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March 18, 2022

An Account from the Ukraine-Poland Border


An Account from the Ukraine-Poland Border

By Kai Hopkins, Head of Humanitarian Programmes

Its eerily quiet given how many people are here. The only sounds are the remote gentle hum from a nearby generator and the continuous scratching of suitcase wheels on the ground behind me. She shivers in the cold and softly wipes a snow flake from her cheek, as she looks around. Not only is it quiet, but the scene is strangely peaceful – the surrounding fields lightly dusted in white, and the bare trees are at once both stark and picturesque. It does not feel like I am in a ‘warzone’, it does not feel like I am in Ukraine, or at least not as it’s shown in the media. But as Nona clutches her bag, the only vestige of her former life, you can sense her tension. For the last two days her focus has been on getting here from Kyiv – to this point where she can finally see the Polish border – travelling alone with her cat, by bus and now on foot. What awaits her on the other side, she does not know. Where she will go or for how long, again, she does not know. What she is certain of, however, is that she needs to get out.

When I arrived in Poland a few days ago, along with the tourists excited about their city mini-breaks, there was no sign of what was happening so close by. As I walked around the beautiful Krakow old town and the Jewish quarter, I saw no indication of the pain and suffering being felt by so many. Like the quiet fields and the still, grey trees of the border, however, looks can be deceiving. On visiting the central city train station, the reality begins to dawn of me. An endless stream of newly arrived Ukrainians – ‘lost’ in every sense of the word. While those who were first to arrive in Poland shortly after the war started had family connections here, many of the more recent arrivals are totally unclear as to what they will do or where they will go. Like Nona, they are arriving with no clear sense of their own future.

Poland’s response to the influx of refugees has been impressive, both from the authorities as well as civil society. From all along the border to cities like Krakow, there is a constant supply of hot food, clothes, medical care, sim cards, and even dog food for their furry companions. What there is not however, is any certainty as to what the next few weeks or months hold for those arriving here. There has been global outrage as to what is happening here, and collective grief for the impact it has wreaked on innocent civilians. As I stand and watch people continue across the border – almost entirely women, children and the elderly – it strikes me that for now the food and the clothes and the waiting buses are exactly what they need. But as they move further away from the border and further away from the lives they are leaving behind, what they need will get more complicated. However this war ends, many of these refugees will be here for a long time to come, and how they will live, and work, and thrive is a question none of us can contemplate at this time.

Nona tells me she is an English teacher. As she does so, she quickly corrects herself – she was an English teacher. It is a subtle but sad recognition of the reality of her situation. The ending of life as she knew it, and the fragility of her future – all the result of the whims of one powerful man. She looks over my shoulder towards the border expectantly, as if the questions she has, but cannot yet answer, will somehow all vanish once she is a few kilometres due west. Having seen the assessment centres along the Polish border and in the Krakow train station, I know she will be well-looked after, but she won’t get the answers she so desperately craves.

Thanks to the amazing generosity of our supporters, and our unique ability to effectively work with trusted partners both inside and around Ukraine, World Jewish Relief is well-placed to respond to this fast-moving crisis. Many of our long-term colleagues in Ukraine continue to serve all parts of their community, while in Poland we are working with JCC Krakow to house and feed those arriving. Recognising the complexity of the situation we are also moving to offer psychosocial support, cash assistance, language courses, job support, and as much information as we can as to what their medium-term future could look like here. We can’t stop the fighting, and neither can we address the enormous fallout, but as this crisis continues, I know we will be doing whatever we can to help people, people like Nona, as they struggle to come to terms with just how much has, is, and will continue to change.

Within an hour of talking to Nona, JCC had secured her a hotel room in Krakow for both her and her beloved cat. We desperately need your support to help others like her, not just now, but for the months ahead.