World

Abandoned shopping mall offers sanctuary, friendship for Ukrainian refugees amid the fear

Food, shelter and essential supplies are available at a former shopping centre for refugees pouring into Poland since their country was invaded by Russia on Feb. 24. Some 964,000 people have crossed from Ukraine into Poland since that day.

Refugees continue to pour into Poland 11 days after Ukraine was invaded

Kristina Goncharova, 28, left, and Liudmyla Kuzmina, 67, in Przemyśl, Poland, on Sunday as they wait to travel on to Stuttgart, Germany. They met at a crowded train station in Lviv, Ukraine, as they journeyed through the country to escape the war. (Melissa Mancini/CBC)

Liudmyla Kuzmina and Kristina Goncharova live more than 500 kilometres away from each other in Ukraine. Kuzmina is 67 and Goncharova is 28. Without the war in their home country, it is unlikely the two would have ever met, but now, they sit together in the parking lot of an empty shopping mall in Przemyśl, Poland.

They met at a crowded train station in Lviv, Ukraine, as they tried to get out of the country that has faced war for the last 11 days. On the day they arrived, they estimate there were 750 people at the station. They found each other.

Both women left their homes with very few possessions.

"Here is my handbag, where there are documents, passports and some medical supplies. And there are things that I packed very quickly — a change of clothes, the same is in my backpack. That's it," Kuzmina, who is from Kyiv, said through a translator.

Goncharova wears a vest over her jacket that she got from the piles and piles of donated clothing.

Kuzmina with her purse, one of the very few things she brought with her on the journey from Kyiv to Lviv and then Poland. It contains documents, passports and some medical supplies. (Melissa Mancini/CBC)

Both have come alone and left family behind. Kuzmina's 38-year-old son was drafted to fight in the war against Russia, which invaded Ukraine late last month. Goncharova's mom and grandmother stayed in Zaporizhzhia.

They are among the 964,000 people who have crossed from Ukraine into Poland since Feb. 24. On Sunday, the day they arrived, 81,400 people had crossed by 3 p.m., according to the Polish Border Guard.

Both women said they didn't plan on fleeing after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine.

"We didn't mean to leave at all. Because my friends said that it was about to end, that it's not real. This is some kind of dream. Everyone thought so," Kuzmina said.

"Rumble, rumble, rumble. Sleepless nights. Anxiety. Terrible anxiety, which is constant, almost a panic attack."

People arrive at a temporary accommodation and transport hub for refugees at a former shopping mall, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Przemyśl, Poland, on Sunday. They are among the 964,000 people who have crossed from Ukraine into Poland since Feb. 24. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

The two women sit together charging their phones and eating pasta from paper bowls under a blue tent, waiting for transportation to Stuttgart, Germany. Volunteers buzz around trying to find them the best options. At one point, an option is found, but it's to Berlin, so the volunteer in the orange vest leaves to try again.

Buses roll by dropping off more refugees less than a few metres away. People — mostly women and children — from all over Ukraine have descended on this parking lot, finding food, temporary shelter, donated clothing and personal items. There are diapers and strollers, feminine hygiene products and SIM cards.

Inside an abandoned supermarket, each room is numbered and labelled with a destination — Krakow, Warsaw, Czech Republic, Slovakia — and people sleep on cots inside. Children play games. There are racks of blankets, pillows and yoga mats.

Piles of donated clothing and goods are sorted by volunteers in the parking lot of a former Tesco supermarket, so refugees can take what they need. People have come from all over Europe to try to help. Some offer rides or drop off supplies. (Melissa Mancini/CBC)

People have come from all over Europe to try to help. Some offer rides or drop off supplies. There are licence plates from Poland and Ukraine, of course, but also Germany, Estonia and Latvia.

Arrival here is just the middle of a long journey to a final destination. Ksenia Pletnova spent nine days in a shelter in Kyiv before making the difficult decision to leave with her mother and two-year-old son, Nestor. Her husband, father and sister are still in Ukraine.

They went into the shelter after a building 500 metres away from her home was hit.

"The noise, it was like our building was going down. Yeah, it's super noisy, and it was scary. That day, I realized we cannot stay here. We have to go," Pletnova said.

Ksenia Pletnova and her son, Nestor, wait for a ride to Prague, where they will stay with a friend. They spent nine days living in a shelter in Kyiv before making their way to Poland. (Melissa Mancini/CBC)

The nine days they spent in the shelter were like a horror movie, she says, the sounds of the bombing so frequent that her son would imitate the noises like it was a game.

"Boom, boom, boom," she said the toddler repeats to her.

Pletnova said she hopes the conflict ends soon so she can go back to the city where she works as a tour guide.

"I love my city. It's beautiful, and I hope it will not be ruined by Putin."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melissa Mancini is a producer with The National.

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