Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

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Poland welcomes Ukrainian refugees, but its handling of humanitarian crises is rarely flawless

People with suitcases and bags on the walkway to the border crossing at Medyka on April 6. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

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KRAKOW, Poland — When I first arrived in Poland a little more than three weeks ago, I began taking pictures of anything I saw on the streets that pledged solidarity for Ukraine. I gave up on this project, mostly, after my collection swelled to over 100 images taken in just one city and only a couple of days. A rain of pictures became a river, then a flood, then an ocean.

Since Feb. 24, Poland has covered itself in yellow and blue. There’s hardly a store window that doesn’t bear a Ukrainian flag, or a ribbon, or a yellow-and-blue heart drawn in sign paint. Bus-stop posters feature clasped hands, along with the ubiquitous slogan “jesteśmy z wami” — we are with you. Even the flowers in sidewalk planters bloom in Ukrainian colours.

On a major road near Warsaw’s airport a giant billboard reads, in censored Ukrainian: “Putin, Go F—k Yourself.” Near the Ukrainian border, a backyard billboard has the original slogan in uncensored Russian: “Russian warship, go f—k yourself.” These aren’t official efforts; some motivated citizen spent the money to erect them.

So this is the visual backdrop to what is, on the ground, a staggering achievement in humanitarian assistance. By early April, more than four million Ukrainians had fled; most of them came through Poland, and 2.5 million stayed. In one of his speeches, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was as if there was no border between them.

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From Odesa, by way of Pinawa, with love

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Alexander Leontiev poses for a portrait with his car, which he has decorated with Canadian flags, in Wrzesnia on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. For Melissa story. Winnipeg Free Press 2022.

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WRZEŚNIA, Poland — The horses watch with cursory interest as three-year-old Timur Mykholevskiy tries to scramble over the lower planks of a fence that leads away from the pen. It’s a valiant effort, but the boy’s legs are too short to quite carry him over, so he wriggles and grunts and finally stretches his hand towards two visiting reporters.

“Help me,” he commands, in clear-as-a-bell English.

His mother, Alina Mykholveska, laughs. She’s been teaching him a little English, she says, to prepare him for his new life in Winnipeg. He’s soaked it up the way children always do a new tongue, which is to say, exuberantly: “Sing the ABC song,” she says, and as he pipes into the melody, his face spreads into a cheeky grin, shaded by a cap emblazoned with a Maple Leaf.

Nearby, Alexander Leontiev watches, with a wry and tender smile.

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Winnipeg-born Michael Rubenfeld helping to keep Ukraine’s broken hearts beating through art

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Michael Rubenfeld shows one of his newest art projects, which highlights the anti-Semitic nature of traditional “lucky Jew” paintings, at the FestivALT office in Krakow.

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KRAKOW — On Feb. 15, nine days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Oksana Pyzh and her husband packed up their kid, their car and a few of their things, and began the long drive west from their home in Kharkiv, towards Poland, stopping every few hours along the way. A leisurely pace, compared to the flight of those who came after, but there were no bombs then.

Still, it was obvious to Pyzh that something bad was about to happen. Russia was massing its troops on the border. Foreign countries were moving diplomats out of Kyiv and U.S. President Joe Biden warned of an imminent invasion. Pyzh’s friends weren’t too worried — “nothing will start,” they said — but she was gripped by an urgent and terrible feeling.

“I’m a really anxious person,” she says, bluntly. “In my world, there is nothing so terrifying like war.”

Mentally, she’d given herself another reason to go. Six years earlier, Pyzh, an architect and artist, had held an exhibition of her works at a gallery in Warsaw, a collection of pieces reflecting on what Ukraine had been left with after the Soviet Union collapsed. One of the largest paintings from that show was still in Poland, and she thought she might take it back.

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Refugee Ukrainians far from defeated

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The train station in Przemysl on Thursday, April 7, 2022. For Melissa story. Winnipeg Free Press 2022. MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The movement of people is non-stop at the train station in Przemysl.

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RZESZÓW, Poland — From the outside, the guest house on the edge of Rzeszów looks quiet, tucked on a narrow road that meanders past quaint homes nestled beside sprawling green gardens. A few cars are parked in front, some with Ukrainian licence plates, but the atmosphere here is idyllic and suburban, bordering on rustic.

And in any normal time, Rzeszów — pronounced “Zheshoof” — is a laid-back, albeit growing, sort of place. It’s a city of about 200,000 people, a college town in the southeastern corner of Poland, booming lately with business investments and tourism but still far from the hustle of the capital city of Warsaw. It is comfortable, but not famous. Not in a normal time, anyway.

But this is not a normal time for Rzeszów, because Rzeszów sits just 100 km from the border with Ukraine.

Now, all the donated weapons of the West flow through Rzeszów, and much of its humanitarian aid. The airport north of the city hosts a constant parade of foreign military planes, and when U.S. President Joe Biden visited Poland in March, he came first to Rzeszów, where American troops manage the Patriot missile system freshly installed on the airport’s western flank.

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On one side, a war-torn nation; on the other, a community of volunteers ready to help refugees

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Aid tents line the walkway to the Medyka border crossing.

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MEDYKA, Poland — The shopping cart rattles as Art Ballard pushes it through a squashed parking lot, past a warren of small shops advertising meat and candy. Past the spot where buses pause every few minutes to pick up or drop off dozens of riders, who arrive dragging suitcases stuffed with everything they’d taken with them, when they first fled Ukraine.

“You want to see the border?” he says. “Come with us. That’s where we’re going.”

By now, the flood of human beings that swept through this spot in the first weeks of the war has slowed. On a narrow brick vein that winds the last 200 metres to the border, lined by a patchwork of aid tents thrown up by a dizzying number of non-governmental organizations, nearly as many people are now walking east, into Ukraine, as west into Poland.

Still, the foot path is bustling. Volunteers in yellow vests mill about in front of tents, offering everything from French fries to fruit. There is a tent handing out dog food and animal carriers; a tent run by a small Scottish charity, dishing out soup; tents where refugees can pick up bars of soap, charge their phones, or try on any of a few dozen winter coats.

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Translating and speaking at rallies in Poland: expat Ukrainian a man on a mission

Ukrainian-Canadian Adrian Harasym has offered his translation skills to journalists from around the world. It’s an often difficult experience sharing the refugees’ pain. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

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KRAKOW — In any of the 14 languages that Adrian Harasym can speak, the stories he has heard through this war will haunt him. There was the woman from Bucha, who’d hid in her potato cellar until hunger drove her to flee over streets dotted with corpses. There was the woman at a Krakow train station, who’d escaped Kharkiv with the equivalent of just $20.

She had three children, that woman. When Harasym translated her story for a Japanese newspaper reporter, the journalist couldn’t believe it. Surely, the reporter asked, you have a credit card? Something else? No, the woman replied, as Harasym translated her words into Japanese. She’d spent the rest of her money to come to Poland, and now she had nothing.

Translation is not Harasym’s job. He’s a data analyst by profession, though since the war started he has thrown himself into doing what he can to help here, in Krakow, where the world’s media have descended. A true polyglot — in the time we spend with him, we hear him speaking English, Ukrainian, Spanish, German and Polish — he has skills that are needed.

It does not come easy. Every time Harasym translates for a journalist, he hears a refugee’s story first in either Ukrainian or Russian, and then has to order it in a new language in his mind, and then he has to speak it. So in a way, he has to live each refugee’s pain at least three times. They do not leave him.

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Manitoba-bound mothers fleeing Ukraine with children are terrified, exhausted - but put on a brave face

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ilona Protynyak, and her children, Demian (five) and Milena (four), walking through the old town in Warsaw. They have been going for long walks to keep the kids occupied while waiting for the Canadian visa paperwork to come through.

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WARSAW — On the long bus ride out of Ukraine, Nataliia Cherevko’s son, 11-year-old Bohdan, stopped eating. His stomach hurt. Behind them on the bus was another mother, with two sons, and one of them couldn’t eat, either. It was the stress, their mothers thought. It was being a child, and leaving everything they knew behind them.

As the bus rolled west from the heart of the country, Cherevko worried about her son. She worried as the bus came to a stop for a night somewhere near Cherkasy, after hearing that there might be danger ahead. She didn’t know where exactly it was; road signs had been taken down by Ukrainian forces, in an attempt to disorient Russian soldiers.

And she worried as they approached Lviv, where she planned to stay for a few nights so her son could rest and maybe even feel better. But when she asked the bus driver what she should do, he urged her to keep going, straight to the Polish border. There were volunteers there who could help them, he said. He hadn’t been there, but that’s what he’d heard.

Cherevko asked her son if he thought he could manage the journey just a little while longer.

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Ukrainian refugee on her way to new life in Winnipeg

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ukrainian refugee Tetiana Maksymtsiv first learned about Winnipeg through a friend who had moved to the city about six years ago. In a few days, she will be flying to Winnipeg to settle in Canada.

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WARSAW — It’s a bitterly cold morning in Poland’s capital, at the heart of the city’s diplomatic row. Outside the concrete-and-glass edifice of the Canadian embassy, about four dozen people are waiting, mostly women with children in tow.

They huddle together under two black tents, hastily erected by security guards for protection from the swirling, wet snow.

As they wait, some greet each other in Ukrainian, others in Russian. New people arrive and ask questions about what to do and where to go.

They’re all in this together in a way, all of them displaced by war and, now, trying to navigate the steps to come to Canada; even after the federal government simplified the process for Ukrainian refugees, it can be slow.

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