Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 3.8 million people—mostly women and children—have fled to neighboring countries, with the majority taken in by Poland. The government and armies of volunteers have been working quickly to help ease the newcomers’ transition back to normalcy: securing them places to live, issuing them identity cards, and assisting them with employment and enrollment in school.
As the war drags on with Russia intensifying its offensive in the eastern part of the country, Ukrainian women and children in Poland are beginning to face up to the sobering possibility that their displacement is not temporary. The brutal shelling of civilian infrastructure and homes has rendered entire cities completely unlivable. Half of all businesses have also been shut down.
Pontes, a Polish NGO and part of the London-based charity WONDER Foundation, is one such organization that is working tirelessly to deliver educational opportunities to women. Before the war, with WONDER’s help, Pontes had been offering Polish classes, skills workshops, and mental health services to 50 women migrants in the capital city of Warsaw. To emphasize the level of demand, in just one weekend in mid-March, it received around 1,000 requests for assistance.
“It could be years, not weeks, before they feel safe to go back to Ukraine,” Helena Terán, the director of Pontes, tells ELLE.com. “Until then, we will do all we can to facilitate their assimilation into Polish society. It’s not just about helping them, it’s recognizing that they have so much to contribute, and giving them the means to do so.”
To understand the surreal tragedy of being forced to consider a life abroad for the long term—while still being separated from their families left behind, who are in constant danger—I spoke to 11 Ukrainian women in Warsaw and around northern Poland who are working with Pontes. They shared their experiences of the war, and the intense agony of missing their loved ones. These intimate conversations were rife with anger and sadness, but still often interspersed with tentative optimism and humor. Here are their stories.
Yuliya and Nina Cherevyk
In the early hours of Feb. 24, 33-year-old Yuliya Cherevyk was jolted awake by an enormous blast just 500 meters from her apartment in Brovary, a city outside Kyiv. The sky seemed to be engulfed in flames when she looked out of the window. “I understood then that I had to wake everyone and leave at once,” she says. Together with her mother-in-law, Nina, 59, and her three young children, Angelina, 9, Artem, 8, and Alexander, 5, Yuliya began packing their suitcases, her hands shaking. With men between the ages of 18 and 60 banned from leaving the country and encouraged to fight, Yuliya and Nina fled without their husbands.
Amidst the pandemonium, they forgot to bring the children’s travel documents with them, which left them trapped in Kyiv for a few days before they finally crossed the border on March 6. “We’re so grateful for Polish hospitality,” Yuliya says. “My children were given sandwiches and places to sit.”
Through connections in Poland, they found sanctuary at the home of the Wardak family in Białołęcka, a leafy Warsaw suburb. Other families soon started arriving, and now the house shelters 32 Ukrainians forced to flee the war.
Within weeks, Yuliya managed to find places for Artem and Angelina at a Polish school, which they are now attending. Her eyes fill with tears when she talks about her husband and Nina’s son, Igor, who now lives in peril on Kyiv’s territorial defense. “I married a really kind man,” she says. “He is hardworking, our house is filled with his paintings, and he takes good care of our children.”
Nina, a high school science teacher, is wracked with anxiety when she thinks of her students and her husband, who has gone to fight in Kherson, the biggest Ukrainian city under Russian occupation. When she texted her cousin in Russia to tell him about what had happened, he responded curtly: “The media is lying to you.”
Both women check their phones first thing in the morning, praying that their families are still alive. In the meantime, they’re wasting no time looking for jobs. Yuliya wants Artem to continue doing Thai boxing in Poland—he had been a champion in his category in Ukraine. “We never had many material goods to begin with, but more than ever, we’ll put relationships first now. They saved us when our lives were destroyed in one instant,” Nina says.
Little Alexander can’t fully comprehend the tumult of the last month. He’s still waiting for a place in school, and often runs around in the garden, an activity had given the Wardak children so many happy memories when they were little. Every day, he asks Yuliya: “Mama, will the bombs drop here too?”
Tetiana, Maryna, and Vala Vilchynska
The Soviet-style estate where the Vilchynskas are staying in Warsaw may be grim, but their apartment reverberates with their hearty laughter. Tetiana, 45, is an English teacher to primary school children in Kyiv. All 96 of her students are now scattered across Europe, but that doesn’t deter her from teaching them online. “We don’t have textbooks now, but it’s no problem; I download pictures from the Internet and we can still learn together on Zoom.” She is focusing on doing her best to give her family as close to normal lives as she can despite the circumstances.
Her daughter Maryna is a vivacious 17-year-old who is effusive about her thoughts on everything that has transpired, as well as her new life in Poland. It was her idea to leave Kyiv on her birthday, March 4, after the shelling intensified and the family decided that staying in a bunker was no longer an option. One of her friends, whom she describes as having been unrattled by the conflict until that point, texted her to say, “We have to leave—I’ll go anywhere.”
“I’m very disappointed because last year it was coronavirus, and now we have the war. I was preparing for my exams when the war broke out, and now I can’t complete my studies. But it’s okay…maybe I can go to university here,” Maryna says. She speaks five languages including English and German and aspires to be a journalist or interpreter one day. “Especially now, it’s so important to know our history, and to make sure people know the truth,” she adds.
Tetiana’s 69-year-old mother, Vala, is a retired librarian who hates being idle, and has already found herself two part-time jobs in Warsaw as a cook and a hospital cleaner. As she offers me a slice of cake that she had baked earlier in the day, she recalls a nightmare she had last week. “I dreamt I was forced to share a kitchen with Vladimir Putin,” she says. “I made him stay in one corner and not disturb me while I was cooking.”
When they first got to Poland, Tetiana was still in touch with her live-in partner of two years, but he gradually stopped texting her when he realized that she was not returning soon. She later found out from her father, whom she describes as a “patriot who would rather die in his homeland,” that her partner had gone to collect his things from her place. “I was sad at first, but now I only wish him well,” she says. “War is difficult and lonely. He deserves someone who can be by his side.”
Oksana Topol, Oksana Krugylak, and Galina Fedorowska
Oksana Topol, 36, learned hairdressing from her neighbor, Oksana Krugylak, in the town of Zhovti Vody in Central Ukraine. Neither woman could have imagined that, when the war broke out, they would both end up in the same small Polish village of Krępsko, close to the German border.
Topol and her sister Olena, 34, were on a bus to Przemyśl when they met Galina Fedorowska, 31. Fedorowska was in tears and at a loss about what she would do when she arrived in Poland. “We know someone who can help,” they told her. All three women and their children eventually moved into the same house in Krępsko.
Fedorowska worries about her children, 3-year-old Vlad and 12-year-old Tania. Vlad has started attending the village school but cries frequently and wants to sit on his teacher’s lap all the time. He’s terrified whenever a door slams, as the loud sound reminds him of bombs dropping on their hometown of Zavorychi, just outside Kyiv. Meanwhile, Tania is stressed at school because she can’t understand Polish. For now, Fedorowska has decided that the best option is for Tania to learn Polish in an online setting with other Ukrainian children to minimize the anxiety of being in a completely new environment.
“It can’t go on like this,” Fedorowska says. In Ukraine, she was an administrative assistant at a hospital. She may soon take up a job cleaning windows in Krępsko, and fears that her children can’t cope when she’s not around. Meanwhile, her husband, Vitalii, a repairman for heavy vehicles, has been digging graves in Kyiv to bury the dead. Over text, he told her that he’s since become impervious to the task.
The women are still adjusting to living together. Fedorowska likes putting herbs in her cooking but Oksana Topol doesn’t, so they’ve agreed to take turns using the kitchen. Topol has put her professional skills to use by giving haircuts to everyone in the house. She’s also starting to study Polish. But her sister Olena is really struggling and finds it difficult to leave the house, silently weeping all the time.
Just a few streets away are Kruglyak, 47, and her daughter Ilona Borovyk, 27, who had been a manicurist in Ukraine. They slept for two nights in a school gymnasium crammed with other Ukrainians before managing to find their way to Krępsko. Ilona’s 9-month-old baby, Emma, kept throwing up from the distress of being shuffled around. Her older daughter, Arina, 6, is now in a Polish kindergarten. She asks about her father every day, and just wants to go home. Borovyk and Kruglyak are still waiting for their Polish ID cards, but hope to offer manicures and haircuts to their neighbors very soon. Magdalena Kowalska, a Polish volunteer in the village and a coordinator for Pontes, says she’s planning to give the women Polish lessons to bolster their confidence speaking a new language. She’s also currently improving her own Ukrainian to make them feel more welcome.
As I leave, Borovyk tells me: “I wish you all the best and good things for you in life.”
Gallina Pelipeiko and Alla Soroka
Gallina Pelipeiko, 44, was on a sunny beach in Egypt when she started receiving frantic texts from family and friends back in Ukraine. “There’s a war now, are you coming back?” the messages read. Pelipeiko felt sick with consternation. She was on vacation with her cousin-in-law, Alla Soroka, 52, and their children. “We were completely shocked, we only had our summer clothes and had no idea what we were going to do or where we were going to go,” Pelipeiko says. After two weeks, they managed to buy plane tickets to Poland, and decided to base themselves in the town of Goleniow in the northwest, where a kind resident had offered his house.
Although she ran a small coffee roasting business in Kyiv, Pelipeiko has no idea how she’ll replicate it here. Her daughter, Violetta, 14, and Soroka’s son Oleksandr, 15, are now attending a high school in the area. Both Violetta and Oleksandr are open to a long-term future in Poland, but their mothers desperately want to return to Kyiv. “It’s good to make new Polish friends, and they’re very supportive,” Oleksandr says. “When we’re studying, it’s the only time we’re not thinking about the war or our families at home.”
Oleksandr is still in touch with Russian friends from Yekaterinburg. When they speak, they don’t discuss the war, but he sends them articles about the invasion in Ukraine. He’s outraged when he talks about the besieged city of Mariupol, which lies in ruins. Its residents have reportedly resorted to drinking water from their radiators. “They understand what’s going on, but are scared of the government screening their phones,” he says of his Russian friends. He is especially worried about one of them, who’s now 16. “He’s so young, and he may be drafted. So many boys have already died at war. I don’t want him to have to go and fight.”
Pelipeiko has been having sleepless nights where she keeps thinking about her last real-life exchange with her husband, who works for the Ukrainian intelligence services. He had planned to join them on vacation, but the state told him at the last minute that he could not leave because of the Russian threat at the time. Hugging his family goodbye at the airport when they left for Egypt, he parted ways with them with a chillingly prescient remark: “Perhaps this might be the last time I’ll be seeing you for a while.”
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