'There is no time to grieve': Ukrainian refugees arriving in Warsaw focus on helping each other

More than 1.6 million people have fled Ukraine for Poland since Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24. Many are spending their time helping each other amid an uncertain future.

More than 1.6 million people have fled Ukraine for Poland since Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine began

The Bolshova family passes the time with a puzzle in their small room at a Warsaw convent that is serving as their temporary home. They fled Kyiv on Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

Olga Bolshova gestures around a small room in Warsaw crammed with three beds, a table and a small fridge. This is a temporary home for her, her husband Sergei and her daughters Ivannka, 15, and seven-year-old Stephania, who fled Kyiv the day Russia invaded Ukraine. 

"We have everything we need," she said in English with a smile.

The room is inside a convent where the high stone walls still bear shrapnel marks from the Second World War bombing. The nuns had a spare guest room and offered it to the family.

"The Polish people have been very kind since minute one," said Olga's husband Sergei in English.

The Bolshovas are among the 1.6 million fleeing Ukraine who have arrived in Poland as refugees. Their stressful journey has been punctuated by such acts of kindness. Rather than focusing on the uncertainty of their situation, they are spending their time helping other refugees like them, paying back the kindness they've experienced. 

The family originally left their home to stay with Olga's parents in a small Ukrainian village 300 kilometres west. But air sirens soon started and they all wound up hiding in the basement. The tension and fear were too much for Stephania, who has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Olga and Sergei, who adopted Stephania as a baby, decided their daughter's health came first and kept going. They headed for Poland.

"She was the reason we were so quick to leave Ukraine … we left for her, she could not tolerate that tension." said Sergei. "She was losing her ability to speak."

Sergei originally planned to see his family cross the border into Poland and then head back to Kyiv, where he works in sales for a financial products company. Ukrainian martial law requires men of fighting age to stay in the country. But it also allows primary caregivers of disabled children to travel with them, so Sergei left the car at the border and stepped into the unknown with his family.

Refugees helping each other

"There is this narrative in our society [that men should fight]  but my wife needs me and in the long perspective my kids need me," he said. "Who I am living this for if not my family?"

The Bolshovas list off the many acts of kindness they've received since that day. They include the border guard who gave Stephania some gloves, the man who drove them in his own car to Warsaw, the family they stayed with for a few days, and now the nuns who offered them shelter in the convent.

"When I just came I noticed how hospitable Polish people were to us," said Olga. 

That is helping the Bolshova family find their way in the confusing and exhausting new existence as refugees.

As a first step, Olga is volunteering at a women's social action group to help other refugees arriving in Warsaw.

"There is no time to grieve. I am here in this moment. I just want to be useful," she said. "If I can go and help Ukrainians I will do that. There is no time for thinking and grieving." 

The Arena Ursynow refugee centre run by the City of Warsaw. More than 2,700 refugees have come through here since it opened March 1. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

But many arrive without realizing there is a long road ahead, according to Tomas Pactwa, who is in charge of the Warsaw's Social Affairs Department. The municipal government has set up a refugee centre at Arena Ursynow, a local sports venue.

"'OK we are going back after the war, so we are looking for a place for one weeks or two weeks,' that's their perspective of the war," he said. 

"They don't want to have any serious plans." 

The Arena Ursynow refugee centre serves about 400 people a day, most of them families with children. Many initially struggle to understand long-term implications of their situations, according to one local offical. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

'We lost everything'

But then Pactwa says the reality soon hits — they aren't going home for a long time.

"Usually it changes after a day. They have the space to think, look through the internet and speak with families and relatives. Then they start to think about children … so they  think about schools, nurseries, preschool and obviously a job, but that is the next step," said Pactwa.

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More than 2,700 refugees have stayed at the refugee centre since it opened March 1. It sleeps and feeds about 400 a day. Volunteers are helping Ukrainians settle in, providing them with donated clothing, medical care and advice.

"It's a trauma. You are living in good conditions … you've got plans for your life and suddenly war comes and you have to escape," said Pactwa.

"You're looking for friends, anything just to settle down to wait for a while. It's classical trauma, I'd say."

Plans to one day reach Canada

Olena Rasskazova has experienced something very much like that as she tries to think about the future. She's staying at the refugee centre along with her family —  husband Alexandre, and her three children, Jacob 14, Eva, 8, Sophia, 3, and their two dogs.

"I don't know what I will do because our situation is very tiring, Rasskazova said in French, her second language.

"We came from Kyiv there were bombs on our house and we lost everything."

The Rasskazova family, from left to right: Alexandre holding Sophia, 3, Jacob, 14, Olena, Eva, 8, and dogs Zephyr and Barney. They hope to reach Canada one day after leaving Ukraine. (Margo McDiarmid)

Rasskazova's job in Kyiv was helping immigrants. She's now hoping to use that skill to help her family move to Canada.

"I know there are programs in Canada for Ukrainians. I hope to get the documents and go to Canada," she said.

That is going to take some time, and the Rasskazovas are struggling to find a more permanent place to live.

"At this moment I don't know what to do. We are in the process of finding an apartment but lots of people say — we are a family with five people and two dogs — they say 'Oh la la, I don't know,' " said Rasskazova.

So the family remains at the refugee centre hoping local volunteers can help them find a place.

In the meantime the members of the Bolshova family are staying busy to take their minds off the long-term challenges.

The Bolshova family, from left to right: Olga, Sergei, Stephania, 7, Ivannka, 15. ( Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

Sergei is still working remotely, using Warsaw's stable internet to help his co-workers in Kyiv keep their company operating.

Olga hopes to continue the NGO she founded to help families with children affected by FASD, and 15-year old Ivannka is taking online typing lessons.

Olga says the stress from their sudden flight has eased a bit and Stephania is adjusting well. 

"We tell her we are on a family adventure together," said Olga. "She's happy. She keeps asking if the next place that we stay at will have a dog."


Margo McDiarmid is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Warsaw, Poland. She worked for CBC for more than 30 years.

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