My Experience With Ukrainian Refugees

Disclaimer: A modified version of this post was originally published at DC Report.

Ukrainian refugees at an abandoned Tescos
Ukrainian refugees at an abandoned Tescos

The Processing Centres Of Ukrainian Refugees

Every 30 minutes another train of Ukrainian Refugees arrives from Medyka, an otherwise untrafficked and uneventful village splitting the Polish/Ukrainian border to Ukraine’s west. It is here, that tens of thousands of refugees drip at a delay across the administrative line from warzone to the European Union.

From Medyka, they are hurried onto buses and trains. The officials, conscious of the crowds overflowing are directing the refugees, hundreds at a time towards one of two destinations, both just 20 kilometres further down the road. Destination ‘Przemyśl Secondary’, an old abandoned supermarket, which lays off the side of the highway in the outskirts of town, or destination ‘Przemyśl Primary’, the town’s Central Train Station.

It was between these two ‘processing facilities’ where I experienced the controlled chaos of more than a million refugees being bottlenecked to safety. 

Przemyśl Central Train Station

Trains full of refugees arrive and then, without fuss or fail, trains full of refugees depart.

Things are rather orderly at Przemyśl Central Station despite the thousands shuffling back and forth every hour. The scenes as refugees disembark from the train, however, are not exclusively heartbreaking. In addition to the crying, there is also laughter. People helping each other out, the elderly, heavy bags, and hundreds of innocent, tiny people darting about at knee height.

For now, at least, this picturesque town of 60,000 people whose forebears know such cruelty, are safe. During the Holocaust, the Nazis executed 586 Poles in Przemyśl for sheltering Jews, and while there is no such threat of that danger now, history weighs down heavy and sombers the attitudes of those old enough to know.

Ukrainian refugees orderly disembarking the train at Przemysl
Ukrainian refugees orderly disembarking the train at Przemysl

European Clichè

Przemyśl is beautifully built like so many other former soviet occupancies alongside an old European heart. The town centre is narrow and gorgeous, a cliche of awe-inspiring Cathedrals and civil planning from when cars didn’t exist and the aesthetic was given priority. Venture outside the handful of streets that make up the old town, however, and you are struck by the cliche opposite. The Soviet trademark design of functionality above all else where cement edifices, indistinguishable from one another, sit neatly in row.

Tesco’s Turned Refugee Centre

On the edge of the sprawling blocks, just on the outskirts where all the big shopping malls are, is the secondary processing facility. This facility is a transformation of an old abandoned Tescos, a British supermarket chain. I was told that 4 years ago this large supermarket fell out of business and has since stood in decay gathering dust and unwanted occupancy. 

Its huge parking lot houses the myriad buses and cars shifting refugees around as various forms of transport. Lining one side of the lot are various tents offering everything from food and amenities to health and aid organisations. There is even a row of heated tents for refugees to sleep as they wait for their for the next leg of the journey. 

Ukrainian refugees line up outside of abandoned Tescos
Ukrainian refugees line up outside of abandoned Tescos

It was here at the Tesco’s I met Tommy, a Norwegian volunteer from an impossibly desolate location at the tippity top of Norway… a place very suitably called, Alta.

Tommy is the best type of humble and understated, he told me that as soon as he realised there was not a big cost for him to come to the border, he decided… ‘why not’? Tommy isn’t looking for glory, attention, recognition or any of the hidden motivations that might colour (your humble author included) reasons for rushing off to the heart of this crisis. Tommy was what in any other circumstance you would slander as a redneck, he was a truck driver, loved motocross, and when I asked him if he was from Oslo he responded tongue in cheek, ‘do you think I’m gay’? Yet there he was, at the heart of a humanitarian crisis, playing an integral role to the organisation of thousands of people per hour, for no other reason than that it was the right thing to do.

Tommy from Alta, Norway, helping the Ukrainian refugees
Tommy (far left) from Alta, Norway, helping the Ukrainian refugees

Everyone Just Making Do

It’s a very cold March in Poland’s South East.

The temperature dips and rises between 0-5C. Noticing the bitter cold and how it was particularly affecting the children, some of the volunteers made makeshift fires, brutally stomping through pallets for quick burning firewood. Someone threw a newspaper into the furnance, and for a while, I couldn’t tell if it was ash or the snow which was settling on the tip of my lens. 

Ukrainian child refugee warms up next to the fire
Ukrainian child refugee warms up next to the fire

There is so much activity that were it not for the high visibility vests donned by all volunteers minus media, you would think this is some type of Sunday market. I pass literal tonnes of clothing to my left. All local donations. There were so many clothes just strewn over the cold, grassy ground and tightly stuffed into industrial-sized plastic bags. There is enough that I am sure it must have taken a few semi-trailers to deliver here. Kids and mothers are rummaging through the donations, keeping a sharp eye out for anything especially warm. 

Someone plays soccer with the kids. And then in between passes, the next few busloads of people are delivered behind me. 

From the bus, the refugees line up at the entrance of Tesco’s. They are overwhelmed by donations of food and inundated with information as to what they should do next. 

The Logistics Of This Processing 30,000 People A Day

I asked Daniel, from Portugal, volunteering to coordinate the big lines whether I was allowed inside the building. Daniel had worked the last 24 hours straight. When we met it was 0900 in the morning and on the previous night he said they had facilitated over 10,000 people from sundown to sunrise. And as we were talking the following morning, most of them had already moved on. He told to me go in there and have a look. ‘It’s crazy’, he said.

Daniel, the Portugeuse helper
Daniel, the Portuguese helper

Inside The Abandoned Tescos Refugee Centre

The scenes from inside Tescos were from a dystopia.

Imagine the bottom floor of your local shopping mall, completely stripped of all furniture, all advertisement, all doors, all signage, and just imagine the bare bones of walls and glass unencumbered.

The echo is the first thing to hit you, but that sense is quickly drowned out by another. People are lining the walls. Sitting, sleeping, crying, laying down, playing with their phones. They don’t notice me as a walk past, there must be thousands of people in here. Every inch occupied. To my left and right are ‘stores’ that once before them sold jewellery, clothing, furniture. Now, they are large dormitories full of 100’s of people. Waiting for their next move.

A third sense kicks in, the smell

Back of the building, in what would have been the old food court, thousands of meals are being given away. I notice the furniture is wrapped in plastic, exactly as it would be out the back of a Bed, Bath & Beyond, purchased and ready for delivery. I peek into one of the larger rooms and tiptoe my way into the back, I wanted to deliver a sense of how big and cramped the space was, but it just never looks the same in photos. 

ukrainian refugee kitchen
Notice the plastic wrapping on the chairs

Back To Przemyśl’s Central Train Station

I scoot back to the Primary Przemyśl processing centre to check in with how my mates are going there.

Interestingly, while the Train Station is equally packed wall to wall with activity, there is a different sense of order here that I didn’t feel at the Tescos.

The trains arrive on the dot, people disembark and with order, make their way out of the train. Women and children are cordoned off and everyone else is left to their own accord to find their ‘space’. I meet these refugees in the tunnel corridor with hot meals ready to go supplied by the wonderful WCK organisation, who, as an aside, have stood head and shoulders above all others in terms of the visible impact in this crisis. 

World Central Kitchen
World Central Kitchen (me, far left)

Whilst distributing meals, I was tapped on the shoulder and led, by a Polish coordinator into a cornered off room restricted by one-way access and told, ‘hey, I think some of the people are hungry in here’.

This room, which was the East Wing of the train station had been converted into one hundred beds laid side by side. Walls and blankets coloured mustard yellow strung across the floor were toys aplenty, pizza boxes, chit-chatter, itchy blankets, and lots of activity. My escort was taking me to a specific family she had in mind and as I started walking by the beds, I was met with everything from hysterical children, completely innocent of why they were there, to sobbing mothers, overwhelmed by the position they had been thrust into, stoic grandmothers, who you got the sense they had seen this before, all the way to bored-looking teenagers, scrolling their thumbs off in boredom.

I syphoned off some meals and then was left to my own devices.

Private room for women and children Ukrainian refugees at Przemyśl Train Station
Private room for women and children Ukrainian refugees at Przemyśl Train Station

My Interaction With Olga & Her Boys

I didn’t want to take advantage of this access I had been given, so decided against prodding questions in hope of achieving a first-hand interview, but as was I was speaking with the head volunteer, a remarkable Polish woman who didn’t want to be named, a very thick Ukrainian accent called out to me around the corner of the room, ‘hey! Do you have more of that soup!’.

I gingerly moved over to her, making sure not to step on one of the many children spread eagle all over the floor, and don’t forget I am tiptoeing around with a tray of hot soup overhead!

On my first sweep giving out soup, Olga’s child tried some, and decided it wasn’t yucky and so he decided he wanted one all to himself. Olga, the mother of two, asked me, ‘what are you doing here?’, ‘why are so many people giving us so much support?’

I told her that the whole world is watching what is happening to her people and her country and people are unambiguously on her side. The whole conflict is unprovoked, unfair, it’s a disaster and so I think, because it’s so unjust people are responding with such sympathy.

Now, that’s not verbatim, Olga only spoke a bit of English, but that’s the sentiment I was trying to deliver.

She was overwhelmed. The whole time we spoke, verging between welling eyes and a watchful eye on her children. We got to speaking and she was astounded to hear that I was Australian. She offered her opinion of Putin unprovoked. It was the same complete and utter condemnation that I had heard from all the refugees. ‘He will go to hell’, ‘he’s a murderer, etc.

Olga’s Journey Into Poland & Her Husband Who Stayed Behind

Since we were already speaking, and her little boy seemed to be fascinated by the English conversation, I broke my early resignation and took advantage of the situation I was in. 

I decided to be a meddling journalist, and broke the rule of this ‘private zone’, and squatted down, met her at eye level, and asked Olga how she got there.

It took her 3 days to get from Kyiv to Przemyśl. A train journey relatively unimpeded to Lviv, then a chaotic journey further West to the border. There she stood, or rather sat, for almost 10 hours with her elderly mother, and two hyper-energetic sons. She was exhausted. She hadn’t slept more than a few hours, hadn’t cleaned, and worst of all hadn’t had more than two conversations with her husband who stayed behind.

She then said, with fantastic pride, how although her husband stayed behind, was fighting the Russians and winning. He was scrubbing the numbers from buildings and removing street signs so as to confuse the Russians. She joked, ‘everything they have is old, even their maps are old, they haven’t gotten new ones since the Soviet Union, without the street signs their maps will be useless’. I can’t corroborate her commentary on the maps, but I thought it was a hilarious observation and likely true nonetheless.

Olga & her sons, archetypal story of these Ukrainian refugees
Olga & her sons

The Ongoing Situation With The Ukrainian Refugees

I leave the woman and children’s room, not for the last time, and return to the routine of welcoming the Ukrainian refugees in and then seeing the Ukrainian refugees off.

All the characters are here to help. A couple of tricksters dress up in larger than life animal costumes to hand out candy, consequently lifting the spirits of the adults perhaps more than the children.

There are plenty of nuns to be seen. Poland is a famously catholic country, it’s harder to get an abortion in this country than any other in the EU. Volunteers are flowing in faster than they are flowing out. The US presence is felt more enthusiastically with each additional day.

Keeping the Ukrainian refugees children happy
Keeping the Ukrainian refugees children happy

The situation as it stands is one of remarkable order and efficiency. 

An old abandoned building on the outskirts of town has now become one of the most lively, safe, and orderly parts of the whole city. A small train station, not designed to facilitate more than one hundred people at a time is housing thousands at any given moment. 

There is more food, amenities and support to go around than is needed.

Europe has opened up its wide embrace and exposed within a much more generous, caring and overall resolute response than critics would have believed. 

In and amongst so much chatter of European Union membership, NATO membership, Brexit, Orban, Switzerland and the rest one is led to a conclusion that it is every man for himself. 

Ukrainians are not European, they don’t speak a European language, are not members of any mutual organisation of note, and culturally don’t identify as Europeans, and yet, despite this and in response to their plight, Europe has said, come on in. No questions asked. 

My experience on the Polish border has been an unquestioning confirmation that no matter the cost, this is the right thing to do. And for that reason, Putin’s ambitions are not going to go as planned.

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