Poland welcomes fleeing Ukrainians as Europe faces biggest refugee crisis since 1945
A surreal soundtrack welcomes the sea of humanity fleeing Ukraine: a highly accomplished pianist has arrived at the Medyka border crossing in Poland. His music drifts through the organized chaos of this small village, now the front line of Europe’s rapidly growing refugee crisis.
German pianist Davide Martello has traveled to many conflict zones in recent years, towing a grand piano behind his bicycle on a motorized trailer, a white “peace” sign painted on its lid. The children surround him while the melodies immobilize the crowd of refugees. After long and dangerous journeys to escape war, they seem dazed.
Adrenaline gave way to exhaustion.
At least 1.7 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries since the Russian invasion, creating the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Among them, more than a million fled to Poland. They have been widely adopted by their European neighbors.
Most new arrivals are transported by bus to reception centers far from the border. Some have family or friends in Poland or further afield in Europe where they can stay. A few accept offers of car rides and accommodation from volunteers in mainland towns.
But many have nowhere to go. They are given beds in shelters set up in schools, theaters and gymnasiums near the border. From there, they can get in touch with Polish citizens offering rooms or even entire apartments and houses.
Yevgenia, who would not give her full name, spoke to VOA as she arrived at a newly set up shelter at a school in the nearby town of Przemysł. Three of her four children are seated nearby.
“My husband is in Ukraine, they didn’t let him go,” she explained. “And also, my eldest son – he’s 18, he also had to register [to the army]. So we are separated. We are constantly in contact. We started a family [messaging] group, we keep abreast of what’s going on, we see each other all the time.
Yevgenia says she was welcomed in Poland. “Volunteers come to us and give us opportunities, where we can go, where there is work. We want to work so that we are not dependent on someone else, so that we can be useful for something,” she told VOA.
The school director, Małgorzata Ziober, oversees the shelter. She now has hundreds of refugees in her care.
“The worst times are when, for example, a minibus arrives at night and we pick up babies who are four or five months old. It’s really very moving and I think not everyone is made to deal with it. We can do it because we are strong. We don’t know how long. As long as we have the strength, we will help you,” Ziober said.
Next door, a cultural center has been transformed into a temporary shelter. The staff – whose normal job is to organize concerts and film screenings – have turned into chefs, cleaners, nannies and refugee advisers. They were overwhelmed with donations from residents and local businesses.
” Especially when [refugees] come to us, the separation is a big trauma. They are crying. Then they are grateful to have come here, that there are such good people. And after staying for one or two days, we get used to each other, a bond is created between these people and they become like a big family,” local politician Janusz told VOA, as he helped to deliver new supplies to the shelter.
“At first the refugees are shocked, they want to scream, they want to talk out loud about what they have been through, what they have been through, about their escape. And then slowly they calm down and get used to the new reality – that they have to keep living,” Zapotocki said.
Historical ties cross the border deeply. The Cathedral of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is located in the picturesque old town of Przemysł, on the Polish side of the border. Its giant bells rang across the city on Sunday morning as a special prayer service and collection was held for the people of Ukraine. The service was broadcast live on television throughout Poland.
Despite the warm welcome, many Ukrainian refugees in the shelters say they hope to return home within weeks, clinging to the belief that this dizzying upheaval will soon be over. As they scroll through their phones and see the images of death and destruction in the land they left behind, that hope is visibly dwindling.