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A Ukrainian family waiting for a train to Warsaw at Przemysl train station. Alamy Stock Photo
THE MORNING LEAD

‘I have to go back’: Polish city remains a major hub for Ukrainians fleeing war (and going home)

Volunteers from all over the world are helping the city to handle the crisis.

Céimin Burke reports from the Poland-Ukraine border

A STONE’S THROW from Poland’s border with Ukraine, the city of Przemyśl immediately became a major hub for refugees fleeing Russia’s war when the invasion was launched in late February.

Within days the population of the city spiked from 60,000 up to 100,000 and several large buildings – including the train station, a theatre and a disused Tesco superstore – became temporary homes for thousands of people.

Nearly two months later officials in the local government say the city is now relatively calm. Yet people leaving (and returning to) Ukraine still stream through the train station throughout the day.  

Coming and going

Natalia and her son Symon previously passed through Przemyśl in early March during a three day journey to stay with her cousin near Dresden, Germany. 

Seven weeks later Natalia says it is time to return. “I’m from Kyiv. I have to go back,” she explains. “We have to try to have a normal life and to help Ukraine.”

Symon appears to be taking things in his stride, enjoying a mini-easter egg handed out by one of the volunteers and playing with a miniature helicopter.

Travelling in the opposite direction is Tanya and her dog Fedir. Tanya’s from a town close to Odesa and she’s going to stay with a friend in Katowice, Poland, before potentially moving to Berlin.

“I have no job now. I worked with an accountant company. I’m only young and I won’t be able to stay soon if I don’t get money.”

The station goes through periodic rushes of activity when trains pull in or when buses arrive from the nearby humanitarian centre – which is still housed in the giant Tesco. 

But outside of this the charming 19th century building can be almost serenely calm.

Volunteers hand out food, toiletries and sim cards. People waiting for trains talk and check for news from home. A nun kicks a football with two boys. An emergency responder wears a clown nose and makes kids laugh. A unicorn calls in for a visit.

przemysl-poland-17th-apr-2022-a-woman-shows-her-daughter-to-make-a-peace-sign-at-the-przemysl-poland-train-station-on-easter-sunday-near-the-border-of-ukraine-after-a-pink-unicorn-gives-her-can Volunteer Jennifer Grueninger entertaining children in Przemysl station. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Change of pace

Calm is also how Przemyśl Deputy Mayor Bogusław Świeży describes it. He says the city’s operation has shifted because fewer refugees are arriving than earlier phases of the war.

In late February and early March around 80,000 refugees arrived into the region every day; that figure has now dropped to 20,000.

While earlier in the war people stayed in the city for several days, most now depart for other parts of Poland or other EU countries within 48 hours. During their stay they are housed in the humanitarian centre. 

However, the local government still estimates that approximately 10,000 will remain in the city long-term.

“For the last week we have seen that more people have gone from Poland into Ukraine than from Ukraine into Poland. The situation switched in recent weeks,” Świeży explains.

The recent air strike in Lviv, which is just a little over 100 kilometres from Przemyśl, saw an uptick in people arriving in the city. But the deputy mayor says this was likely just a one-off occurrence.

“You must remember that in the west part of Ukraine there’s now about eight million people from the east who moved there at the start of the war. After something like the air strike in Lviv they will react and go to the border because they have the same situation at home.”

Volunteers

Świeży paid tribute to the countless volunteers who have travelled to Przemyśl to help Ukrainians arriving in Poland.

“Volunteers have come to us from all parts of the world. And we want to say thank you to all people who are helping us because without volunteers we can’t do what we’ve been able to do in Przemyśl in the last month.

“People have come from Japan, Brazil, Korea, all over Europe. So, we want to say thank you to all the people who have helped us.”

Among that army of volunteers is Nick Brown from Llandudno in north Wales. Nick first travelled to Krakow, Poland, where he worked in a first aid station and food shelter.

Now he’s helping people who are laden down with bags ferry them across Przemyśl station. He’s due to stay in the region for another two and a half weeks and plans to volunteer in Lviv if the situation allows it.

Not stopping for a moment, Nick outlines the set-up as we help a large family move their bags across the station, through a tunnel and up stairs that lead to passport control.

His accommodation is a gym mat in one of Przemyśl’s many churches but the Welsh grandfather appears to be enjoying the discomfort of it.

The family are going home to Odesa. We take the bags as far as we’re allowed and Nick wishes them on their way. They look disappointed that he can’t help for the rest of their journey.

The situation clearly takes an emotional toll on Nick as when he talks about Ukrainians frantically watching for news from home – and breaking down when the news is bad – he asks for a moment to compose himself.

He settles by saying he’s glad the Irish rugby team whipped England.

“I’m a grandfather,” Nick explains, “when I see the little children like these, I think of my grandson. And I couldn’t but help them.  

“Basically, I just couldn’t keep on watching it. I was hell-bent on coming out.”

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