Among the Ukrainian refugees in southeastern Poland.
By Alexei Dmitriev
The 5:02 a.m. passenger train from Kyiv is held up in customs, as usual. An early morning fog gives the empty platforms of the Przemyśl railway station, and the handful of church spires rising above it, an almost Monet-like feel of pre-dawn calm and peace. The station’s 160-year-old pavilion is one of the grandest buildings on the rail line between Krakow and Lviv, and its amply decorated neo-Baroque interior is a tourist attraction in this southeastern Polish border town.
But we have not come in mid-August to sightsee. When the train finally arrives, it disgorges hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing war and the deprivation it has brought to their country. In a matter of minutes, all traces of the idyllic morning are wiped out. The people rushing into the station don’t particularly care about its architectural grandeur. They are preoccupied with satisfying basic survival needs: shelter, food, and safety. I have come with my two daughters, 28-year-old Dora and 15-year-old Bella, to help them in any way we can. We volunteer under the umbrella of Russians for Ukraine, a grassroots charity that brings together people primarily of Russian origin. Some live outside Russia, like us. Others have taken circuitous journeys to get here from Russia. But everyone shares the same inability to remain idle, and the same impulse to help Ukrainians.
At the station we work two shifts that are dictated by the arrival and departure schedules for Ukrainian trains (today about as many Ukrainians are heading back as are fleeing): 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then 7 p.m. to midnight. Noticing our yellow vests in the crowd, people approach us with all kinds of problems.
We help ferry luggage up and down flights of stairs. (The poorest and the oldest have the most, since they don’t know what to expect and lack the means to buy what they may need.) We provide advice about onward travel based on the diminishing list of destinations that still accomodate refugees—many of whom have literally rushed out of their homes without knowing where they are going. We help with buying train tickets, sometimes by pooling our own money, and sometimes by entering PIN codes for those whose hands are shaking too badly to do it themselves. We find accommodation for those who are stuck in Przemyśl, sometimes driving them for hours to other towns where free lodging is available. Any time a young Ukrainian girl gets into a taxicab, we take photos of the driver’s license; Dora prevented what looked like a classic kidnapping attempt when one driver and his buddy became uncooperative. We help people contact their relatives by making phone calls on their behalf or taking them to a place where they can get a free SIM card. We take pets to vets to procure the proper EU paperwork. We stock leashes to replace those chewed up by stressed dogs.
We trace missing luggage, pets, and people. We distribute water, food, toys, and toiletries. We try to find free medical care for those who need it—even if it involves fixing broken dentures with super glue right on the platform.
In the grand scheme of things, these problems are minor nuisances. But not for the Ukrainians streaming daily onto the platforms. To reach safety, many of them have traveled for days, arriving in Przemyśl hungry, comatose-tired, confused, and often still scared. We’re not supposed to ask, but each has a story about how the war has changed their life—often culminating in the particular missile strike, mortar explosion, or death that made them finally abandon their home. They catch us taking breathers outside and unload stories that weigh so much that at night we find ourselves crying for no specific reason.
Sometimes the most mind-boggling stories emerge from those who do not want to talk about what happened. Like a limping woman who assured some fellow volunteers that she was OK—but when they took her to a doctor anyway, he discovered that her leg had been shot straight through: an experience so traumatic that it had apparently wiped her memory clean.
The hardest hit tend to be the quietest, and when given food or clothing say hesitantly, “Is it OK to take? Are you sure?” After what they have been through, even something as small as a change of clothes or a sandwich seems to overwhelm them with so much gratitude they either cannot believe it or almost cannot bear it. For us, these moments bring an indescribable high. They pump us so full of adrenaline that it doesn’t matter that we’re barely sleeping at night. There is something almost addictive about discovering that even modest acts of help can be so meaningful.
Since many Ukrainians spend a long time at the station waiting for a free train to Hanover, Germany, some faces quickly become familiar. If I’ve already helped someone in the morning, they have a tendency to consider me a guardian angel, personal assistant, walking information booth, and eventually social outlet. The first question is normally, “Do you live in Przemyśl?” Responding that I am from the US surprises them—and when they realize that I’m here on my time off from work, they are flabbergasted.
The Hanover train enjoys a special place in the Ukrainian refugee lore; it runs every two days and accepts no reservations. It can take 150 passengers. Still, there are days when over 200 people gather on the platform hours in advance. Volunteers bring colored chalk, percussion instruments, and toys so that the kids can have some semblance of normalcy before the boarding free-for-all begins. On orders from the Polish Red Cross, the police arrive to keep order as the empty train pulls in. What occurs next can be so shocking that when, on our first day in Przemyśl, we asked another volunteer what it was like, she refused to talk about it.
When I first witness it, I understand why. Mothers with babies—many of them Carpathian Roma—jostle with invalids in a battle for the best position, but their pleas are ignored. The process is chaotic, emotions run high, and it is hard for volunteers and the police to manage the crowds that flock from door to door at the first inkling of vacant seats. When the staff shuts the doors to take a count of free seats, a shudder runs through those remaining on the platform. When the doors reopen, pushing and shoving resumes. Police officers bark at refugees and volunteers alike. On the days when everyone manages to get in, it feels like a major victory. The volunteers cheer the departing train and hug one another.
Toward the end of our stay every encounter feels even more intense—especially the last family I try to help before I leave Przemyśl. Two out of the three children are autistic. While the older autistic sister and her brother stay on the platform to watch the luggage, the younger autistic child gets nervous in a ticket line and starts touching strangers. His parents cannot control him, the situation gets tense, and they have to leave. They want to go to Vienna, and I take them to the bus station nearby.
The heavyset father walks slowly on legs afflicted by some kind of malady. At the bus station, he has trouble processing the information that the clerk gives him in Polish and loudly tries to speak over him. He wants to appear to be the head of the family no matter what. (I speak Russian, but no more Polish than he does.) While gesticulating, he drops the free buns he had earlier obtained to feed them all. His wife quietly picks one up, and then he drops another. She has already figured out which buses to Vienna are available, and softly tries to persuade him that the children would fare better on earlier but more expensive routing than cheaper non-stop that would force them to wait many hours more. He tries to object but quickly succumbs, pulling from inside his shirt the stack of euros into which they had converted all their money. But Poland uses zloty. And they have no credit cards. And the exchange office is still closed.
So we head back to the station.
Back on the platform, their daughter is wailing out of fear that something had happened to her parents. Her little brother has been trying to console her. Now their mom hugs them, whispering in Ukrainian, as their father appears momentarily lost before he produces the buns, thinking they might bring his little girl solace.
Their journey is far from over, and they will need more help to complete it, but at least they are together now, safe from the shelling that has driven them so far from home.
Alexei Dmitriev G’88 lives in Potomac, Maryland. Russians for Ukraine accepts donations at rfu2022.org/en.