Kyiv. Still, my suffering could not be compared to that of the refugees I saw in Przemyśl.

Most importantly, I was surprised by the generosity of Poles themselves. Since the war began, thousands have gone above and beyond to help in any possible way – hosting Ukrainians in their apartments, driving them to places, or simply giving them money to cover basic needs. Restaurants and stores around the country give Ukrainians discounts, while any services – including the train I took – are provided for free.

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“I myself was amazed at the amount of support,” said Nazar, a 30-year-old Ukrainian who has lived in Poland for nine years. He now spends all his time volunteering and helping Ukrainian refugees resettle in Poland. He thinks one of the reasons for Polish generosity is pragmatic: Vladimir Putin may well not stop at Ukraine. “If we don’t help Ukraine defend itself, Poland is Russia’s next neighbour. Poles understand very well that this is about their security too,” Nazar said.

A number of factors may explain Poland’s generous response to Ukraine’s refugees. In the last few years a number have migrated to Poland and resettled, so Ukrainians are seen not as strangers but friends. Of course, there is the simple fact of geography – be it Turkey, hosting 3 million Syrian refugees, or Lebanon welcoming over a million, the Polish government has little choice but to adapt to the challenge. Up until ThursdayHungary has welcomed about 140,000 people; Moldova, 97,000; Romanian, 51,000; and Slovakia, 72,000. More than 100,000 still went further on to European countries that don’t share a border with Ukraine. Undoubtedly, Poland will have to bear the brunt of refugee resettlement – ​​when a humanitarian crisis is on your doorstep, there’s little time for discussion; the instinct to help kicks in instead.

Sadly, not all Poles have been as generous and there have been reports of far-right violence against non-white refugees, chanting “go back to your country”. According to reports, three Indians were beaten up, leaving one of them having to be taken to hospital. But this should not be seen as representative of Poland’s response, and the compassion they have shown my fellow country people.

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As I moved from one room to another at Przemyśl station, I stopped to chat to a woman who was visibly distressed. She refused to speak on the record. Her son de ella, who looked about seven, turned to me, however, and asked: “Has the war ended?” I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. “It will, very soon,” I told him, gently, as if there was anything else I could have possibly said. “Very soon, we will all be home.” The little boy seemed, in that moment, to believe me.

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