By Agnieszka Wądołowska and Shannon Listopad
Almost three million people – mostly women and children – have crossed from Ukraine into Poland since Russia’s invasion on 24 February; about two thirds currently remain in the country.
We wanted to give them a voice.
Four women – refugees from Ukraine – agreed to share their stories with Notes from Poland. They spoke of their experiences fleeing the war, the challenges they faced on the way, the ups and downs of their everyday lives since they arrived in Poland, as well as their hopes for what the future will bring.
Oksana: “I saw photos of the ruins of a cinema I went to with my kids not that long ago”
Oksana fled with her two children from Kyiv and arrived in Poland via Slovakia. She is now staying with her family in Warsaw. She is worried about her older daughter as she was studying in Ukraine and does not know how to continue her education now.
Even before the war started on 24 February, people were already saying that something would happen, but we didn’t really believe it. Russia is going to invade us? There will be tanks in the street? No, that seemed impossible!
But on that day, at 5 in the morning I heard some noise. I had no idea what it was – at first I thought it was a gun salute. But there came another crash and I started to browse the internet and realised the war had started.
At the petrol stations and ATMs and banks there were long queues; in shops people were buying out canned food and water and some were already preparing to leave. Everyone understood that it was not a joke, that it was really happening.
We have a suburban house and I took the kids and went there, stocked up some things to eat and drink and sealed the windows and secured them with pillows, but we could still hear the plane raids and shootings.
We slept in our clothes as I had no idea if we might need to flee. I read online that we shouldn’t put on the lights so we stayed in the dark. But it was still better than in the city, as there you needed to go to the shelters all the time. We spent a few days like this.
Bread, meat, flour and sugar – they all disappeared from the local shop. You could buy shrimps or some other luxury goods but there were no ingredients to make pelmeni [dumplings]. My friend works at the shop so she called me when a new delivery came and that’s how I got some stuff.
In the streets, there were already blockades built with sandbags and some metal materials to prevent the tanks from getting through. Our forces also blew up the bridge that was the main way into Kyiv, and others were blocked so people started saying that now no food transports would go through and if we didn’t get killed in the Russian air raids we would just starve.
Then I realised that we really had to flee, but we heard that people were waiting for hours on the border to enter Poland and it was cold.
I took my kids and went to the railway station to see if we could get tickets for later. It was overcrowded and even though a siren started going off, everyone ignored it. It was like I was in a trance, as if in a fog, I couldn’t really make out what I should do and where to go.
Then the news broke about yet another raid on Kyiv and I just felt panic. On the spur of the moment, I got on the train with my kids and headed to the border with Slovakia, as I had a friend there. We wrote to our relatives in Poland and they assured us we would have a place to stay with them if we came.
My kids and I travelled on the luggage rack – the train was so overcrowded. No one had tickets. It was clear that it was an evacuation, really. It was a strange train filled with women and children and the elderly as they wouldn’t allow men to leave.
At the border everyone was so helpful; they put us on a bus and volunteers gave us food.
Krakow is a city of 800,000 people. It has welcomed 150,000 refugees from Ukraine.
I expressed to Mayor Majchrowski our respect for his city’s extraordinary generosity.
We will keep helping Krakow in every possible way and to advocate for more international support for Poland. pic.twitter.com/d8ypknRrAi
— Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) March 29, 2022
For the first few nights, my friend’s son was crying and shouting in his sleep, while I just couldn’t sleep at all. I got some pills to calm me down, as I am waiting nervously for news from my husband every day. Also my parents and my sister are still in Ukraine. It’s very hard for me now, when I watch the news and think about them. Recently I saw photos of the ruins of a cinema I went to with my kids not that long ago. It’s really impossible to imagine what war is like till you see it with your own eyes.
I would even like to go home right now if I could; I am in touch with some friends who are also in Poland now and they’re all saying that as soon as it’s over, we’ll go home, even if we have to go on foot.
Now we’re staying with my family in Warsaw. They were so hospitable to let us stay in their apartment. I really feel at home here. We are so lucky that we have them, as those who came here and have no relatives or friends must face many more difficulties.
My family also helped me get through all the formalities – my son, who is eight years old, is already going to school. He’s doing fine, learning to write Polish letters. He joined a Polish-speaking class though he doesn’t know the language, but he found himself an interpreter – a girl from his class speaks Russian and explains everything to him, I think she likes him. I am so pleased that he is really adapting so quickly.
Today I got the PESEL [Polish national ID] number for me and my kids; it took me the whole day – I was at the government office in Mokotów at 7.30 a.m. and came home only in the late afternoon. But everyone was very helpful there; there were interpreters and volunteers to help to direct me to the right places and assist with the forms. I have also already applied for 500 plus [child benefits].
I joined an online group on Instagram for Ukrainian mothers in Poland and there we exchange info about free activities for kids. Just the other day we went to Wilanów [Palace in Warsaw]; they guided us around the palace for free, and it was nice to forget about the war for a moment.
I am just worried about my older daughter – she was studying in Ukraine and it’s not clear how she can proceed now. I would also love to start a job so I can support us here.
It’s hard to believe, but I had even forgotten to take some money with me. But then when a bomb is coming, you’re not thinking about your purse, but about your kids’ lives. And for some time I couldn’t withdraw hryvnia as the exchange rate was really bad.
However, the biggest challenge is that we just don’t know what to expect. Is it just a day or two and the peace will come and we will be able to go home? Or will we have to stay here for months? We just don’t know.
Zhenya: “I hope that the war will end by the summer and we can go home”
Zhenya fled from a town in northern Ukraine and is now living with her mother and siblings in Łódź. She attends a preparatory class at a state school. She was informed that if she stays till September in Poland she will be put into the appropriate grade, but she would prefer to return home.
“We left as soon as the war started – I am from a little town, so we didn’t face bombing like Kyiv but I know the situation is very difficult there now.
I came to Poland with my mother, sister and brother. Together with our friends, we rented a small bus and my mother drove it for five or six hours until we came to the border with Poland. Then Polish volunteers helped us; the Poles were so sweet to us and helped us all the way. They offered us transportation and we were moved to different places.
In the first hotel, where we spent just one night, we shared a room with a lot of people. I don’t know exactly where it was; it’s some kind of building completely illuminated with the flag of Ukraine. But then we were moved to a different one; this one was in a forest and we got a room there just for my family. We could leave our rooms but there wasn’t anywhere we could go really.
Then we were offered a flat that we could stay in by the city of Łódź and that’s where we are now. Our friend and his father, whom we met in Poland, helped us with the apartment. A lot of my friends left and they are all in Poland, but in other cities. I am still in touch with them and we talk a lot on the phone and I hope they will visit me.
Now I go to school in Łódź. It wasn’t hard to get me signed up for school, I guess we came at the right time as they were just organising the classes – one for children of my age, so 14 and 15-year-olds, and another for those aged 16 and 17.
In my class there are only other Ukrainian children; we spend most of the time learning Polish. It’s kind of hard as it’s a totally new language for me. My family speaks Russian at home and I spoke Ukrainian at school back in Ukraine.
It’s good that I can speak to my classmates now. Some teachers speak English or Russian and that’s the way we communicate. The kids, like me, who speak English, translate for those who don’t. Back in Ukraine, I had English at school and took some extra courses, so that helps me to communicate now. But most of the time they speak Polish to us as they want us to learn.
There are 20 Ukrainian children in my class. It’s easier for us this way – to go to school with people who don’t speak my language would be very hard. But they are not from my town; they came from a number of places in Ukraine.
My mum is looking for a job to support us, but many Ukrainians are already working in Poland so it’s hard to find a place. In many jobs you need to speak Polish, but she doesn’t.
I hope that the war will end by the summer and we can go home.
Margo: “I had tears in my eyes when I saw all this hospitality”
Margo fled from Kyiv and is now living with family in Warsaw.
My story of fleeing the war started already a long time ago – eight years to be exact. I used to live in Luhansk, and when the conflict started there [in 2014] I emigrated to Kyiv. You can say I have some experience in migrating. The first time I had to flee the war, I didn’t even think of taking any documents or diplomas with me. I just took my child, who was three years old back then. I have learnt how hard it is to live when you have nothing.
Now, just a few days after the Russian invasion, when the situation started to look dangerous, when life in Kyiv couldn’t go on normally any more, I knew I needed to pack a suitcase and have all the vital stuff inside. I realised that if I didn’t leave now, I might not be able to leave the city at all.
We gathered a small group including my daughter, my sister, and my nephew; I went by car to the railway station; we even took a dog with us. It was already hard just to get there. We chose a train that was going directly to the Polish border, where we needed to wait a few hours till we could cross.
I really appreciated all the help we got at the border, where people gave us food, juice, and water; they put us in one car, then in another one and brought us to the capital city. I really had tears in my eyes when I saw all that hospitality.
Once we got to one of the reception points in Warsaw, I received some packages with basic products that I could take with me. My friends even gave me a lift so we could pack more things into the car. At this early stage, the support was really well organised.
To be honest, I was in a really good situation as I have friends here in Warsaw who could host me and my family; they just gave us their flat for our use. But still, my life seems to be suspended and I don’t know how to organise my work and everyday activities here.
Luckily my nephew, who is five, got into Polish preschool. However, my daughter is already 10 and she hasn’t started school, as she doesn’t speak Polish at all and for her joining a Polish-speaking class would be yet another emotional burden.
As long as I haven’t decided whether we will stay in Poland long-term, I don’t see the point of sending her to school. Of course, if we stay till September, I will enrol her and she will have to attend classes. But I hope if the situation quietens down a bit, she will be able to join online classes from Ukraine.
My biggest challenge in Poland is that I don’t speak the language, I don’t understand when people are talking to me here. It’s really stressful when you don’t know where you need to go or which form to fill in. I haven’t received any financial help from the government as I haven’t applied for any, but my sister has registered, got her PESEL, and is getting state money.
For me it was also quite difficult to find information about support programmes and help that’s available both here in Poland and that could be sent to Ukraine. I set up a fundraiser on Instagram with the aim of helping organisations to take care of animals in Kyiv, as many were left behind.
When I started looking for such NGOs, I couldn’t find anything at first. I am young and I can look on social media and Telegram, but I guess some people who would like to help also might have problems with finding info or how to get in touch with other refugees who are in Poland.
Naturally, I would like the conflict to end as soon as possible, but I don’t believe I will be able to go home. I am a yoga teacher and my internal balance is very important to me, while the current situation is emotionally very difficult and strenuous. Even if I would like to go home, I imagine it will be a long time till it is really safe to go back.
Since my arrival in Poland, I went for some time to visit my friends in Austria to check what opportunities there could be for us there. Although I don’t speak German and I didn’t know how I could get long-term accommodation and state support, I really liked it there.
For the time being, we’re staying in Poland, hoping to get an American tourist visa. I need to find a place where I can stay long-term as there is no way of telling how long this conflict in Ukraine will last.
I can’t explain it – maybe it’s something emotional – but I can’t find my place here. I don’t feel good here in Poland and I don’t think I will stay here long. I have friends in different parts of Europe – in Portugal or Sweden. They are all telling me I can come and stay with them. I just don’t know what to do next.
Svetlana: “God forbid anyone else has to go through this”
Svetlana fled from Western Ukraine with her two children and her sister’s children. The children go to school in Warsaw, while she hopes to be a teacher’s assistant and help other Ukrainian children assimilate into the classroom.
On 24 February, we heard three loud explosions. And I got very scared, not so much for myself, but for my small child. I went to my mother’s, where my sister’s kids were as well, since my sister was working in Poland at that time.
“Sveta, you have to go,” my mum told me. I wanted my husband to come with us, but he couldn’t; he wanted to stay and fight for our country. My older son, who’s 18 years old, also couldn’t join us – he is in the territorial defence force.
We didn’t live very far from the border, so my husband drove all of us there and then we took a bus. We ended up waiting in it for 12 hours. There was nowhere to go. The kids were just lying on the floor – it was very difficult.
Right away after we crossed the border, we met my sister, thank God. Some Poles lent her a car and she picked us up. The journey lasted for 12 hours, or even 14, I don’t even remember anymore.
And now we’re in Warsaw. We didn’t have a place to go, because my sister only has a studio apartment that’s just 15 square feet. We didn’t know what to do – I was tired, the kids were tired. We found a hostel and they helped us and my sister paid. I owe her a big thanks.
The Polish government is coordinating with Polish NGOs to provide food, medical care and shelter to those escaping from Ukraine. 🫂
— Embassy of Poland U.S. (@PolishEmbassyUS) April 8, 2022
For a week and a half we lived in the hostel until we found some generous people who gave us a place to stay – not a big one, but I am so grateful for what they have given us.
Now I’m living there with four kids – two of my sister’s kids and two of mine. Cooking, cleaning, and taking them to school. We can live here for free for a month, maybe two, but after that we don’t have anywhere to go and I don’t know what to do next. I don’t have any money. It’s my sister that’s buying everything for us, including groceries.
There were absolutely no problems with the school. I’m so grateful for the Poles, they are great. Simply awesome! Big thank you to all of them. I just had to give them my phone number and my identification documents; everything was free. The kids are learning and I hope they will speak Polish soon. It’s very good that they’re not just sitting at home.
Still it’s a bit difficult for the kids I guess, but the little ones aren’t saying anything. They’re happy – my sister keeps buying them sweets! To be honest, they don’t even want to go home, I keep telling them we have to go back.
For my older son, the 16-year-old, it’s very hard as he was already in the 11th grade, so his friends are back there, everything he knows is back there in Ukraine, and at the moment there is nothing here for him.
There were no problems for us bureaucratically either. The queue for the PESEL was really long, but it wasn’t a problem, because I had the time and when I went I had everything I needed with me. I also signed up for financial help, but I haven’t received anything yet. It’s unfortunate, but it’s OK.
Since I’ve arrived in Poland, I didn’t receive help from the government, but I did get help from volunteers. Volunteers from the Red Cross gave us some food. The second time we went to get some food, though, there was almost nothing there for them to give. They also gave us some pillows and blankets donated by people.
I arrived in a really old coat and old shoes, just because it was what I was wearing when I left. We had just a small backpack of things. I essentially arrived empty-handed and barefoot.
I’m familiar with the Polish language. I understand everything and I can even speak a little bit. I was once here to earn some money during the summer, near the sea.
I am certain I can find work in Warsaw. I want to be a teacher’s assistant and help the Ukrainian kids assimilate in the classroom. I’ve already been to the school and talked to them about it. I really want to help – even as a volunteer if I have to. I don’t just want to sit around. I’m not used to doing that. The school agreed to take me on, but they can’t just employ me – there is some organisation that is helping out with that already. We’re working it out.
To be honest, though, I would have even gone home yesterday if I could, but my husband told me we need to wait. There is a lot of fighting, he said. There are rockets everywhere – it’s really scary. So he told me to stay put and so I am. For now I will not go back, because I fear for the children. I don’t care so much about myself.
The last thing I’d like to add is well wishes for everyone, a peaceful world, so that no one else needs to deal with this sort of thing. I wish that to everyone that’s reading this article. Never – I never wanted to experience this either. It’s a nightmare.
God forbid that anybody has to hear the sounds of explosions. I only heard them for one day and still they’re terrifying me. There are a lot of people that are still there that couldn’t come here and I’m very worried about them. God forbid anyone else has to go through this.
Interviews conducted and translated from Russian by Agnieszka Wądołowska and Shannon Listopad; language support provided by Greg Listopad.
Main image credit: Margo
Agnieszka Wądołowska is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She has previously worked for Gazeta.pl and Tokfm.pl and contributed to Gazeta Wyborcza, Wysokie Obcasy, Duży Format, Midrasz and Kultura Liberalna