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ukraine border

How the mid-size Polish town of Przemysl has been transformed into a transport hub for refugees

The Journal’s Niall O’Connor is reporting on the growing refugee crisis from the Ukraine-Polish border.

Niall O’Connor reports from Poland: 

THE TOWN OF Przemysl, located ten kilometres from the Ukrainian/Polish frontier, is now the centre of the European aid effort as thousands of refugees throng the train platforms and bus queues each day. 

More than two million people have fled to the EU in the two weeks since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.

This is where many of them are crossing the border as the local train station connects directly with the city of Lviv, and then on to the besieged capital Kyiv.

Among the weary crowds arriving, crossing the threshold from war-torn Ukraine into the safety of Poland, there is a calm, determined anxiousness to keep moving.

The town is just under 100kms from Lviv. The main border road crossing is Medyka, a short distance from the town. In the last two weeks the entire area has been transformed with makeshift refugee villages and aid stations dotted all around.

At Medyka those who enter country on foot gather, waiting for a bus to bring them to Przemysl – a mid-size town with a normal, peace-time population of some 60,000. That figure has swollen considerably since the war began. 

The town is being used as a processing centre. Those that don’t have family to stay with in Poland or elsewhere have their details processed by officials in Przemysl before being sent to other cities to be temporarily housed. 

ukraine-conflict-poland Marina from Dnipro stands in line with her son Bogdan at a distribution centre in Przemysl. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

The official efforts of the Polish Government are impressive in their grand scale. There are dozens of charities and other NGOs also providing food and bedding in makeshift border villages.

Acts of kindness from locals also stand out.

In a Soviet-era high rise apartment block in the centre of town Joanne Sulkowska, who works in a local school for children with special needs, now cares for five refugees in her small flat. 

The women and girls – Svitlana, Lola, Mykhailo, Anastasia and Olena – who are from two separate families, fled on 28 February by train from Kyiv having made the decision to leave their home in Sumy on 24 February, the day of the invasion.

image_from_ios The women, from two families, escaped Sumy late last month. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

“I left because the air raid sirens started but I have left my mother and boyfriend there. My boyfriend has joined the army reserves,” Svitlana said.

“I call everyday to speak to them – they are okay but the situation in Sumy is not good – it is a very difficult situation.”

Amid continuing assaults thousands of people have left the town of Sumy, which is close to the Russian border. One Russian air strike in recent days killed 21 civilians, including two children.

The group’s escape from Ukraine was a series of stop-start train journeys. They found themselves trapped on board a train in Kyiv for 12 hours and again were delayed near Lviv for 10 hours before finally reaching the safety of Poland.  

Lola said the group plan to leave for Poznan where they will be given accommodation by the Polish Government. 

222 People fleeing the war board buses in Przemyśl. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

The women said that the general consensus among Ukrainians is that there needs to be a no-fly zone imposed over their country to prevent the Russia encroachment. So far, however, this idea has been dismissed by Western leaders and Nato members. 

The group have not lost any relatives in the fighting but said that they know people – friends and neighbours – who have been killed in attacks by Russian aircraft. Svitlana said that she knew two people who died, along with their daughter, in the city of Nikolai.

The women said they were thankful for the help of the Polish people. They recalled simple acts of kindness – from being given food in the town, to being housed by their host, Joanne. 

The Journal asked the Polish woman about her act of kindness and why she had given up her home.

“I don’t understand how not to help the people,” she said. 

Since the start of the invasion Joanne has also welcomed other refugees. They stayed for short periods before moving on to be rehoused elsewhere in Poland. 

“I will cry when they leave,” she said of her current guests. “It makes me feel proud to see how Polish people are caring for the people. 

They have nothing and they feel alone, they must start a new life and we must help them.

Moving back through the town, we witnessed local schools that had been transformed into refugee holding centres with mattresses replacing classroom desks. 

Until last month, a local shopping centre housed the local Tesco. Now, in its place, is a dorm for refugees with free food and medical care. 

Back in the train station at Przemysl the hallways and rooms are lined with women and children. There is a quiet chatter from the people. Kids lie on their small bags of clothes and belongings, some with pets in carriers. 

The buses pull up outside as local police help guide people towards the next stage of their journey – families pick up their belongings, gather themselves and group together to make sure they’re sticking together in the same bus.

As they leave, a new group arrives and the cycle starts again.

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