Voices of the Displaced

The plight of Ukraine’s refugees in Poland

A memorial for Ukrainian victims of the war in Wroclaw, Poland (Courtesy of the author)
A memorial for Ukrainian victims of the war in Wroclaw, Poland (Courtesy of the author)

More than five million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24. Every one of them has a story for the ages. In late April, I spent a week in Wroclaw, a city in southwestern Poland that has absorbed one of the highest numbers of Ukrainian refugees in Poland. While I was there, I spoke to many Ukrainians about how their lives have been upended during the past two months. Here are seven stories from among the five million.

Natalia Vyalykh, a 34-year-old mother of two, fled Ukraine in mid-March after she started to hear explosions from her apartment in Dnipro. There were no safe bomb shelters nearby; the metro was a few kilometers away. “I realized I couldn’t guarantee my child’s safety,” she told me. She also feared for her elderly mother, whose health was poor. For the equivalent of $890—two months’ salary—she hired a car to drive the three of them across Ukraine to the Polish border. Her 20-year-old son is still in Dnipro.

They had heard that several Polish cities were no longer accepting refugees, so they rode a bus to Wroclaw, the last stop. They stayed at a shelter there and then in a hotel for three nights, which Natalia paid for with donations. She didn’t know what to do next. “No money. No acquaintances,” Natalia told me. “I just felt despair.”

At loose ends, Natalia took her daughter for a walk. She stopped in a café and ordered a coffee. The barista was Ukrainian. Natalia told the woman about her situation. The next morning, the woman asked her to come back to the café. That’s when Natalia was introduced to the owner, also a Ukrainian, who invited her to live with her in her house in the village of Mikoszow, about an hour outside of Wroclaw. They moved in the next day.

Natalia’s employer will allow her to work part-time remotely; her son just sent her laptop from Ukraine. She appreciates having some money coming in, but she finds it hard to imagine her life beyond this moment. “Right now, we have no dreams or plans,” Natalia told me. “Our only great wish is for victory.”

Thirty-eight-year-old Marta Hryhor’yeva spent the first days of the invasion with her husband and three children at the family’s dacha outside Kyiv. After a few days, she realized that the war wasn’t going to end soon. She decided to take her children out of the country.

Marta’s seven-year-old son has autism, making travel especially difficult. A local organization helped register the family for a special evacuation for families of children with disabilities. But they were unable to find a ride to the train station. “People were scared,” she said. “The price of gas. There were several reasons it didn’t work.” Marta contacted the village council, and a man from the local territorial defense force escorted them to another train.

Before the war, Marta had dreamed of traveling abroad but caring for her son made the idea unrealistic. “It’s a stupid joke that it is happening under these conditions,” she said. Overwhelmed by the enormity of what transpired, she and her 16-year-old daughter Zoryana had panic attacks upon crossing the border into Poland. Within a few days, though, they had calmed down. She decided to bring the family to Wroclaw because Zoryana had a boyfriend who studied there.

Through Facebook, Marta met someone who found them housing in Wroclaw—crucially, a single-family house, ideal for an autistic child. “I almost cried when we arrived and I saw this place,” Marta said. “Everything was set up. There was food, there were toiletries, there was even make-up for my eldest daughter. Everything you would need for your life.” The family can stay in the house at least through September for free. Marta said she will be grateful to the Polish people for the rest of her life.

The mother of Anastasia Sakhnenko, a 31-year-old IT business analyst, was the only person in the family who believed a Russian invasion was actually possible. On the morning of February 24, after hearing explosions from their apartment in Kyiv, she and her dazed family took the go-bags she had prepared and piled into the car to drive to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where they have an apartment.

A trip that usually takes six hours took 36, and that was with the adults taking turns driving through the night. In Lviv, they still felt leery. The men stayed in Lviv, and the women and children headed for the border with Slovakia, spending the night on the floor of a church in the Ukrainian city of Mukachevo. The next night, they slept at a monastery on the Slovakian side of the border.

Anastasia had been to Wroclaw for work previously. Through a friend of a friend, she found a house there that could shelter the 13 people in their party, including Anastasia’s five-year-old daughter. They have the place until late June. After that, they’ll have to find somewhere new, though she has no idea where they’ll go if Kyiv remains unsafe.

Anastasia counts herself lucky that she still has her job, and that she can earn money to support her family and the Ukrainian government through taxes. She is routinely struck by the uncanniness of what she is experiencing: “We heard these stories from our grandmothers and grandfathers who were kids during the Second World War. In school, we studied books about the war’s drama and tragedy. Now when you are living this, you can’t imagine that it’s happening to you.”

Tatiana Ovcharova, a 35-year-old from Kharkhiv, used to have her dream job as a children’s entertainer, but during the pandemic, the work dried up and she moved into medical billing. She’s grateful that her employer allows her to work wherever she has an Internet connection.

Until mid-March, Tatiana lived with her parents in central Kharkhiv. On March 1, she was awoken by a massive blast that sent them all scurrying to the place in the apartment they had previously agreed was safest. “We started to pray,” Tatiana told me, tearing up. “I thought, is this the last thing I am seeing in my life?” As the explosions continued, her father tried to make light of the situation. “It’ll be quick,” he said, referring to their deaths. “We won’t even recognize it. “He pointed out that Tatiana had her good pajamas on.

Eventually, the attack ended. Deeply shaken, Tatiana started researching ways to evacuate. Her parents wouldn’t consider it; she decided to leave anyway.

She came to Wroclaw because her brother lives there, but he’s hosting other refugees too and she fears she’s bothering them by making work calls to the United States at night. She can’t afford a place in Wroclaw on her own, so she plans to go to Holland where a friend will host her for a month. In theory, she would like to return to Ukraine to live, but she realizes that it will likely be a while before she can go back. “It’ll be impossible to build everything back in one or two years, even if they put in a lot of money,” she said.

Her thoughts toggle between trying to map a new future, worrying about those she left behind, and struggling to make sense of the horror she’s witnessed: “Before, to me, all people were good. Now I doubt human nature. Not one or two people. Thousands. Millions. I don’t know. I can’t find an explanation.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Olga Bosiak from Lviv considers herself lucky. Her husband had been preparing for the possibility that Russia would invade. On the second day of the war, she and her mother had an easy time crossing the border into Poland with her three-year-old son. She speaks Polish, and they settled somewhere familiar—Olga’s uncle’s house outside Wroclaw. Her job as a project manager for an architecture firm was halted, but she picked up work through an international effort to employ Ukrainian architects.

Olga had a been in the habit of reading Russian news. “I thought maybe I don’t understand something or maybe the whole world lies and Russia knows something we don’t,” she said. She stopped after a missile attack in Lviv in April destroyed her friend’s car repair shop, which Russia claimed was storing weapons. “I brought my car to this repair shop. I know there are no guns there. I thought the Russians were liars before, but now I’m a million percent sure.”

Olga returned to Lviv for a week in late March to gather additional belongings to bring to Poland. She was dismayed to find her hometown changed. “You hear Russian everywhere, everywhere. It’s disgusting,” she said. “I don’t understand Ukrainians who continue to speak Russian after this war. It’s very important to speak Ukrainian. It’s our nationality, our identification in the world.”

“Where are you and grandma going to go?” Svitlana Ivanova’s son asked her in the weeks before Russia invaded. “To Kyiv or to me in Lviv?” Svitlana demurred. She couldn’t see moving from Kharkhiv, her home for all of her 56 years, to either Kyiv or Lviv, where her sons lived. Her mother felt the same.

They also didn’t believe an invasion would happen. When it did, Svitlana and her mother spent the first night of the war sheltering in a metro stop about a kilometer from her apartment. There were so many people, she said, that they “were standing like soldiers.” Afterward, the women opted to observe the principle of “two walls”—keeping at least two solid walls between them and the outdoors to reduce the impact of a blast—by living in her apartment’s hallway. “I worked like a hermit in that corridor,” she said.

Svitlana’s neighborhood, Saltivka, has experienced some of the worst bombing in Kharkhiv. After two weeks in the hallway, she decided that her sons were right. To keep her banking job, she couldn’t lose electricity or Internet access and both were under threat.

When she and her mother arrived at Kharkhiv’s train station after finally finding a ride, they encountered yet another mass of people. While they waited, the sound of explosions thundered through the station. The lights flickered; people laid on the ground to protect themselves from glass, in case the windows shattered. Thinking an attack was possible, Svitlana and her mother joined many others in fleeing to the station’s metro stop. Eventually, they returned to the platform and resumed their wait for a train heading west.

After 14 hours, they boarded a train to Lviv. The trip was plodding; they couldn’t use electronics at night for fear of attracting attention. After arriving at Lviv’s packed train station at four a.m., they stood for two more hours as they waited for the nightly curfew to end. Svitlana’s son sent them west, to a friend’s aunt in Poland, so that his apartment could continue serving as a way station for the displaced.

Though she now feels safe in Poland, “my soul is troubled—for my country, for my children, and for those who remain in Ukraine.” Each day, she watches footage from her ravaged hometown to see if she can spot her building. So far, it has been spared destruction. “Thank God,” she said. “My whole life is there.”

“On the first day of the war, there were Russian troops marching in Sumy,” Vladyslava Kachkovska, a 32-year-old doctor and professor from the city, told me. “First, I was very scared. Then, I felt angry. Here, in our peaceful town.” Russian shelling damaged the university where she taught. She and her husband grew tired of trekking their two-year-old daughter, Emma, to a bomb shelter five to eight times a day. None of them slept well; it was impossible to keep any semblance of a schedule for Emma. The family evacuated to a town in western Ukraine.

Even though Vladyslava volunteered to organize the delivery of medical supplies to Sumy, she grew restless. She submitted applications to European universities offering fellowships to Ukrainian doctors. A university in Wroclaw was the first to accept her. Her husband drove her, her mother, and Emma to the Ukrainian-Polish border, bid them goodbye, and headed back on foot so that Vladyslava could keep the car.

“Before the war, we had the usual things,” Vladyslava said as she watched Emma and her mother on a Wroclaw playground. “We had a house. We made ourselves coffee, kissed each other. At the time we didn’t realize how precious it was.” When the war ends, she said, she’ll not take what she had for granted. “I believe our lives will be even better.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Megan Buskey’s book, Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet: A Family Story of Exile and Return, will be published next year. She writes the Ukraina SOS newsletter.


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