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PRZEMYŚL, Poland — A week ago, Helena Arykul was a sales manager in the Black Sea city of Odesa. Now she’s a refugee in Poland.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent her fleeing westward.
“I just don’t understand what is happening and why it’s happening,” she said after arriving in the eastern Polish city of Przemyśl with her 7-year-old daughter following a two-day train trip across Ukraine.
“They started bombing the city and I had to go. My husband and father are there, fighting,” she said.
Arykul is part of an enormous number of Ukrainians escaping to the EU to get away from the fighting. More than 677,000 have left since Russia invaded last Thursday, about half coming to Poland, which has a 500-kilometer border with Ukraine and a similar language and culture.
The flight from the war in Ukraine has the possibility of rapidly turning into the EU’s biggest-ever humanitarian emergency; the 2015 migrant crisis saw about 1.3 million people come to the Continent. During that emergency, Poland’s nationalist government refused to take in asylum seekers.
This crisis is growing much faster, and the Polish response is much more generous. About 100,000 people arrived in Poland on Monday, according to Poland’s Border Guard, and by 7 a.m. Tuesday 24,000 more had crossed.
Before the Russian attack, Poland said it could handle 1 million refugees, now there’s talk of as many as 5 million arriving.
The Ukrainian roads leading to Polish border crossings are clogged with thousands of cars; some desperate people are abandoning their vehicles and walking. Ukrainian trains jammed with people take asylum seekers west to the EU.
The rush of people is sparking a massive outpouring of sympathy and aid in Poland. People are opening their homes to refugees, vast amounts of food and clothing are being donated, and thousands are volunteering to help drive Ukrainians deeper into the country.
Adam Krasiński, a 22-year-old student from Warsaw, got together with two friends and drove a convoy of three cars to the border on Sunday.
“It’s what we could do to help,” he said. “We don’t have the money to help but we do have cars and we can drive.”
They took a family of six Ukrainians, four Moroccan students and an Afghan back to Warsaw.
“The volume of people fleeing is quite incredible, and the way Poland is reacting is quite emotional,” he said. “Everyone who can is helping.”
At the Medyka border crossing, two local women who only gave their first names, Stanisława and Małgorzata, are on duty doling out hot soup. They’ve been here every day since Friday.
“I don’t care about politics, these people need help and we’re doing that,” Stanisława said.
Most of those coming into Poland are women and children, as Ukraine forbids men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving.
Poland has rolled out a comprehensive effort to help the refugees, including free train rides, access to health care and a proposal to cut red tape for those seeking work. The government also pledged Tuesday that it would extend Poland’s system of child bonuses — 500 złoty (105 euros) per month — to refugee children.
Still, reports and videos of African and Asian citizens who had been living or studying in Ukraine being pushed back as they attempt to flee have raised alarm. The African Union issued a statement Monday, saying “all people have the right to cross international borders during conflict … notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity.” Polish and Ukrainian officials have insisted all are allowed to cross.
Upon arrival in Przemyśl, refugees first go through border control, which can take hours, before they get food, water and information in the train station’s reception center. It’s one of nine such centers set up by the government.
Those arriving are trying to pick up the pieces of suddenly shattered lives.
“I just hope I could continue practicing dance like I did in Kyiv,” said Mariana, 13, an eighth-grader from Kyiv. She escaped the Ukrainian capital on Saturday with her mother, grandparents and two baby siblings.
But there’s not much stability on offer. Her mother is mulling returning to Kyiv, where Mariana’s father, a territorial defense soldier, has remained. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” Mariana said when asked if she’s going back with her mother.
Going to war
Not everyone is running away.
“I’m heading back to Kyiv where I’m going to wait for orders,” said Viktor Belynskyi, 44, an employee of a government-run transport company in the Ukrainian capital who had been on holiday in Barcelona when the war broke out. He hastily booked a flight to Kraków and then a bus to Przemyśl.
“At first I was shocked by the news but then I figured out it was just waiting to happen. It just couldn’t be otherwise after eight years of the conflict in Donbas,” Belynskyi said, referring to the long-running conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.
Belynskyi’s train is filled with clothes, diapers, cosmetics, blankets, sleeping bags and other items that will be traveling to Lviv in western Ukraine, and then on to where civilians are enduring war. Western Ukraine has so far been relatively quiet.
But that’s not the case in the rest of the country, as Russian tank columns bear down on Ukraine’s largest cities. That makes any swift return home for the thousands of people seeking shelter in Poland a distant prospect.
“I’m all shaking in fear because my family is there in Odesa. I hope to get back there in a week or two,” said Arykul.