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Poland's capital straining under weight of more than 300,000 refugees fleeing war in Ukraine

The arrival in Warsaw of more than 300,000 refugees from Ukraine has caused an almost 20 per cent spike in the city's population of roughly 1.8 million and spurred warnings from the mayor of Poland's capital that services are stretched dangerously thin.

Warsaw's mayor warns that services, volunteers, housing are stretched to the limit

Refugees who fled Ukraine following Russia's invasion on Feb. 24 wait in a long line outside the National Stadium in Warsaw on Saturday to obtain a Polish national identification number. More than 300,000 people fleeing Ukraine have come to Warsaw — causing an almost 20 per cent spike in the city's population of roughly 1.8 million. (Maciek Jazwiecki/Agencja Wyborcza.pl/Reuters)

The jigsaw puzzle depicting ferocious dinosaurs, which sits half-finished on the dining table, serves as a bridge between a Polish couple and the Ukrainian family they are hosting.

In the small apartment in central Warsaw, they converge at the table at all hours to work on the puzzle over and over again. It has a calming effect on Yaroslava Shumyk's young children, Sviatoslav, 3, and two-year old Mia, who hastily escaped from their home in Kyiv as Russian shelling started pounding the outskirts of Ukraine's capital.

"I said that bad guys have come to our country and they are making our home unsafe," Shumyk told her children in explaining why the family was forced to leave.

They're among the more than 300,000 people fleeing the war in Ukraine who have made their way to Warsaw in just a few short weeks — causing an almost 20 per cent spike in the city's population of roughly 1.8 million and spurring warnings from the mayor of Poland's capital that services are stretched dangerously thin.

'It was like a bad movie for us'

Housing is becoming increasingly scarce, volunteers are worn out and schools are struggling to accommodate the influx of new students.

"We're doing our best, but 300,000 people in a matter of two and a half weeks is really a lot," Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said in an interview with CBC News, adding that city officials have been largely improvising in their efforts to accommodate the flood of refugees.

"We need help now, and we need help which is synchronized and organized by the whole Western community."

More than two million people from Ukraine have crossed the border into Poland, with the United Nations Refugee Agency estimating that a majority of them have stayed in the country, which is geographically close and culturally similar to its neighbour.

A crowd of refugees from Ukraine waits at the central railway station in Warsaw on Sunday. Warsaw's mayor says some 30 refugee centres across the city are at or near capacity, and about 40 per cent of those now arriving in Poland's capital need assistance finding accommodation. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

According to Warsaw's mayor, some 30 refugee centres across the city are at or near capacity, and about 40 per cent of those now arriving in Poland's capital need assistance finding accommodation.

Hundreds of Poles have offered space in their homes, including Shumyk's hosts, Marta Maleszewska and her husband, Lukasz Maleszewski.

"Marta and Lukasz, they opened their hearts to us," Shumyk, 39, told CBC News on Sunday, two days after she and her children arrived at the home. "We feel it from the first second, and kids feel it, too."

Still, the two toddlers cling to their mother, shy and unsure of their new surroundings, while Shumyk tries to create a sense of normalcy far from home.

Yaroslava Shumyk, centre, with two-year-old Mia, left, and Sviatoslav, 3. The family from Kyiv escaped the war in Ukraine and is staying in Warsaw at the home of a couple who volunteered to take them in. Her husband had to stay behind because fighting-age Ukrainian men are not able to leave the country. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

"He's very close to his father," Shumyk said, referring to Sviatoslav, as she recalls how emotional her young son was at leaving his father behind at the train station in Kyiv, in the early days of the war. Fighting-age Ukrainian men are not able to leave the country.

"He was crying, 'Daddy, Daddy,'" she told CBC News, in barely more than a whisper as she wiped away tears. "I knew that it will be for a very long time that I will not have an answer on when he will see him."

The chaos of that day weighs on her. "It was really a mess," Shumyk said. "It was like a bad movie for us," because everybody was running for the train and unsure of where she and her children would land.

They ended up in Warsaw, and now she's trying to pick up the pieces of her life with the help of her hosts.

'We wanted to help as much as we could,' says Marta Maleszewska, left. She and her husband, Lukasz Maleszewski, are hosting Shumyk and her two children in their Warsaw apartment. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

"Having the history like Poland has, knowing a lot about what happened to people at World War Two, we sympathized immediately," Maleszewska said, when asked why she and her husband decided to invite a family into their home.

"We wanted to help as much as we could."

Long lines outside Canadian Embassy

Volunteers, some of whom have taken weeks off work to provide 24/7 assistance, are handing out food and toys to the refugees who arrive at Warsaw's central train station.

But they can't do much to alleviate the long lineups stretching outside the entrance to a giant stadium — a portion of which has been commandeered to serve as a documentation processing facility, where the newly arrived refugees can apply for the Polish identity papers that will allow them to start their new lives.

Refugees who fled the war in Ukraine wait outside the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw for biometric appointments. Officials have dispatched mobile biometric kits to collect fingerprints and other data needed to issue visas for refugees, an attempt to reduce red tape. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The ID cards are needed to apply for work, receive health care and enrol in school for the next 18 months.

The crowds to get the cards are so big that it takes a full day of waiting outside before refugees receive a wristband that ensures when they return the following day, they can proceed directly inside to wait in yet another line for their documents to be processed.

There are also long lines outside the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw, where officials have dispatched mobile biometric kits to collect fingerprints and other data needed to issue visas for Ukrainian refugees, an attempt to reduce red tape.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), there are more than 1,000 biometric appointments a day in Warsaw alone. The IRCC is operating at a capacity to complete about 14,000 biometric appointments weekly at 13 centres in Europe, including Poland, Romania, Austria and Moldova.

WATCH | Resources in Warsaw strained as Ukrainian refugees flood city:

Ukrainian refugees flood Warsaw, straining resources

11 months ago
Duration 2:33
Warsaw is struggling to handle an influx of Ukrainian refugees, with the city’s mayor pleading for help from countries such as Canada.

The average wait time for an appointment is two to four days, and biometric screening results are available roughly 48 hours after completion.

But that pace is not fast enough for many waiting in line, even those who have booked appointments.

Mayor calls for more help from West

Sergiy Yakovenko, who is originally from Ukraine but now lives in West Virginia, travelled to Poland to accompany his niece and sister-in-law, who escaped from Kharkiv and want to come to Canada.

Yakovenko, whose elderly parents are applying to go to the United States with him, expressed surprise at the lack of information about the process.

Sergiy Yakovenko, right, who is originally from Ukraine and now lives in West Virginia, travelled to Warsaw to accompany his niece, Daria Yakovenko, 15, centre, and sister-in-law, Olha Kumeiko, who want to come to Canada. They escaped from the embattled city of Kharkiv, in Eastern Ukraine. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

"We saw this huge line and a lot of chaos up front where people are trying to cut in because, you know, livelihood is at stake," he said. "I was just thinking, hold on, we should be able to do a bit better," particularly as the refugees have already escaped an intensely stressful situation.

Warsaw's mayor insisted more help is needed from Western countries, including Canada.

"I've talked to [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau myself when he was in Warsaw, and he promised support, and I know that Canada is open to Ukrainian refugees," Trzaskowski said on Monday.

"So I welcome that, and I would simply say as quickly as possible and with minimum red tape."

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski talks to journalists on March 14. Trzaskowski says the city is becoming overwhelmed as it accepts a large number of refugees fleeing war in Ukraine. More than two million people from Ukraine have crossed the border into Poland, and the United Nations estimates that a majority have stayed in the country. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

Whatever red tape she encounters, Yaroslava Shumyk, still reeling from the shock of the Russian invasion of her country, said she's prepared to deal with it.

"I saved my babies. Now I need to make the other step: how to live, what to earn, to find a job."

But that task, of rebuilding life in a new country, is far easier, she said, than living in constant fear of shelling.

"It's not the rocket [attacks] that I can't control," Shumyk said. "I can solve this."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Salimah Shivji

Journalist

Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.

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