'We think about home everyday': On the ground with Ukraine's refugees

Tetiana Misiuk and Olena Fedosieieva tell the story of how they wound up in Warsaw with the rehearsed reserve that comes with reliving a trauma over and over.

They recount how they first met five years ago while working in a Polish supermarket, similar to the one they would end up sleeping in after it was converted into a temporary shelter.

Tetiana calmly narrates fleeing her home in Mykolaiv, her brief stay in Denmark (too cold even for a Ukrainian), how there was no water, gas or electricity once the battle for the city began and how people died cowering in the cellar of a school in her family’s village when it was struck by a missile.

Her tone doesn’t shift when she tells me how her father and husband are still there, just a short drive from the frontline where Ukrainian forces are pinning Russian troops back around Kherson, living under the daily threat of air strikes.

Nor does her voice waver when she speaks of a young relative who is so harrowed by the fighting that they will no longer leave the house.

Olena adopts the same studied calm as she details how her city of Kryvyi Rih was attacked on the first day of the February invasion, rockets wiping out its airport and communications infrastructure.

She managed to hold out until March 10, by which point her neighbourhood was pockmarked with seven metre-deep craters, but fled to Lviv when it became too dangerous.

On the day she arrived to what was meant to be a safer area, Olena says without flinching, 33 people were killed by bombs and so she pressed on to Poland, where she and Tetiana are now among the more the 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees registered in the country.

It is only when they leave the confines of their practiced stories – asked how much they miss home, how much they think about going back – that emotion intrudes and the facade breaks down.

‘Very, very much’, Olena says via a translator as Tetiana walks to the corner of the room and hides the fit of tears which has suddenly gripped her.

‘We think about going home every day, about how we will return, every single day.

‘We can’t think about anything else.’

They are both Russian speakers, the sort of people the Kremlin wants the world to believe it is ‘liberating’.

For Olena, ‘home’ is the same city as it is for president Volodymyr Zelensky, a detail she brims with pride revealing, her smile putting the lie to Vladimir Putin’s myth that he and he alone speaks for the country’s Russian-speaking minority.

They are sitting in the nerve centre of the United Nations Refugee Agency’s operation in Warsaw, a support service that has helped more than 200,000 people fleeing Ukraine already.

More than four million people have crossed into the country since February 24, around a quarter of whom are still there, with the rest moving on to other countries or having already returned.

They are part of the largest and most sudden movement of people in Europe since the Second World War, one Poland has bore the brunt of.

In a nondescript building close to centre of the Polish capital, they queue every day to receive the help they direly need.

Of the more than 220,000 people who have received emergency monthly payments of £130, women and children make up 96% of the total.

UN staff, some with experience working on the Syrian refugee crisis, offer support on everything from healthcare and transport to getting kids enrolled in schools and finding a place to stay.

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A daily part of the challenge, according Babiche Routledge, a half-British lawyer drafted in from The Hague to work at the facility, is to see beyond the battle-hardened fronts of people like Olena and Tetiana and provide mental health support to those covering an inner turmoil.

She says: ’We see the whole range of cases and try to provide a safe space for people.

‘We try to be open to anyone who needs help or counselling.

‘When people arrive, our social workers ask welcoming questions so people can let that guard down and we can see if there are more complex issues we need to address.’

She is endlessly impressed by the toughness of the people who come through the centre, she says, especially the youngest ones who make new friends in the creche while their parents queue to receive support.

‘You can see it in the children’, Babiche says, ‘they are so resilient – you can even see it in the way they play with the others’.

Remarkably, the process of settling the influx of people in Warsaw, which caused the city’s population to swell by 15% at its height, has been ‘pretty seamless’.

Babiche says the ‘huge outpouring’ of care from Poles has made it possible, adding: ‘People are still coming here to ask what they can do [to help], you can still feel it.’

But with a war the Kremlin envisioned being over in a week now settled into a grinding stalemate with no end in sight, Europe is having to ask the question about how to manage the situation over the months and possibly years ahead.

While many Ukrainians from the west and Kyiv have started to return, that is a long way off for many like Tetiana and Olena (there’s ‘no way home’, the former says, it’s ‘almost impossible’).

‘We’re at an interesting juncture’, Babiche observes.

‘People are staying with host families, it’s been three months and, as with any refugee situation, people are looking for durable solutions.

‘It’s clear that not everything can be left to individuals. This is why international support is needed in the long term.’

For now, the solution for Warsaw’s Ukrainian diaspora is to take each day of their new lives as they come, carving out a temporary existence with the help of organisations like the UN and the generosity of Polish families.

‘There’s a sense of hope around the place’, Babiche says, the centre still buzzing with people even as it prepares to close for the day.

‘The cash programme is important and allows people to be the author of their story again, to get some independence back.

‘We’re here to get people back on two feet and help them with that first step.

‘And we can take the burden off, even if it’s just for a moment.’

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