Refugees from across Ukraine are being welcomed as they arrive in the Polish border town of Przemysl, but there are concerns about how the relief effort can be maintained if the war goes on.
“We have had 180,000 refugees in 10 days. If it carries on like this, we’ll have had half a million people coming through by the end of the month.”
In the packed train station at Przemysl, eight miles from the Ukrainian border, mayor Wojciech Bakun is both proud of what his town – population 60,000 – is doing for Ukraine but also apprehensive about what could lie ahead. He is an imposing figure, dressed in fatigues as he strides through the elegant 19th Century station where waiting rooms and offices are now stacked with food supplies, bottled water, nappies and donations of clothes, and where Ukrainians are sitting on chairs or on the floor, surrounded by luggage, pushchairs and pets.
The relief effort here is dependent on volunteers, who are currently in their hundreds. Can that be sustained? “Probably not,” says the mayor. “They are ready for a week or two, maybe a month, not for a long period of time. So we are thinking about the longer term and talking to international organisations about how to manage this if it goes on for longer.”
In the main ticket hall people who have travelled long distances are holding up bits of paper and cardboard with scribbled signs: “Hostel for eight in Gdansk”; “Can take a family – Warsaw”; “40 places available on bus to Germany”. Przemysl is an obvious focal point because it’s on the main line across the border, with trains coming in from Lviv, in the west of Ukraine. They are listed on the arrivals board but there’s no certainty any more about the timetable.
Next to the platform where the Ukraine trains come in, I asked a Polish couple, Pawel and Magda, who they were waiting for. “A woman with three cats,” they said. It turned out that they had seen a Facebook post from a Ukrainian woman living in Taiwan, desperate to find someone to meet her 75-year old mother Lyudmila and give her a bed for a night or so before she could travel on.
Pawel and Magda had been waiting for five hours already. Did they know what train Lyudmila would be on? No, and her phone had run out of battery. How would they recognise her? Pawel took out a piece of paper from inside his coat with her name on it but said they’d be looking out for someone with three cats.
It’s been striking for me to see how emotional many Poles are about the situation in Ukraine. There were tears in Pawel’s eyes as he spoke about why he and Madga were prepared to stand in the station for so many hours, ready to take not only Lyudmila but others who might arrive with her. He is not the only one to have reacted that way: several people I met here broke down when I asked why they were moved to open their homes or help in other ways.
There are long links of history that straddle today’s border between the two countries and familial and linguistic links too, but Poles also feel strongly because they can imagine how it feels to be up against the Russians. It is only just over 30 years since the collapse of communism here and there are longer memories too of Soviet occupation. And not everyone has confidence that being under the Nato umbrella, as Poland is, is sufficient protection from Vladimir Putin.
Even for Ukrainians who arrive here with a plan about where they ultimately want to get to, there is a palpable sense of shock about their changed circumstances. One woman in her 30s, who was with her 10-year old son Igor, said she wanted to get to Spain but that right now she was in a panic. It was getting dark. “We will find somewhere to sleep and then in the morning we will think about what to do.”
Ilona, standing nearby, was part of a bigger group – her mother, aunts, cousins and their children. No-one had suitcases, just backpacks and carrier bags in which I could see food and toys. “We wanted to be able to move easily,” she said. She is only 22, a final-year medical student who doesn’t know when or how she will complete her training to be a doctor, and with her father left behind in Kyiv.
“The people of Przemysl are warm-hearted,” the mayor told me, and that is without a doubt true of attitudes to Ukrainians. But last week the local police said there had been an attack on three African refugees by four perpetrators, and another incident of verbal abuse. The mayor blamed a campaign of disinformation, with messages circulating suggesting local women were not safe and that people shouldn’t leave their homes. The authorities are now appealing for everyone to stay calm and making it clear that there has been no increase in violent incidents.
If Poles are emotional, many Ukrainians are too – there is relief at making it to safety but also deep appreciation at what they find here – the offers of transport, accommodation, the donations, the support. In the large, high-ceilinged, gilded room that was the station’s cafe someone has set up a toy kitchen and a Wendy house in one corner. Two mothers who have just arrived with three young children settle down gratefully next to it, relieved to have something to keep the little girls and the toddler boy occupied. But as soon as they are, and the women have a moment to themselves, I can see how drawn their faces are and how much is on their minds.
There is however one bright smile among those at the station. It’s Olha’s – she is Ukrainian and has been living in Germany for years, travelling here from Heidelberg to pick up her mother. With the Ukrainian flag draped around her shoulders, she is holding up a sign offering rides to other arrivals too. “I want to tell you that from my family only my mother is prepared to leave Ukraine,” she says. “Everyone else is staying to defend the country. And this is the end of Putin.”