Ukrainian refugees still finding refuge in Poland after 18 months of war

Ukrainian refugees still finding refuge in Poland after 18 months of war

RZESZOW, Poland — Valentina Maievska lost everything last year when the Russian military laid siege to Mariupol, the eastern Ukrainian city where she lived for 40 years.

But even as she describes her harrowing escape from the siege that Red Cross officials characterized during the initial months of the war as “apocalyptic,” Ms. Maievska remains defiant.

“I want very much to go back,” the 65-year-old said inside a Caritas Catholic charity center in Rzeszow, a city 60 miles inside Poland that has taken in tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and where Ms. Maievska has been living since March 2022, a month after the war started.

“I was very scared. We were cooking on fire, everything in one pot,” she said of the violence and chaos that befell Mariupol the month before she fled for Poland. “There was no way to wash. We had no electricity. No water.”

For 10 days she huddled with others in the basement of a building in the center of Mariupol while images spread across media around the world showing scores of Russian missile strikes pounding civilian apartments in the city.

The images were undergirded by accusations from Ukrainian authorities that Russian forces had deliberately engineered a humanitarian crisis in Mariupol, where as many as 25,000 civilians are reported to have been killed.

By chance, said Ms. Maievska, she made it out through a precarious humanitarian corridor set up by United Nations workers last March. It was a treacherous journey that she said nearly ended in catastrophe when Russian forces targeted the corridor.

“Bombs fell down on the Red Cross nearby,” she told a group of international journalists at the Aid, Activation and Integration Center for Ukrainian Refugees overseen by the Rzeszow Catholic Diocese. The journalists visited the center recently on a Polish Foreign Ministry-sponsored trip to Rzeszow.

“I’ve lived in a flat here for more than a year now for free,” said Ms. Maievska. “I thank the Polish people for helping us.”

She’s just one of more than a million Ukrainian refugees living in Poland, a NATO ally of 38 million people where the impact of the war next door is palpable.

For local officials in Podkarpackie province, which encompasses Rzeszow and other cities along the border, the mission of helping the mainly women, children and elderly refugees has been a source of pride, but also a sobering window into the horrors experienced by innocent lives torn apart by the war.

One official told The Washington Times of an unsettling turn of events at a summer camp the provincial government set up recently for children brought to the Rzeszow area from towns across Ukraine for a few weeks of positivity and respite from the war.

After sports, crafts and other activities, counselors gathered a group of teens on the final day of the camp to celebrate the birthday of a participant. A cake was prepared and the party was set for a heartfelt moment as the 15-year-old called it the “happiest day of his life,” the official said.

But the moment was heartbreaking because counselors received news just as the party started that the teen’s father was killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine. “They couldn’t tell him his father had died,” the official said, explaining that “a decision had been made to wait until his mother arrived to pick him up after the party.”

Similarly wrenching stories swirl inside an airplane hangar at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, where a makeshift hospital run by the Polish Center for International Aid aids Ukrainians.

The center has managed more than 1,150 patient evacuations from the war zone the past year, handling everything from military casualties to civilians injured by missile strikes and even child cancer patients struggling to receive treatment in Ukrainian hospitals.

“Patients from Ukraine are coming here, and we are preparing them to travel for further treatment,” said Mateusz Siojanowicz, 34, the center’s medical coordinator.

“We have Norwegian flights, Spanish flights. Also, the Czech Republic is sending aircraft here to pick up the patients and take them for further treatment,” he said.

In addition to entering hospitals in other European countries, patients reach facilities in the United States, Israel, Japan, Australia and Mexico. While they’re at the airplane hangar in Rzeszow, Mr. Siojanowicz said, the sense of relief often is as present as the trauma they’re enduring.

“Here’s the first place after a long, long time where they have normal sleep, normal food,” he said, adding that it’s a place where they can “talk normally, as they know that this night there’s going to be no rocket attack.”