More than 2 million Ukrainians have found refuge in Poland, many as guests in people’s houses.
Alina Smetanka (right) is sharing a Kraków flat with Iryna Tykhonenko and her two children, Liza, 9, and Anton, 12. Photographs by Dawid Zieliński for POLITICO
POLISH BASEMENTS, spare rooms and guest houses are filled with Ukrainian refugees.
More than 2 million people have crossed into Poland since Russia launched its invasion on February 24 — giving it one of the largest refugee populations in the world.
Some only stay a few days and then move west to other EU countries, while others stay close to Ukraine in the hope that they’ll soon be able to go home.
But all need a place to stay. Those beds are being provided by huge numbers of ordinary Polish people in an astonishing bottom-up outpouring of support. For now, it’s all a little novel, but there are worries over how long the hospitality will endure if the war continues and millions of terrified people won’t be able to return to Ukraine.
POLITICO visited three Polish homes to get a sense of how Ukrainian families are settling in with their hosts.
Iryna and Szczepan
It’s March 15 and Iryna Zinchenko is glancing nervously at her phone as she cooks lunch — pasta with bacon. The previous day she heard from her parents for the first time in over a week and today’s the day they’re supposed to escape from Mariupol, a city in southern Ukraine that’s come under fierce attack from Russian forces.
Zinchenko, 27, her husband Ivan Kokhno, 28, their 3-year-old son Lev and four cats, made the same journey a week earlier. The strategic port city on the Sea of Azov was an obvious target for a Russian attack; even before the invasion, Zinchenko and her family prepared a grab bag in case they had to flee.
Once the Russian attack began, they grabbed the bag and caught a bus that started a 1,500-kilometer journey to Warsaw. Zinchenko now wishes she had taken more things with her — for example, the stamps of Lev’s feet and hands, a popular birth memory token. But she shakes those thoughts off.
“To be honest sometimes I feel like the luckiest girl in the world because I had an opportunity to take my son from there,” she says.
Zinchenko doesn’t remember where they entered the EU — but she remembers the feeling of relief after the long and dangerous journey.
“When I crossed the border for the first time I felt calmness inside … I was calm, I felt peaceful, I looked at the sunset. It was just a beautiful moment and I was just staying and thinking that everything [will be] alright now, and I just cried,” she says.
They met Szczepan Żurek, a 42-year-old Polish teacher, at the bus station in Warsaw. He had been informed via social media that there would be a transport of Ukrainian refugees in need of housing and handed over one room in his two-bedroom flat to the newcomers.
“We had trust and faith that we’ll arrive and we will find a way. We were lucky, we were very, very lucky with Szczepan,” Zinchenko says.
Her family has taken one room — with a mattress on the floor, and a huge pile of toys for Lev — while Żurek lives in the other bedroom. They share a big, bright kitchen and a bathroom.
“This is the right thing to do,” Żurek says, but he stresses that the solution isn’t permanent. “After a month some tensions might come out, it would be difficult to live like this for a year. There must be some more systemic solutions.”
By the time the lunch is ready, Zinchenko gets a message: Her parents managed to get out of Mariupol.
The next step is to find an apartment to rent, something that won’t be easy. Adding 300,000 people to Warsaw’s population of 1.8 million has stretched the capital’s property market.
There is no long-term plan.
“I’m trying not to think about it because I don’t know what’s left of Ukraine,” Zinchenko says.
Alina, Iryna and Krzysztof
Alina Smetanka and Iryna Tykhonenko are both from the Kyiv area but before the war they had never met. Now they’re sharing a flat in Kraków.
Their experiences from the first days of the war in Kyiv are very similar. They hid in shelters during nights of intense bombardment — Smetanka, 42, in a metro station, Tykhonenko, 38, and her two children, 12-year-old Anton and 9-year-old Liza, in the basement of a local kindergarten.
But one night Smetanka didn’t make it to the station on time and was out in the street during a shelling.
At the same time, Tykhonenko’s husband, a professional soldier, called and told her: “Please, save our children, go abroad.”
Both women left Kyiv and ended up in Kraków, a city of 800,000 in southern Poland, where they met in a queue waiting for accommodation. They spent two nights sleeping in a sports hall with hundreds of other refugees before Krzysztof Lis, a human resources professional, invited them home.
He’s got a big duplex flat where he lives with his son, his partner and her daughter — but it has a lot of open space. To give his guests more privacy, Lis set up a tent in the middle of the living room.
He says Smetanka and Tykhonenko can stay until the summer. “I wanted to give them safety, the feeling that they have this place to stay for many months,” he says.
The refugees don’t know what they’ll do next.
“I have a dream to get back to Kyiv but it’s hard now to come up with anything, to plan anything,” says Smetanka.
Tykhonenko is now focused on restarting a normal life. Her children are starting to attend Polish school; the government has opened access to schools for all refugee children. “They’re not very glad,” she says.
She also waits for her daily text message from her husband in Kyiv. The text always reads: “I’m OK.”
“I write him ‘Thank you,’” Tykhonenko says. “It means he’s alive.”
Svitlana and Bartłomiej
There’s a big “Happy Birthday” banner hung across the living room of a three-bedroom flat in Kraków. It’s for Danylo, who turned 2 a day earlier.
“I was so busy with volunteering I realized I don’t have a present for him,” says Svitlana Pshenychna, 34, Danylo’s mother. “But we found a cake and it was good.”
Pshenychna comes from Lytvynivka, a small village between Kyiv and the border with Belarus — now one of the main attack paths for Russian troops.
“We didn’t believe that the war, the real war can be in our days. We think: “Maybe it’ll be a couple of attacks and it’ll finish,”’ she says. “After a couple of days, we decided that there’s no choice, that we need to go to a safer place. It was very hard for me because I need to leave my husband.”
She left Ukraine with Danylo, her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her daughter. Because the lines were so long at the Polish border, they instead crossed into the EU through Hungary before traveling on to Kraków.
Pshenychna found a place to stay through her company, Epam Systems, an IT business that has thousands of employees in both Ukraine and Poland. Polish workers volunteered to share their flats with their Ukrainian colleagues. That’s how Pshenychna met Bartłomiej Kosiba, who welcomed her to an apartment he usually rents out.
“We’ve been very very impressed with everything that Bartek and his wife have done for us,” Pshenychna says. “We came and we have everything: a lot of food, vegetables, fruit, even towels, even toothpaste, everything.”
Kosiba says he had “no fear” to share the flat with a co-worker. “We don’t need anyone to pay us right now,” he says.
Pshenychna turned the apartment into a “transfer place” for other Ukrainian refugees, allowing people to stay for a few nights.
She’s full of energy and laughs a lot.
“I’m a very positive person,” she says. “As my husband says: ‘You’re sleeping and smiling.’”