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Poland: Coping with displacement and being away from Ukraine

Of the millions of people who have fled from Ukraine since February 2022, many have arrived in neighbouring Poland via the small border crossing town, Prezmysl. Once they set foot on Polish soil, new struggles begin – this time, with finding shelter and ways to cope with displacement.

Posted on 08 Nov 2023

Crossing into Poland and arriving in Prezmysl is a well-known lifeline to get to safety and away from hostilities in some parts of Ukraine. In the early stages of the war, millions crossed into Poland in search of refuge and protection, and without knowing where to go and what will be next. As many other countries in Europe, Poland offers temporary protection and along with that access to public services, financial support and other types of critical assistance. Some wish to travel on in Poland or beyond, while a smaller number decide to stay in the vicinity of the border and as close to home as possible. 

"I was hesitating for long and hoping for things to change so that I could stay at home," tells Anna*, 73, who arrived in Poland on 5 January 2023. ‘It was already eight years since we had become used to everyday life being restricted and tense in this area that was not being controlled by the Government of Ukraine since 2014. There had been no attacks or missiles during all that time,’ she tells. "But that changed all of a sudden on the 24 February 2022."  

Before Anna decided to abandon her home and leave behind everything she knew, she had endured months without steady electricity, heating, or running water. It all became unbearable during the coldest winter months. Then shelling came closer to her neighbourhood and hit her block. When her home was shelled and destroyed beyond repair, it was time for her to leave.  

Along with many others from the region, Anna was eventually evacuated by the Ukrainian army, then went by train from the furthest eastern to western Ukraine, and from there onwards by bus to Poland. As she crossed the border and got out at the station, she was suddenly on her own. 

"I remember standing there, not knowing what was next. There were some people coming to help me as we got out. I don’t move about much, only slowly and with a walking stick. But then they offered to carry my bags and take me to a safe place nearby," Anna says. The memory makes her cry and smile, relieved that she managed the escape and long journey, but sad as she is missing her home in Donetsk.  

Information and shelter 

Prezmysl is located at a strategic and key location in terms of access from Ukraine to Poland and vice versa. Before the war, this was also a place visited by many Polish tourists traveling into Ukraine to visit Lviv, a city with strong historical, architectural, and cultural ties between the two countries. Today, those traveling back from Poland are Ukrainians on their way to visit family members who stayed behind, or some wanting to take stock of their homes and belongings, or the still relatively few who have decided to return home after spending time and depleting savings during their displacement abroad. 

Ukrainians arriving in Poland for the first time, often get off the trains or buses in Prezmysl, to seek information about their rights and opportunities, and logistics in terms of moving further ahead in the country or abroad.  

"It is a critical location and DRC has set up an office here at the border to make sure that we can both offer direct assistance, but also support local organisations and grassroot initiatives that are working often with volunteers and little means," says Helena Lassen, DRC Country Director for Poland, Moldova, and Romania.  

DRC established presence in Prezmysl in April 2023, and is part of the UNHCR Blue Dot Centres in the town and right at the border crossing, functioning as information hubs where refugees can seek advice and find tangible help. 

Many arrive with little or nothing and need a place to stay for a start, some just for days and some for a longer term. Others need medical aid, psychological support, travel documents and legal aid.  

Displacement within and from Ukraine

More than more than one in four of the population of 44 million in Ukraine prior to February 2022, are believed to be displaced within the country or across borders.

It is estimated that over five million people are displaced within Ukraine and with additional 6,217,800 persons globally registered as refugees from Ukraine of whom the vast majority (5,861,300) are in Europe.

By now, Poland is the country hosting the largest number of Ukrainian refugees with nearly one million people from Ukraine with active registrations for Temporary Protection (July 2023). 

High school dormitory, now refugee shelter 

During the first months of the war, the border town and train station of Prezmysl was overwhelmed with the number of arrivals and to find ways to support people exhausted and traumatised by the journeys and ordeals they have gone through.  

Many wanted to travel onwards but the need for short term local shelter space rapidly increased. That was when local authorities decided to explore alternative options. In a nearby town within half an hour’s reach by train from Przemyśl, was an abandoned high school dormitory. The former students had since long preferred to study in bigger cities and the grounds and buildings stood back empty as evidence of their move.

This is where a shelter was later established and where close to 50 people stayed. Anna from Donetsk was one of them and had been there since January 2023 although the place was initially intended as a shelter offering housing for up to three months. But Anna, like many elderly and vulnerable Ukrainians who have become refugees, do often not have the capacity or economy to move on and explore other options.

'My son is the only family I have, but I am not sure where he is. All I hope for is to be able to reunite with him sooner rather than later,’ tells Anna.

She has problems walking and cannot move around too far or too fast. With the memories of the ordeals from her escape in January 2023 still in fresh memory, she is not sure about how to be able to travel for days and to find the energy and courage to venture into what is once more the unknown as she is not even sure that there will be anything to return to in Donetsk.    

Another family who lived at the former dormitory is a mother (29) of three children aged 7, 9, and 11 years. They left their home in Ukraine on 15 March 2022, three weeks after the war broke out, and have been in the shelter near Przemyśl since August 2022.

As all Ukrainians registered for Temporary Protection in Poland, they are entitled to access to health care, social services and benefits at the same level as Polish citizens. This gives them a basis for surviving along with living at the shelter where they are hosted for free and receive daily meals with breakfast and lunch served there.

It is difficult to make ends meet and to establish herself and the children in their new interim home on Poland:

“I have been working a lot since I found a job at a local meat packing factory close to here. It helps us cope with the challenges and mixed emotions, having something to do. We are a group of women helping each other looking after the children, so that we can take daytime jobs and make a living and make ends meet while we are here. My current job at the meat packing factory is a 12-hour shift. But now, I found a new job with a tailor which will be only 8 hours per day. That’s much better and will allow me to spend more time with my children who are also struggling to find their feet in this new environment, far from their friends and school and all that they used to know and to love.”

The shelter for Ukrainian refugees at the dormitory in Radymno was closed in September. People who stayed there have been transferred to an accommodation centre in Jaroslaw, some rented apartments close to Radymno and others moved to other refugee accommodation centres further away and outside the Podkarpacie Region.


*Names changed to protect the identity of the persons interviewed 

DRC activities in Poland since the Ukraine displacement crisis are funded by UNHCR



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