Among the Refugees in Warsaw

Photographs by Marcus Glahn

On February 24, within hours of the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Karolina Lewestam and her husband, Jakub Fast, saw on social media that Ukrainians were arriving at bus and train stations in Warsaw with no idea where they would sleep.

Without even pausing to discuss it, the couple—a writer and a banker—jumped into group chats with neighbors whom they had never met and started plotting to exchange mattresses and other supplies, as they all rushed to prepare spare bedrooms and sofas. A few days later, at about 2 a.m., a van pulled up outside their historic home in an affluent neighborhood, and 10 people climbed out, including a 6-year-old boy carrying a stuffed cat. “I wanted to cry when I saw that,” Karolina recalled. “I just thought about what you choose to bring with you when you are packing in a hurry to run out of your home. That’s what he chose.”

In just a few months, Ukraine has become the epicenter of one of the largest human displacements in the world. As of late April, an estimated 7.7 million residents have relocated within the country and another 5.6 million have crossed international borders.* Most of those, at least for now, are in Poland. In a politically divided nation that is typically hostile toward refugees, hundreds of thousands of Polish people moved in astonishing unison following the Russian invasion, upending their lives in order to house, feed, and clothe traumatized Ukrainians. The display of generosity stood out from other mass-migration events I’ve covered.

But by the time I met Karolina and other Polish hosts, in late March, they were exhausted. They had missed work and lost sleep, and were stressed about the strain that caring for Ukrainians was putting on their dwindling bank accounts. (They were also wondering whether their own country would be Putin’s next target.) Many of them were ruminating over the same question—one they were gingerly trying to broach with their guests: When would they be leaving?

When I arrived in Poland, Nikita, the boy with the stuffed cat, and his mother, Irina Sytnik, who had worked as a taxi driver in Ukraine, were struggling. Nikita was waking up in the middle of the night calling out for his father, Ruslan, who had stayed in Ukraine to fight. Irina sobbed as she recalled the moment the bus carrying her and Nikita pulled away from Lviv while Ruslan waved goodbye to them, unsure whether they would see each other again. “We had no words in that moment,” she told me, through a translator.

A small blond boy in striped shirt sits on a blonde woman's lap
Irina Sytnik and her son, Nikita, in the Warsaw home of the Polish family that has taken them in (Marcus Glahn for The Atlantic)

Nikita was also acting out—something he’d never done before the war—and had already been expelled from a private kindergarten for being too aggressive. Now the administrators of a second school said he was kicking and biting other children and asked that he be taken to a psychologist. “He’s frustrated because he can’t communicate with other people, because he doesn’t speak Polish,” Irina told me. “I feel the same way.”

Irina had challenges beyond just navigating the language barrier in a new country. The job she had found in Warsaw required a two-hour commute by bus and on foot that left her depleted at the end of each day. But under emergency legislation passed in the Polish Parliament after the war started, incoming Ukrainians must apply for a national identity number in order to access social services, a process that requires them to visit government offices, where hours-long queues form daily. One afternoon, while trying to complete the process, Irina and Nikita got lost, with only $10 remaining of the $300 they’d brought with them when they crossed the border. A police officer found them sitting on a public bench, both of them in tears, and gave them a ride back to Karolina’s house.

Ukrainians have been wedged into every corner of Warsaw—bunking not just in private homes, but in offices, sports stadiums, schools, nightclubs, and art galleries. Many of those I met had the same expression on their faces: eyebrows fixed halfway up their foreheads, as though still in disbelief about the events that had chased them from their homes and landed them here.

[In Focus: Ukrainian refugees say goodbye to home and family members]

Marina Konpakova, a single mother of three daughters, ages 5, 11, and 14, is staying in a spare room on the second floor of an opera house that’s part of the Palace of Culture and Science, a massive Stalinist building in the center of town. The family had hoped to remain in their apartment in Zaporizhzhia, three hours from the devastated port city of Mariupol. But when an airport nearby was bombed, the apartment shook, waking Marina in the middle of the night. Then the building managers turned off the electricity, to hide the fact that people were living there. This required everyone to walk down nine flights of stairs every few hours when air-raid sirens drove them to the basement, because they couldn’t use the elevator. Eventually, she gave up and packed a bag in the dark. On their way out of Ukraine, they passed scorched fields and homes that had been blasted apart by Russian ordnance.

Cramming themselves into an airless train car heading toward the Polish border, Marina’s daughters cried hysterically. “I think they were in shock,” she told me. When I visited their makeshift apartment, the 11-year-old stood silently in the bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror with her hands on her face. The 14-year-old sat wrapped in a comforter on a mattress on the floor, seemingly oblivious to my presence.

Marina was initially scared to come to Warsaw, “but now, half of my city is here,” she said. The theater employees who had set up the family’s accommodations had suggested that perhaps I would be able to figure out how long they planned to stay there. When I asked, Marina replied, “They said to stay as long as I need,” adding, “No one gave me a deadline.”

Agnieszka Kosowicz, the president of the board of the Polish Migration Forum, an NGO that helps foreigners integrate into Polish society, is concerned about the sustainability of the Polish response to Ukrainians. “There are hundreds of thousands of people that have invited refugees to their homes, and on the one hand this is all very optimistic and sounds good,” she told me, “but on the other hand I think it’s like sitting on a ticking bomb because, being a human being, you know that you cannot host guests forever.” Even if they had the will and the patience, some Poles simply don’t have the resources to sustain their initial levels of generosity. Magda Mlotkowska, who was housing 13 Ukrainians, told me that her family’s resources were thinning, with three boys of their own to care for. To help cover her bills, she was applying for a government program that provides about $9 a day for every refugee hosted.

Kosowicz is also concerned about nonwhite immigrants to Ukraine. When the exodus began, Kosowicz’s organization started receiving reports of such people being beaten or harassed as they attempted to flee the country and enter Poland. Numerous videos of these encounters have circulated on the internet. Some Polish university dorms and stadiums have rejected refugees without Ukrainian passports, as have volunteer buses transporting people to other European countries farther west. Some Polish households have declined to take in nonwhite immigrants who fled Ukraine, or asked guests to leave after discovering that they were not ethnically Ukrainian.

2 photos: a tall, ornate building; a woman on mattress on floor by a dollhouse with small girl in lap, girl sitting on knees, and teenage girl reading
Left: The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, where Marina Konpakova and her daughters are living in a spare room on the second floor. Right: Marina with her three daughters, ages 5, 11, and 14. (Marcus Glahn for The Atlantic)

Even as Poland is welcoming millions of Ukrainians, Kosowicz noted, it is simultaneously blocking Syrian and Iraqi refugees, who are also fleeing violent conflicts, from entering the country through Belarus. The Polish government has justified this on the grounds that the refugees’ presence in Belarus was orchestrated by that country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko. A close ally of Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko is seeking to provoke Poland’s right-wing government by facilitating the movement of Middle Eastern migrants across the border. Polish media had just reported on a 20-year-old paralyzed Kurdish man, who was being carried by his family to the Polish border. Some groups have been sprayed with water cannons. More than a dozen people have frozen to death in the forest that stretches across the two countries. “What happens there is totally inhuman,” Kosowicz said.

[Anne Applebaum: Belarus manufactured a migrant crisis on Europe’s doorstep]

Even though Kosowicz speaks English, I had brought along my Polish translator, because I had gathered from previous interviews that the disparate treatment of refugees in Poland was a sensitive subject. I thought it would be useful for my translator to learn about the issue from a fellow Pole before I pulled her into further reporting on the subject. The plan backfired.

As soon as we started discussing “third-country nationals”—immigrants to Ukraine who were living there when the war began—the temperature in the room seemed to rise. “Most of those people, they want to go to Germany or more west,” the translator said, interrupting the interview. “And Germans might come with their buses and take those people, but they don’t want to.” Kosowicz pointed out that Germany had sent significant aid to human-rights groups helping migrants who do manage to cross into Poland from Belarus.

Kosowicz reiterated her point about third-country nationals: “It’s great, all this enthusiasm and eagerness to help. But for everybody here who is not Ukrainian—for the Afghans, for the Iraqis, for the Syrians, for the people from Yemen, where there is a war right now—for them, it’s difficult.” The translator interrupted again. “Maybe it’s difficult,” she said, “but I just think that [Ukrainians] are so culturally close to us; they are like brothers to us. Sometimes it’s natural, yes?”

Kosowicz’s eyebrows arched toward the ceiling.

Later that week, when I visited a hostel that was set up for third-country nationals fleeing Ukraine, I decided to go alone.

The hostel for third-country nationals and other vulnerable groups, such as children traveling without adult guardians, is on the industrial outskirts of Warsaw, in a building typically used as a dorm for kids’ sports camps. Since the war began, the facility has hosted refugees originally from 34 different countries, packed four to a room in twin-size bunk beds. It is run by the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia, which was established during the 1950s, under Communism. In a country where the Church has in recent years lobbied for aggressive anti-abortion and anti-gay legislation, the club stands out for its progressiveness.

In the hostel, I met Yasemin, a Turkish woman whose story is a kind of cautionary tale of how forced migration can leave successive generations of a family feeling less and less rooted in any one culture or place with every additional move.

Yasemin (who asked that I not print her last name, because she worried that it could affect her future immigration prospects) said that her relatives and ancestors had landed in Turkey because of conflicts in Crimea, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, and other places. She said she was raised in a household that was out of step with the surrounding culture’s social and religious expectations for women. She and her family were tired of the pressure to conform and the feeling that they didn’t fit in.

When the war began, she and her 9-year-old son, Berkin, had been living in Ukraine for nine months, along with an elder daughter who was studying at a university there; they were trying to establish residency for the family based on Yasemin’s partial Ukrainian ancestry. With their plans now upended, she said she would try their luck in Brussels, where, as new immigrants who don’t speak the language, they would have to rebuild their lives from scratch. “We have a saying in Turkey,” she said: “ ‘Geography is destiny.’ ”

I also met Nduka Edike, a 52-year-old Nigerian man who had lived in Ukraine for nearly 25 years, after immigrating to Kyiv as a university student. When his father died, he said, he could no longer pay for his education and dropped out of school. But by then he was dating a Ukrainian woman, whom he went on to marry and have two children with, so he continued living in the country. He and his wife divorced, but they remain friends and have been in daily contact since the war began. In Ukraine, Nduka cut timber, did landscaping, and bought old shoes and refurbished them to be resold at an outdoor market. “I do any job,” he told me.

2 photos: man sitting on lower bunk in hostel; medicines and ripped, dirty paper documents
Left: Nduka Edike, a Nigerian man who has lived in Ukraine for nearly 25 years, at a hostel for third-country nationals on the outskirts of Warsaw. Right: Nduka’s travel documents are covered in boot prints and are partially ripped; he says he was assaulted by a Ukrainian officer just before he entered Poland. (Marcus Glahn for The Atlantic)

Nduka said Ukrainians would frequently spit on him on the bus or yell at him, saying things like “Why did you come here?” In 2006, during a rash of violent attacks by skinhead youth groups, he said he was stabbed several times and spent a month in the hospital, part of it in a coma. A friend was killed in the same incident, but he stayed in the country for his children, who he said would have better opportunities there than in Nigeria, parts of which are burdened by terrorism and violent crime.

When Russia invaded, Nduka headed for the Polish border on a bus, but he was stuck living in a humanitarian camp nearby for six days, and at least once was blocked from crossing the border, according to American and British volunteers who tried to help him. United Nations employees eventually obtained emergency travel documents showing that he had been living in Ukraine. But while he waited, Ukrainian migrants yelled racial slurs at him constantly, he and the volunteers said. One man pointed his cellphone camera at Nduka and yelled, “Look, they taught the monkey to speak Ukrainian.”

Finally, border guards in both countries approved his documents. But just as he was about to cross into Poland, he said, he was stopped again, this time by a Ukrainian officer who took the documents and tried to destroy them. He said the officer hit him and kicked him in the knee. Volunteers observing the incident ran to alert the UN, which sent employees to help. Hours later, around midnight, Nduka finally crossed into Poland, escorted by volunteers who gave him pain medication for his injuries.

Nduka said the UN employees had warned him that he would likely not be allowed to stay in Poland. (Emergency legislation allowing Ukrainian citizens to remain in the country for 18 months affords people of other nationalities fleeing Ukraine only 15 days.) Instead, he will try his chances in Germany, which is generally considered to be more welcoming to nonwhite refugees. He is planning to learn German, to add to the Yoruba, English, Ukrainian, and Russian he already speaks.

“It won’t be that bad,” he said. “What else can I do?”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which had only about 10 staff members in Poland at the start of the war, has staffed up rapidly to distribute emergency cash and other services to what has quickly become one of the largest populations of refugees in the world.

[Caitlin Dickerson: America never wanted the tired, poor, huddled masses]

Andreas Kirchhof, a spokesperson for the agency who is based in Jordan and has previously been deployed to Burundi, South Sudan, and Lebanon, among other places, told me that the generosity of Polish people toward Ukrainian refugees does have precedent in other parts of the world. Middle Eastern and African countries have taken in millions of refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan, and the Central African Republic. But he cautioned that such responses don’t always last. “Over time, solidarity can diminish with some parts of the population.” At one point, a Polish taxi driver vented to me that she had no time to work, because she was helping a Ukrainian mother and three children who were staying with her get settled. “I have my life too,” she said.

“We know that our destinies are intertwined,” Karolina Lewestam had told me a few days earlier, speaking of the Ukrainians she has hosted. “There is a sense of companionship between the two nations when it comes to this journey toward freedom from Russia and its influence.” Several Polish hosts told me that they felt compelled to help Ukrainian refugees precisely because their presence was a reminder that Putin could threaten Poland next—that they, too, could soon be having to pack their bags to cross international borders. But by the end of my week in Warsaw, that abstract sense of solidarity seemed to be weakening in the face of practical challenges. After nearly a month, Irina was growing uncomfortable with the feeling that she was imposing on her host, and Karolina was weary from Nikita’s boundless energy, as well as her obligations to her own family and job.

A woman and child wearing parkas and holding hands walking along a dirt path with grass and buildings behind
After a day of work and kindergarten, Irina and Nikita commute back to the Warsaw home where they’re living.

Though Karolina’s husband had helped Irina find work cooking and cleaning in the cafeteria at the American School of Warsaw, a private English-language school that caters to the families of diplomats and international businesspeople, the position paid about $4 an hour, not enough to rent even a tiny apartment in Warsaw. It was not clear how long she and Nikita would remain living with the family. “She’s a working-class girl, so what can I do?” Karolina said.

Historically, the way a population treats refugees has frequently come down to whether citizens of the destination country see themselves in the newcomers, in terms of race, religion, class, or some other set of common affinities. Karolina had bonded more with the other refugees she’d taken in, Ukrainian professionals who have subsequently returned home or moved on to their own apartments.

As Karolina prepared for a dinner party for two of the Ukrainian women she had hosted earlier, I asked how she was doing. “I am weird,” she replied. “Everyone wants something from me, and I have nothing left to give.”

The group chat with her neighbors was still buzzing. “Mother with two children: daughter 18, son 10, looking for a place for 2/3 weeks,” one message said. “I think so, let me check,” another neighbor replied. It was like that constantly.

[Read: How can individual people most help Ukraine?]

If the patience of Polish citizens for their Ukrainian guests is wearing thin, refugees like Nduka and Yasemin never had access to those reserves of empathy in the first place. As someone who has covered refugee displacement in other places, I was struck by the contrast between Poland’s sudden and uncharacteristic embrace of Ukrainian refugees and the way most of the world’s displaced people—their numbers rising as a result of conflicts and climate change—are treated. Making my way around Warsaw, I frequently ran into volunteers from other countries, including the United States, who had dropped everything—some even quitting their jobs—to come and help Ukrainians. Though some presence of volunteers is typical during a migration crisis, their prevalence in Warsaw seemed far beyond the norm. This no doubt partly reflects the broader opposition to Putin’s incursions into democratic countries, as well as the fears about the conflict’s global implications, especially if it expands or escalates further. Even the casual use of the term refugee on the streets of Warsaw as a synonym for Ukrainian was noteworthy. In many places, displaced people are instead referred to as “illegal immigrants” or “economic migrants” by politicians and the media, which has been shown to affect how people think of them.

Ukrainians continue to arrive at the city’s busy train and bus stations daily, their eyes wide and teary from shock, their arms heavy with the weight of bags and pets and children, with no idea where they will sleep. But the influx of support for them from the Polish people means that most of their immediate needs are being met, at least for now. The new arrivals in Warsaw are typically greeted by volunteers who, within a few hours, match them with a family or hostel willing to house them. While they wait, they can visit stands that have been set up to distribute free Polish cellphone SIM cards (which are essential for people crossing borders who want to stay in touch with family), taxi vouchers, food for pets, professional counseling, and other services.

2 photos: 2 children do backbends while a third balances a ball on their nose in front of a wall covered with children's art; a wide view of a sports arena with cots on floor surrounded by seats
Top: A children’s play area at the Ptak Warsaw Expo’s refugee shelter. Bottom: The main hall at COS Torwar Arena, a sports venue now housing refugees. (Marcus Glahn for The Atlantic)

I visited a sports arena that had been retrofitted to accommodate up to 500 Ukrainian refugees. It had a day care staffed by volunteers and a cafeteria with a robust and varied buffet of hot meals, snacks, and beverages, as well as what was effectively a shopping mall full of free stuff: boxes of new socks; racks of jackets in all sizes; tall stacks of sheets, comforters, and towels; pajamas; shoes. The abundance was unlike anything I have seen while covering displaced people in the past. At camps alongside the U.S.-Mexico border, asylum seekers have at times lived for months exposed to the elements, with access only to a few reeking porta potties. Mothers have had to bathe their newborn babies with dirty water. Residents of these camps are routinely kidnapped and assaulted by gang members who control the surrounding area. Volunteer groups have organized for them to receive one or two meals a day—but at times, when funds run dry, there is no food at all. Though there is no such thing as a prototypical refugee experience, these conditions are much more common among displaced people.

[Caitlin Dickerson: What’s really happening at the border?]

According to the UNHCR, one in 97 people on the planet is currently displaced, including 35 million children. Nearly 90 percent of them live in developing countries. Ukraine is clearly one of the biggest displacement crises in the world, “but we should not forget that, still, displacement is primarily happening in the global South,” Andreas Kirchhof, the agency spokesperson, told me. “The world should definitely look at Ukraine, but should not forget Yemen, should not forget Congo, and should not forget Afghanistan and other major crises and the people who suffer from these crises.”

The war in Ukraine will help define our era, in that it represents a test of the principles of Western democracy. But it will also alter the trajectories, and immigration statuses, of millions of families for generations in ways that we can’t yet see. Being forced from one’s home causes irrevocable harm to anyone who experiences it, regardless of the kind of reception they meet in the places they land. Some find stability—and, if buffeted by the right passport, family connections, or luck, can even find greater prosperity. But that is no replacement for what they have lost. Far more displaced people, though, struggle to establish themselves in a new place, or find that they are unwelcome, so they have to keep moving in search of a new home.

This article appears in the June 2022 print edition with the headline “How Long Can This Go On?”

* This article has been updated to reflect the number of Ukrainians who were internally displaced and the number of Ukrainian refugees who had left the country as of late April.

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