Four refugees from Ukraine recount their struggle to find safety.
Warsaw, Poland - As evidence of Russian atrocities in Bucha and other areas in the outskirts of Kiev mounts after the pullout of occupying troops, refugees from Ukraine continue to cross the border into Poland and other neighbouring countries. They leave behind families and loved ones, some of them fighting on the frontline, amid uncertainty and communication blackouts.
In the month since Russia’s assault on Ukraine began, more than two million refugees have arrived in Poland alone. A million Ukrainians who already lived and worked in Poland provided many with a vital safety net. Four million have now fled outside the country, while another 6.5 million are displaced inside Ukraine — a crisis of a scale unseen in Europe since World War II.
The UN has been able to confirm 1,417 civilian deaths, including 121 children, but says the death toll is “considerably higher” and doesn’t include casualties in cities like Mariupol, Irpin and other areas that have seen intense fighting. Ukrainian authorities say 5,000 people have died in the siege of the southern city of Mariupol alone. Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv has seen widespread destruction, while citizens in the southern city of Kherson have dared to take to the streets protesting the Russian occupation.
Europe has responded swiftly to the Ukrainian exodus, as governments move to facilitate refugees’ travel and access to healthcare and welfare and citizens open up their homes.
We hear the stories of four refugees and their struggle to find safety.
Alyona Voino-Danchyshena, 43
Nutritionist from Kharkiv
“I love my country more than I did before the war.”
“Today is my youngest daughter’s birthday, and I want to make this day a day to celebrate. We will leave our luggage in a hotel and go out.
I am travelling with my daughters, they are 16 and 20. We are going to Italy. The trip is only 1,200 kilometres. Our trip from our home, my city, was 1,700 kilometres. We’re going to stay with my friend from Kharkiv, she and her family have been living in Italy for two years.
The most important thing for me was to make it to the border from Ukraine to Poland. I was very afraid that we would stay at the border for one or two days, but we crossed in less than one hour.
But the journey was very hard. [We spent] six days on the road, one night we slept in a gym, one night we all slept in a small single bed.
In the building where I live, we were peaceful people. Our hospital was destroyed, our school was destroyed. For days, I waited, I stayed at home, but I realised it had become too dangerous. There was shooting every day. We spent every night at our neighbours’ because I was alone with the girls in the house. My husband is fighting with the Ukrainian army. He’s a businessman, but he can’t stay on the sidelines.
One day, it became too much. Two buildings in my neighbourhood, approximately 50 and 70 metres from our house, were bombed. [In] the first bombing, I don’t know how, the family survived. We called the fire brigade and for seven hours they weren’t able to put out the fire. They lost their home, their car. [When] the second strike [hit], I just got in my car and took my daughters to the border.
I love my country more than I did before the war, and I am proud to be Ukrainian.”
Rami al-Bouaini, 27
General practitioner from Syria, living in Kiev
“They checked our bags, our suitcases, they strip-searched us.”
“We took the train from the railway station [in Kiev] and it took us about 12, 14 hours to [get on a train]. There were too many people inside the railway station and they were pushing each other, it was too crowded.
We waited for about 12 hours to cross the border. We were lucky, because some of my friends were camping out near the border for days [on the Ukrainian side].
We stayed in the queue for foreigners. There were two queues, one queue on the left side for Ukrainians, [where] there were old people, women and children, and the right side was for foreigners. I cannot stay with the Ukrainians, so [my wife Iryna] stayed with me.
The foreigners’ queue was not organised. There weren’t too many people, but some tried to jump the queue and the police didn’t do anything [about it]. In the beginning, they weren’t opening the [gates].
[Once in Warsaw], we decided to go to Germany. But the police stopped our train in Frankfurt an der Oder [on the German-Polish border]. They checked the passports of people who [were] from third countries, stopped them and took them to the police station. We spent about 20 hours there.
They took our pictures, our fingerprints, they even took our phones and passports, I don’t know what they did with them. They checked our bags, our suitcases, they strip-searched us. In the end, they gave foreigners like me a document to stay in Germany for just one week. [At that point], they only gave us one week [and said] “the immigration office will decide what to do with you. Or you can leave Germany.” The next day, a new law was passed to allow everyone fleeing Ukraine to stay for three months.
We went to Berlin, [but we decided not to stay there]. It would be very difficult to continue my studies there because of [the rules that apply to refugees seeking] international protection.
When I moved to Ukraine [in 2015] it was the only European country that was [issuing] visas to Syrians easily, and studying there wasn’t as expensive as in Germany and other EU countries.
Ukrainian people are like our people: their culture looks a lot like our culture.”
Management student from Kherson, living in Kiev
“We want to go home as soon as possible.”
“My family is in Kherson. The situation there is very difficult now, since the Russians decided they are in charge of the city. Citizens don’t think like that, and try to live a normal life. There are Ukrainian flags [around] and they try to [give an] illusion that we still have a choice. Nobody knows the truth, they [interfere] with the telephone line and only play Russian TV and Russian news. Nobody watches it, but they are playing this game, that we are making life better for you.
When the war started, we left Kiev and [went] to [my friend] Ola’s village because it was safer than the capital. The next day we decided to go abroad.
First, we came to Lviv by car, and after that, we crossed the border by train to Przemysl. It was hard to be on the crowded train, but we understood that mums with children felt more uncomfortable, it was more stressful for them than for us. Some decided to stop their journey because they felt bad on this train.
Now I am staying [near Warsaw], with Ola’s relatives who agreed to take us in.
We have a lot of questions about work and study because we want to go home as soon as possible. We want to continue studying at our university, but we don’t know when it will be [possible]. We could work here for some time, and then go back.”
Mother of three from Kharkiv
“Other refugees weren’t getting the same treatment as Roma people.”
I am here with my husband, mother-in-law and three children aged one and a half, six and four.
It was a struggle to find a place to stay for us. We were living in Kharkiv, and came to Poland when the war started. When we left, we [got on a train] to the Ukrainian-Polish border.
We left Kharkiv on [March] 10 and arrived at the border on [March] 12. I don’t remember what part of the border I crossed, we were very tired, I don’t remember.
Once we crossed the border, we came to the railway station and from there we were taken to the stadium. There we were sleeping in this big common room, there was no room for privacy, just beds. They were taking us to places but were not telling us where we were going. We were just being driven around in cars. We changed three or four places, and volunteers kept saying that we had to move forward.
In the end, volunteers brought us to some village, but we decided to come to Warsaw instead.
I don’t know why we were moved around so much. There was [room] for sure in this shelter, it was a big stadium, but they kept moving us. [Other refugees] weren’t getting the same treatment as Roma people.
I was asking for a hostel, a room or a home for a month, I said it is impossible to sleep in the stadium with a kid. We couldn’t take a shower, there was no hygiene for children, it was cold and kids were getting sick. There were no clothes for kids, no food for the smaller kids. Other people were not moved around like we were. Volunteers were telling us there were a lot of people and there was no place for us to stay.
But now, we feel good here and the people are good.
When the war ends, we will return to Kharkiv.”
Interviews have been edited for clarity.