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Emergency shelter in Poland for refugees from Ukraine

With millions of people fleeing war in Ukraine since 24 February 2022, temporary shelter is critical for people displaced within the country and across borders. DRC supports aid organisations and local initiatives to enable them to offer safe and dignified shelter at key locations - one is in Przemysl, a Polish border town where DRC spoke to three women just arrived from Ukraine.

Simona Simkute

Posted on 13 Dec 2022

Written by Simona Simkute and Alexandra Strand Holm

Less than 14 kilometres from the border to Ukraine, this emergency shelter in Przemysl has room for up to 50 refugees at a time. For many, it is often the first point to relax and settle for the night in a peaceful place. People here are relieved - but also tired, traumatized, and extremely vulnerable - and most have no destination, plan for their next step or any other place to stay. The refugees from Ukraine arrive with only a few belongings – mostly clothes for children and a few documents in bags, suitcases and what they were able to carry when they left home with short notice.

They tell of long and hazardous journeys with little sleep, attempting multiple times to flee, and eventually spending days and nights in trains or cars from Ukraine across the border to Romania, Moldova and - in this case Poland - in search of refuge from the war.

At the emergency shelter in Przemysl, most of the new visitors arrive in small groups primarily of women with children, but often also with elders of the family. They have endured months in areas that turned into active battle zones where intense shelling and fighting has been fierce for months. Back in Ukraine are their homes and male members of the families aged between 18 and 65 years, who are denied leaving Ukraine by law and due to the state of emergency committing them to obligatory conscription and tenure at the frontline or wherever they and their skills may be needed.

A safe place to stay

The shelter in Przemysl opened in August 2022. In November alone, they received 617 refugees from Ukraine who are offered a safe and dignified place to stay. Here, they get meals, hygiene kits, and guidance on where to find psychological counselling, medical aid, legal advice, support in finding a job, and long-term accommodation or otherwise help to address some of the concerns and questions that arise being far from home and marked by months of extreme ordeals.

Alina (62), Lisa (59), and Elena (62)* are among the people from Ukraine who found refuge at the shelter run by the Association of Ukrainians in Poland.


Lisa, 59

Also having arrived from Zaporizhzhia is Lisa, 59, who is in Przemysl with her daughter and two grandchildren at four and seven years. DRC spoke to Lisa in Poland they day after she had fled Ukraine in October 2022. She and her daughter with two children, took the train from Zaporizhzhia to escape the bombing there. They arrived with no luggage since there was no time for them to bring any belongings. It was suddenly a matter of survival. 

She left behind her husband and son-in-law in Ukraine, and she hears from them occasionally when the connection and situation allow for them to talk. Lisa has retired from work. Her daughter has a background as a pharmacist. They are still not fully aware of how much of their house remains intact since recent shelling. All they know is that they had to get out of there and that the journey took them to Poland hoping for safety and rest there.

Trying to wait out the war

Lisa had not wanted to leave her home. From the beginning, no matter how bad the situation was, she hesitated to leave and had waited since February for the war to end. It was difficult but they managed. Then the shelling started. When the fires and shootings began, the children became more and more scared and were screaming.

Lisa recalls her desperation and ‘hysteria’, as she calls it, and the discussions with her daughter about when to make the difficult decision. But she was not giving in and still committed to enduring the war. Her daughter used to say: ‘Mum, what else should happen for you to finally decide to leave everything and go?’ Eventually, when shelling began and it was no longer possible to cope, they left in a hurry, crossed into Poland and arrived in Przemysl where they heard about the shelter. 

Lisa did not see a point in finding interim shelter inside Ukraine in Lviv to where they arrived by train. It did not look good there either, they thought. There was a direct train to Przemysl that they then took.

When they arrived a few hours later at the train station in Przemysl in Poland, they saw some people standing there. They were volunteers and introduced themselves, asking about Lisa and her family’s situation, and told them that there is a place to sleep and stay until they know what to do next.

The volunteers took Lisa and her family to the temporary shelter. That night in Przemysl, Lisa finally slept well. She woke up in the morning thinking: ‘Where am I? Is it shelling or not?’ She remembers feeling at ease and noted that her grandchildren as well were content.

Safety – and time to reflect

She has become very sensitive, she tells, just like many others who have endured war and trauma in Ukraine, and who have escaped months of shelling, fighting and constant fear.

‘It takes the smallest sound for people to get scared. Kids start laughing, they see it funny if someone gets suddenly scared because of some sound, but it is not funny at all!’ 

Lisa is grateful for the assistance and the way that she and the family were received in Przemysl. ‘People are so nice here - and heartful. Everything that we need is given to us,’ she says, telling how there is an extraordinary hospitality in Poland. She recalls going town to look for a tailor to fix her backpack. With no cash or Polish Zloty, Lisa asked the tailor for contact and bank details so that she could pay later. ‘It is alright,’ said the tailor, ‘You can come by another time and pay,’ – Lisa replying: ‘But you know, I will not come back anymore,’ - to which the tailor said: ‘So let it be, it is ok.’

No next plans

Lisa and her family still do not know what will come next. Some recommend her to start walking around the neighborhood and ask for possibilities here. ‘We will decide later,’ she says. ‘Most likely we will move on and see what happens… We will see.’ 

Lisa and her daughter are looking for a place to stay after the emergency shelter which is only a short-term solution. Other people need the interim shelter after them. Her daughter now needs to find a job in Przemysl. If there was no active fighting in Zaporizhzhia, Lisa reassures that she would just go straight back home. And if not now, then at least as soon as the war is over. 

Alina, 62

Alina is one of the guests at the shelter. The 62-year-old woman arrived with her two daughters and five grandchildren, the youngest five years old and the eldest 17, all of them coming from Kherson in southern Ukraine. They decided it was time to leave shortly after the area was taken over by foreign forces and no longer under the control of the Government of Ukraine. Alina’s husband and one of her daughters stayed behind in Kherson. The phone and connection through social media are now their lifeline and the only way to stay in touch.

It was not the first time they had tried to leave Kherson. Alina and her family attempted several times with the intention to relocate to safer parts of Ukraine, but every time they tried to flee, they were refused to leave at new checkpoints. When they decided to try once more, they were desperate but hopeful once again as they had heard this time that the soldiers would let them go – and finally, the third attempt was successful. 

Displaced - again

They travelled until they reached nearby Zaporizhzhia oblast in Ukraine where they stayed for five months. ‘We often heard the air raid alarms, but we felt safer there as rockets were crossing over and flying further. Then, the bombs started coming closer and closer. My heart was trembling, but we stayed on. But then they eventually started falling closer to where we were - and suddenly in our street,’ Alina recounts. That was when they decided to flee - once more.

‘We immediately decided that we needed to go. We didn’t want to go back home and again get stuck in a situation that would force us to move back and forth all the time. So, we decided to come here [Przemysl].’

Volunteers helping people on the move in Ukraine advised them on how and where to go, and the family themselves searched the internet and found out about help at the shelter in Przemysl.

Welcomed by volunteers

Alina recalls from when they arrived at Przemysl train station that volunteers were there to help. They assisted in translating and brought her and her family to the temporary shelter in their personal cars. ‘They even carried up our suitcases and, you know, they are heavy – we carried warm clothes for the winter,’ tells Alina. DRC met Alina at the shelter the day after she had arrived: ‘It’s good here - and peaceful,’ she said, although clearly marked by the stress from the journey and from months of fear and worry.

‘When we were in Zaporizhzhia, we thought that we would be going back home soon. Now, I don’t know. We are moving on, but we have no real plans. What I do know is that we will be back in Kherson. We miss it very much,’ says Alina, getting ready once again for the train station. This time with the aim to reach Germany. 

Elena, 62

Among the women in the shelter in Przemysl is Elena, 62 years old and from Marhanets - not far from Zaporizhzhia – along with her daughter and two grandchildren. The two boys are four and 11 years old. Elena has two sons as well, but they remain in Ukraine.

When the war broke out, Elena was alone, living by herself. She heard the shooting getting worse but did not want to leave. She continued clinging on to hope that the situation would improve. Soon after the war started, her neighbourhood was no longer safe. She heard shooting and shelling, and could not sleep at night.

‘My daughter eventually called me,’ Elena remembers. ‘She asked me to move to her place and said that this is serious, and it can become worse. You may be injured or impaired.’ Elena says that she resisted and did not want to leave home for a long time and continued to persuade herself.

‘I was praying,’ tells Elena. ‘My inner voice told me that the time has come, and I need to go to Zaporizhzhia. But the problem is that I had a job as a sanitary worker, but I had not worked long enough to be eligible to retire and to claim my right to pension.’

Air raid alarms and panic at night

But Elena left everything behind. In the part of Zaporizhzhia where her daughter lived, the safety situation soon worsened. It was also no longer safe for them to stay there. Elena recalls the sights and sounds of war - of destroyed houses and entire towns, and of bullets killing children. She tells how her grandchildren were getting more and more scared and panicking of all what was happening around them, especially when it was dark outside.

At night, the air raid alarms went on, warning people to hide, and soon after she could hear shooting or see buildings being hit even before the sirens would alert them of the danger.

The situation became unbearable just before they fled. She vividly remembers one explosion causing glass to splinter inside her son’s house and him shouting: ‘Mama, on the floor, quickly!’ She dropped to the floor so quickly that it hurt her knee. ‘I thought this was the end and that we would die.’

‘Outside, people were shouting and crying, houses were burning. It continued till the evening,’ tells Elena. Thinking back about her decision to flee, she says that people around her told of news that the threat would persist and that their city would be taken at any price. And so, she and her daughter had to make up their mind to stay or to leave. That was when they decided it was time to move quickly. 

Children at risk – and elderly falling victims of war

‘We were worried about the children. We don’t want them to grow up anxious and sick. We want them to look to the future and to believe in love.’ The war in Ukraine came right after the Covid-19 pandemic and children had been missing out of school for long. The smallest of Elena’s grandchildren had never attended kindergarten. ‘We want our new generations to become educated, to grow and turn into bright people,’ tells Elena about her hopes for the future. 

‘My daughter said: What are we waiting for?’ And when we were already on the train, I heard that the residential home for the elderly was shelled. There were many injured people at the train station that day in some special wagons dedicated to them.’ 

Safe spaces for women and children

When they arrived by train reaching the border town in Poland, Przemysl, the first people to help were the volunteers who found a place for them to stay. Women with children were given priority.

Elena says that Przemysl is quiet - but still, she cannot stop worrying. She sees though how one of her grandchildren has again started playing, and notices that her daughter looks calmer. ‘Before, she was so stressed that I could hardly recognise her. I also realise that I have forgotten when I slept the last time,’ says Elena about the past many months.

‘I would sleep maybe an hour or two. We needed to make sure that the kids got to sleep first. The situation at home was tense, and we all were under so much pressure. It even seemed that my daughter’s family was about to divorce. All I could do was to ask them to stop, and to remind us all that we are anxious and affected by the war.’ 

Elena and her daughter are now planning to find an interim place for the four of them to settle for some time. They don’t know yet where they will go. All they hope for is that it will be a good place for the children, and somewhere that allows for them to finally start going to the kindergarten and school as long as they are away from home in Ukraine. 

*Names changed

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