Ukrainian Refugees See Light in Poland After Weeks in Brutal War Zone

As the war in Ukraine approaches the one-month mark, innocent civilians continue to be among those most shattered by Russia's devastating assault on their country. Millions of Ukrainians are displaced in their homeland; millions more have made the impossible decision to leave behind the life they once knew and seek refuge outside their country — to the west.

Those first moments on foreign soil are nostalgic — the suffering is not forgotten, but for the first time in weeks, there is also light.

"I remember our first morning in the hotel," Nenya, a Ukrainian refugee in Poland who asked that her full name not be shared, told Newsweek. "When we woke up, my son wanted to open the window. A flock of birds was flying."

In Poland, I remember the sun," she added. "I stopped noticing it in Ukraine."

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine under the guise of "peacekeeping duties."

In the weeks that have followed, Ukrainians have seen fires break out across the suburbs, heard rockets fall in neighboring cities, and felt the walls of their homes shake under the assault.

"We didn't know where to run or where to hide — we were scared," Nenya said. "We jumped out of bed many times at night, and in five seconds we were standing in winter clothes and shoes ready to run for the world at any moment."

Ukrainians have lived in a state of constant fear for weeks, always bracing for the next attack.

One such attack, Human Rights Watch reported, killed a man as he was waiting in line outside a supermarket. Another killed two people who had apparently just emerged from a shelter to seek water.

"When a rocket fell in a nearby yard and several cars exploded and windows in the houses were smashed, we realized that the war was near us," Nenya said. "We had to think about how to escape."

Severely damaging apartments, schools, hospitals, places of worship and shops, the ongoing assault against Ukraine has caused civilians to lose access to electricity and heat, and to face shortages of food, water and essential medicine.

As a result, millions are making the difficult decision to flee their homeland.

"People are leaving Kharkiv 'empty,'" a resident told Human Rights Watch. "They don't pack bags or take their things. They grab their documents and each other and they flee."

It is clear that people are now fleeing for their lives, Nancy Dent, global communications officer at International Rescue Committee who is currently based in Poland, told Newsweek.

Matthew Saltmarsh, head of News and Media at UNHCR, told Newsweek that nearly 3.5 million people have crossed borders to find safety — and more than two million of them have found refuge in Poland.

Nenya and her son are among those who packed what they could and set off for Ukraine's western border with Poland, more than 400 miles from their home in Kyiv. She hugged her husband, saying goodbye, not sure if she would ever see him again.

Upon reaching the border with Poland, she was overcome with emotion.

"My eyes wept, my heart wept, my soul was torn to pieces." Nenya said. "Watching as young men hug their young women, kissing their children maybe for the last time, how women were swallowing their tears, and children were asking, 'Dad, where are you going back to?' 'Why don't you come with us?' 'Mom, where is my dad?'"

Hundreds of people were crossing the border on foot. Nenya and her son, who crossed by train, were joined by hundreds of women and children making the same heartbreaking journey.

The combined speed and scale of this movement is unprecedented in recent memory, Saltmarsh said.

"In Ukraine, our priority has been to scale up our presence and operations in central and western regions," he said, "where conditions enable better humanitarian access and needs are rapidly growing as people evacuate west and move across borders."

In Poland, Saltmarsh said, UNHCR is focused on cross-border aid delivery, cash provision and broad protection activities with partners to help refugees.

"Yesterday I met a 17-year-old girl traveling with her mother, younger brother and 2-year-old sister," Dent said. "She described the moment when they decided to leave, after the airport near their home was bombed."

"Her sister had started to sleep with her eyes open, and she told me, 'she isn't behaving like a normal baby anymore,'" she said.

As the world watches this crisis continue to unfold, strangers are increasingly showing up to support Ukrainians amid the bloodshed.

When they arrive, refugees are met by volunteers who help carry their luggage and provide a hot meal and toys for children, Dent said. She added that many refugees have expressed immense gratitude for the warm welcome they have received in Poland.

A French man named Lilian Boulard made the 23-hour drive from Bordeaux, NPR reported, and is wearing a pirate hat and a flag as a cape as he hands out food to those in need.

Another woman, Daria Biestschasna, safely crossed the border from Ukraine into Poland and has come back to help others.

"I remember the first minutes on Polish soil," Nenya said. "I remember people that met us with huge dishes of food. It seems to me that I have never eaten such delicious soup in my life."

For close to a week now, Nenya and her son have woken up in a peaceful country. They go to a volunteer center to pack humanitarian aid to send back to Ukraine, Nenya works remotely and her son remains diligent in his studies.

But back home, the war is still raging, stealing innocent lives and destroying a beautiful country. And even across the border, the reminder of suffering is never far away.

Those crossing the border into Poland are no longer people who have escaped war, Olena Babakova, an expert in migration and Polish-Ukrainian relations, told openDemocracy. They are people who have experienced it.

"Again explosions, and again fear, and again pain in the heart." Nenya said. "In the end, I was so scared that for a moment it seemed to me that my death was not so terrible."

With their neighboring country in a state of crushing despair, the Poles have shown an overwhelming readiness to help in one of the world's worst refugee crises.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced 10 million people to flee their homes, either displaced inside the country or as refugees abroad, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Sunday. That number equates to nearly a quarter of the Ukrainian population.

"We do not want to be slaves in Russia," Nenya said. "We have a rich culture, language, history and traditions," Nenya said. "We love our beautiful country. We want to live in peace."

Ukraine Refugees in Poland March 7
Two children from Ukraine walk through a refugee camp at the Medyka Border Crossing in Poland on March 7, 2022. Francesco Pistilli for International Rescue Committee