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Inside Poland's homes where Ukrainian refugees find peace away from Russia's invasion

Olena Kudlach, 32, comforts her daughter Viktoria, 2, who has a sore throat, in Strzyzow, Poland, on March 15. Ela Zamorska and her partner have been hosting Kudlach and her two children in their apartment since late February. They fled from Ternopol, Ukraine, after the start of Russia's invasion.
Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Olena Kudlach, 32, comforts her daughter Viktoria, 2, who has a sore throat, in Strzyzow, Poland, on March 15. Ela Zamorska and her partner have been hosting Kudlach and her two children in their apartment since late February. They fled from Ternopol, Ukraine, after the start of Russia's invasion.

Updated March 30, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET

STRZYZOW, Poland — After Russia invaded Ukraine, Olena Kudlach said goodbye to her husband, a Ukrainian soldier, and left for neighboring Poland with their two young children.

"I worried that maybe the Polish would not want us," says Kudlach, 32, who's from the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil. "But I could not have been more wrong."

She says Polish border guards carried the family's luggage and wrapped her children — Nazar, 10, and Viktoria, 2 — in blankets. Volunteers at a reception center in the village of Korczowa handed them hot soup. And in the crowd there, Kudlach spotted a cheerful woman smiling at them.

"That was Ela," she says. "She had come to take us to her home."

Ela Zamorska, a 28-year-old teacher and hairdresser, embraced them all.

"I first saw Olena's little daughter, all dressed in pink, looking so sweet, and it was love at first sight," she says. "You just saw that they were very good people who had to be helped at all costs."

This scene has replayed again and again in Poland, the country that's taken in the most Ukrainian refugees by far — 2.3 million — since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Polish families, volunteers and nonprofits have largely cared for Ukrainians arriving here. And the Polish government continues to welcome Ukrainians even as housing options dwindle, prompting local authorities to open shelters around the country, and social services are pushed to the limit.

Olga Halan, 31, (left) and her sister-in-law Ira Kondiuk, 32, (right) feed their children lunch in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14. Sabina Stankowska-Kobylecka opened up a home she inherited from her grandmother, which was empty and for sale, and is currently hosting Ukrainian families that fled the country after the Russian invasion.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Olga Halan, 31, (left) and her sister-in-law Ira Kondiuk, 32, (right) feed their children lunch in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14. Sabina Stankowska-Kobylecka opened up a home she inherited from her grandmother, which was empty and for sale, and is currently hosting Ukrainian families that fled the country after the Russian invasion.

The war feels close by for Poland

Sabina Stankowska-Kobylecka, a 33-year-old lawyer in the Polish city of Rzeszow, says she knows one reason why.

"Here, in Poland, the war feels close, and we have our own history with Russia," she says, referring to the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 and its decades behind the Iron Curtain. "I hear people saying, we might be next."

Stankowska-Kobylecka is housing 22 Ukrainians — nine women and 13 children — in her late grandmother's stone-and-brick house in Rzeszow, a city in southeastern Poland that has become a hub for Ukrainian refugees, aid organizations and Western diplomats who left Ukraine after the invasion.

No one had lived in the house for years, so dozens of friends helped Stankowska-Kobylecka and her husband clean and fix up the place in three days.

Olga Horysh, 62, feeds her grandson Vladislav Menshikov, 4, in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Olga Horysh, 62, feeds her grandson Vladislav Menshikov, 4, in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.

It's now the place Oksana Horysh and her three children call home. Horysh, a 40-year-old bookkeeper, is from Lviv, a western Ukrainian city very close to the Polish border. Her husband stayed behind to defend Ukraine.

"Here, we have been able to rest because we are tired with worry for my husband, for my country," she says.

She and Stankowska-Kobylecka sit together on a sofa bed, sharing freshly baked coconut cake with their children, who often play together, speaking in a hybrid of Ukrainian and Polish.

Horysh imagines a future reunion in Lviv, in a Ukraine free of war.

"I call Sabina to go to my home and have cake and coffee," she says. "My friend — she helps us in a difficult time."

Young girls practice math problems as their mother talk in the hallway in a house in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Young girls practice math problems as their mother talk in the hallway in a house in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.
Left: Young boys look at cellphones in a house in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14. Right: Sasha, 7, looks at his phone as his brother Max, 15, is reflected on a cupboard, also in Rzeszow.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Left: Young boys look at cellphones in a house in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14. Right: Sasha, 7, looks at his phone as his brother Max, 15, is reflected on a cupboard, also in Rzeszow.

Previous refugee groups met a backlash in Poland

Poland has taken in over half of the more than 4 million people who have fled Ukraine since the war began in February, according to data from the United Nations refugee agency.

The Polish response to Ukrainian refugees has largely been a grassroots effort, with some assistance from local authorities. That generosity has been lauded by the United States and the European Union, which are promising billions of dollars in aid to Poland.

But on another swath of the Polish border — the one with Belarus, which is run by a close Kremlin ally — it's a very different story.

"It's absolutely night and day. I cannot use a stronger metaphor to describe it," says Monika Matus, an activist with Fundacja Ocalenie, a refugee advocacy organization in Poland.

Since last fall, thousands of refugees fleeing other conflicts have tried to enter the European Union from nonmember Belarus. Belarusian authorities escorted these refugees to the border with Poland and cut the barbed wire fence separating the EU from Belarus. Polish border guards violently pushed back the refugees.

Matvii, 4, smiles as his mother FaceTimes his father, currently serving in the Ukrainian military, during a soccer game for kids at the soccer academy Akademia Pilkarska Rzeszow in Rzeszów, Poland, on March 14.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Matvii, 4, smiles as his mother FaceTimes his father, currently serving in the Ukrainian military, during a soccer game for kids at the soccer academy Akademia Pilkarska Rzeszow in Rzeszów, Poland, on March 14.

"People crossing from Belarus have been on the road for many years, trying to reach [the] European Union from Syria, from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from Iran, from Yemen," Matus says. "In Poland, they are pushed back to Belarus. They are threatened. There's no hiding that."

Lamis Abdelaaty, a political science professor at Syracuse University, sees the same stark contrast between how Poland and other European countries welcome Ukrainians — and how they wanted to keep out non-European asylum-seekers arriving in 2015. Many were fleeing the war in Syria.

"In 2015, European politicians talked about the arrivals of large numbers of people as a crisis for Europe," says Abdelaaty, whose book Discrimination and Delegation examines state responses to refugees. "Today, with Ukraine, we're hearing politicians frame the exodus of millions of people from Ukraine as a crisis for Ukraine, which is the more correct and more humane use of the term 'crisis.' "

She adds that "this conflict, as terrible and heart-wrenching as it has been, is really evidence that the European Union is more than capable of welcoming large numbers of refugees who are desperate for protection. ... I just wish we could bring this empathy to all refugee groups."

Oksana Horysh, 40, walks with her daughter Victoria, 8, before a soccer match for kids at the soccer academy Akademia Pilkarska Rzeszow in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Oksana Horysh, 40, walks with her daughter Victoria, 8, before a soccer match for kids at the soccer academy Akademia Pilkarska Rzeszow in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.

She grew up hearing how her grandma sheltered Polish Jews from Nazis

Ela Zamorska, who's housing a Ukrainian mother and her two children in her apartment, says she would like to believe she would empathize with any refugee in need. She grew up hearing stories about her grandmother, who sheltered Polish Jews fleeing the Nazis.

"My grandmother taught me that you should help people fighting for survival no matter what, even if you put yourself at risk," she says.

But she admits it's easier for Poles to feel comfortable around Ukrainians, who have so much shared history and are next-door neighbors. While Zamorska is at work, Kudlach cooks borscht and dumplings — dishes that are also part of Polish cuisine — that they share for dinner.

Olena Kudlach, 32, prepares pancakes for her son Nazar, 10, in Strzyzow, Poland, on March 15.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Olena Kudlach, 32, prepares pancakes for her son Nazar, 10, in Strzyzow, Poland, on March 15.

"I feel like she could almost be my sister," Zamorska says of Kudlach, who sits next to her at a table in Zamorska's small, tidy kitchen. Kudlach squeezes her hand.

"I can speak with her about my husband, because I'm very worried about him, since he's in Ukraine and also a soldier, and I rarely hear from him," she says. "Ela listens to me, and our languages are similar enough that it's like she understands. It makes me feel better."

Back in Rzeszow, Stankowska-Kobylecka and her family live two streets away from the Ukrainian families they're hosting in her grandmother's house. They spend a lot of time with each other.

"We can see so much of ourselves in Ukraine, in our new friends," she says. "People in Poland are afraid, you know. Sometimes my friends ask me if we are prepared for war. Some even have packed luggage to take if they need to escape quickly."

Children form the Halan and Kondiuk family play soccer in a yard in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.
/ Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
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Toya Sarno Jordan for NPR
Children form the Halan and Kondiuk family play soccer in a yard in Rzeszow, Poland, on March 14.

She hopes the Polish government drafts a long-term plan to care for Ukrainian refugees, especially as more arrive every day. She asks herself: Will there be enough work for everyone? Enough apartments? Enough spaces in schools?

"Sometimes, I worry about keeping up with the bills, because in Poland bills for things like electricity are very expensive," she says.

She's hoping the Polish government offers financial support to the many generous Poles housing Ukrainians in their family homes.

But if this doesn't happen, Stankowska-Kobylecka says she will raise the money herself.

"When the war started, my son was crying and afraid of war coming to Poland," she says. "And when he saw children leaving Ukraine, he cried even more, and said, 'Mom, bring them to us. Show them that they have another home.' "

Szymon Grela contributed reporting from Strzyzow and Rzeszow, Poland.

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