Worlds apart: 24 hours with two refugees in Poland | Russia-Ukraine war

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Because the conflict in Ukraine began on February 24, greater than three million Ukrainians have fled throughout the border to Poland. The Polish state and society mobilised quickly to make sure that Ukrainian refugees had been made to really feel welcome.

Ukrainians are entitled to obtain an preliminary 300 zloty ($67) stipend and might register for a nationwide identification quantity (PESEL) that allows them to entry the identical healthcare and academic providers as Polish nationals. Ukrainians even have the fitting to work and are supplied free housing for not less than two months.

However they aren’t the one refugees in Poland.

Within the east of the nation, alongside the roughly 400km (249-mile) lengthy Polish-Belarusian border, asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are trapped in a forested space patrolled by border guards. Once they make it out, they’re typically taken to detention centres or pushed again to Belarus.

Non-Ukrainian refugees and migrants are sometimes vilified by politicians and in Polish state media and barred from receiving assist, leaving solely a devoted and secretive community of native activists, who threat as much as eight years’ jail time, to offer them with support.

To see how circumstances in Poland differ for Ukrainian refugees and people coming from nations like Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, Al Jazeera adopted two folks – one Iraqi Kurd, the opposite Ukrainian – who each belong to households with younger youngsters, for at some point. Listed here are their tales:

The early hours of the morning

Hawar Abdalla*: It was simply after midnight on March 21.

Hawar, a mild, softly spoken Iraqi Kurd in his early 30s, and the folks he was with had discovered a gap within the border fence and managed to slide into Poland from Belarus at midnight.

It was the final throes of winter and the snow on the forest ground had melted through the day, leaving a muddy sludge that made it troublesome to stroll with out slipping whereas making their approach via dense forest.

The group had been in Poland for simply half-hour earlier than the torchlights of 4 closely armed Polish border guards appeared among the many bushes. Hawar and the others crouched on the bottom, however a beam of sunshine quickly discovered them, and a voice shouted: “We see you.”

An illustration of a forest at night with a guard looking through it with a flashlight and a person wearing a winter coat stands between the trees.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Earlier than the crossing, Hawar had felt optimistic. If their group of 12, together with six youngsters, remained quiet and moved slowly, he believed they stood an opportunity of evading detection.

However because the guards approached, Hawar felt the identical wave of unhappiness and disappointment as when he had been caught and pushed again to Belarus throughout his first and solely different border crossing try 4 months in the past.

He started to cry quietly. By stopping the refugees, the border guards “ended my goals, particularly my dream of reaching Europe”, he says.

At nighttime, the stony-faced guards had been an intimidating sight. The condensation from their breath combined with the intense lights of their torches as they advised the group to attend for the police.

One feminine guard seemed to be moved by the sight of the crying younger youngsters. She tried to consolation them with some sweets, however they backed away from her, afraid of the massive rifle slung over her shoulder.

Tasha Kyshchun: A bit of over two weeks later, about 500km (311 miles) away, the morning solar streamed via the kitchen skylights in a comfy third-floor house on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland’s second-largest metropolis.

It was 7:15am on April 8, and Tasha, a petite girl with an elfin face framed by brief darkish hair, shuffled across the kitchen making breakfast.

The 33-year-old ready cereal with milk for the youngsters and a few bread and yoghurt for herself.

Seated at a gingham tablecloth-covered desk within the kitchen, the household tucked into breakfast.

Since fleeing Ukraine, Tasha’s youngsters, Ustyn, seven, Maiia, 5, and Solomia, three, haven’t been sleeping properly.

They’ve been wetting the mattress, and Solomia has began biting her mom’s arm. Tasha thinks she is pressured after the traumatic transfer however is just too younger to articulate her emotions correctly.

An illustration of three people sitting at a table, two of them children and two Ukrainian flags in the background.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Earlier than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tasha had been consumed by a way of foreboding. From early February, she and her husband Taras, 37, who each run a kindergarten in Sofiyivska Borschagivka, a village in northwestern Ukraine, had been practising conflict drills with their college students and workers.

The kids discovered it enjoyable to cover within the basement. “For them, it was a sport. However two of our academics, who fled from Donetsk and Luhansk when combating began there in 2014, discovered it very painful. After the drills, they might take some tablets to settle down,” she recollects.

On the morning of the invasion, Russian bombs began falling close to their residence. “We had been scared and shocked. Though we had ready for it, we couldn’t consider that Putin could be so silly to start out this conflict,” she says.

Dwelling near a army airfield, which they believed could be a Russian goal, the couple determined to go away for Taras’s dad and mom’ residence in Lutsk in western Ukraine.

They advised the youngsters they had been taking a brief journey. Whereas Taras lined the house home windows with tape, Tasha and the youngsters packed their baggage with simply two units of clothes every. “Ustyn knew what was occurring greater than the ladies,” she says. “His arms shook when he helped to hold our issues to the automobile.”

Hawar: When two law enforcement officials arrived in black tops and army camouflage trousers, the youngsters and girls cried, begging them to allow them to go.

Two males within the group started to problem the border guards’ orders to observe the police. One guard misplaced his mood and began shouting, twigs cracking underneath his heavy boots as he moved in the direction of them.

Hawar, who had the most effective grasp of English within the group and was translating for the others, suspected that the guard was near beating the 2 males.

With a peaceful manner, he persuaded the lads to conform.

Giving solution to resignation and fatigue, the group made their solution to a bus that had arrived at a close-by highway.

Hawar, his distinct curly-haired quiff unchanged regardless of an evening sleeping tough, clutched the belongings he needed to see him via the time within the forest. He had some dates, chocolate, bread, three apples, a couple of small water bottles, and a sleeping bag.

The group had spent a day and an evening within the forest earlier than discovering a gap within the border fences. Hawar, who had taken accountability for the fireplace that had saved them heat through the chilly evening, had not slept.

So once they arrived on the police station within the early morning hours earlier than the solar had risen, he handed over his cellphone on the request of the officer in cost and instantly fell asleep on the ground.

Tasha: Round 8am, Tasha and the youngsters washed the dishes. “I remind them that this isn’t our home. We’ve to be thoughtful,” she says, as she put the plates away and made positive the sink was empty.

After spending a couple of days in Lutsk, Tasha, having examine Russian saboteurs hiding weapons in youngsters’s toys, determined that it was not secure to remain, and sought refuge in Poland on March 3.

A Ukrainian pal in Krakow discovered them a room above a kindergarten in a residential space stuffed with nondescript cream-and-brown homes.

Taras stayed in Lutsk, the place he cares for his father who has most cancers however is unable to get any remedy for the time being. He spends his days volunteering, delivering necessities to those that have taken up arms with Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces.

An illustration of a woman holding a child's shoulder near a white door.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

After tidying, Maiia and Solomia, who attend the kindergarten one ground down, kissed their mom earlier than heading inside.

A fortnight after arriving in Poland, the top instructor provided them locations within the class. Their classmates drew a paper dove within the colors of the Ukrainian flag and caught it to the door to welcome them.

Solomia, the youngest little one in her class and initially shy, warmed to her friends after they celebrated her birthday. Maiia, who’s extra gregarious, has been fast to make new mates.

Ustyn’s faculty is a 20-minute stroll away. Studious and shy, he was so anxious about being in a brand new setting that he discovered it troublesome to go to high school within the first two weeks after enrollment. “I didn’t need to power him,” Tasha says. However seeing his sisters alter has inspired him to go.

Hawar: Hawar had travelled with an Iraqi Kurdish household he met within the forest and tried his first crossing into Poland with them in November 2021 when hundreds of primarily Kurdish refugees and migrants had tried to cross into the European Union from Belarus.

Throughout this time, the EU, NATO and america had accused Belarus’s authoritarian chief, Alexander Lukashenko, of orchestrating the disaster by encouraging the circulate of migrants and refugees as a type of retribution for EU sanctions imposed on the chief after his disputed re-election in 2020 and subsequent crackdown on mass pro-democracy protests.

Poland, saying a state of emergency within the area, rapidly created a meandering 3km (1.9-mile) extensive exclusion or “purple zone” on the border and banned NGO employees and journalists from getting into the world.

Polish border guards then engaged in pushbacks of individuals to Belarus. Belarusian guards typically beat migrants and refugees and compelled them again into Poland, leaving them in limbo, often with out meals and necessities. Not less than 19 folks have died within the forest because the standoff started. Most froze to loss of life.

In December, the disaster appeared to dissipate as folks had been allowed out of the “purple zone” and again into Belarus with some repatriation flights organised by the Iraqi authorities.

However for Hawar and lots of others, returning residence was “not an choice”.

He says he fears political retribution if he returns to the Kurdish area of Iraq as a result of his criticism of the ruling elites over a scarcity of employment alternatives brought on largely by political corruption and nepotism.

“I can’t settle for that I must be afraid of my very own ideas and advised find out how to dwell,” he says.

In 2005, the Kurdish area of Iraq was recognised as an autonomous area underneath the Kurdistan Regional Authorities (KRG) after many years of political unrest and brutal repression, together with the 1988 Anfal genocide, the place not less than 100,000 Kurds, primarily civilians, had been killed by Saddam Hussein’s troops.

As we speak, regardless of being wealthy in oil wealth, the area suffers from a excessive unemployment price (round 24 % for males between the ages of 15 and 29) whereas authorities staff can go months with out being paid wages. Civilians are killed “in the event that they specific dissatisfaction”, Hawar says, referring to brutal crackdowns towards folks protesting towards corruption and unpaid wages. “In the meantime, politicians and their households proceed to extend their wealth.”

However staying in Belarus meant the beginning of an arduous 4 months in a Bruzgi logistics facility – overcrowded, squalid momentary housing arrange by the federal government, the place roughly 1,500 folks slept in assigned areas amongst rows of pallet racks in a warehouse.

Within the camp, Hawar turned near a household – consisting of oldsters, a cousin and three women – with whom he has now tried two crossings. He says they’ve change into an adopted household to him.

“We’re not associated by blood, however we at the moment are all a household right here, so we is not going to depart one another,” he says.

“The women are like my sisters or daughters,” Hawar says, his fondness for them evident as he describes their personalities as bubbly, pleasant and infrequently naughty. “They’re completely happy women. They’re all the time enjoying and singing, particularly, the ram sam sam music they realized within the camp.”

Two of the ladies, aged 4 and 6, have a uncommon and severe progressive medical situation that causes tissues and organs to enlarge, change into infected or scarred, and finally waste away, leading to early loss of life. The women require weekly medical remedy and, unable to afford their specialised healthcare, the household felt pressured to go away their homeland to attempt to entry remedy in Europe.

Regardless of the monotony and discomfort of their environment, Hawar and his adopted household created a brand new life for themselves.

An illustration of people, both children and adults, sitting in a circle on the floor with a wall of cubbies with children sitting in them on both sides of the image..
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Hawar turned a volunteer instructor alongside United Nations Kids’s Fund employees allowed to entry the camp. “It was very tiring,” he says. “It was six hours every single day of educating, however it was so good for me, and it was necessary to be busy.”

The makeshift faculty that Hawar and 5 different volunteers created provided courses in psychology, maths, English, singing, dancing and portray. Vibrant photos painted and drawn by the youngsters lined the classroom partitions.

Hawar turned often known as “mamosta Hawar”, instructor Hawar in Kurdish, a nickname that the ladies nonetheless use when referring to him. Every time he and the volunteers went across the camp, the youngsters hugged them.

Tasha: At 9am, Tasha began to wash the bed room. The bedding is brightly patterned and youngsters’s garments with cartoon prints sit piled in a nook.

“I cried every single day for the primary two weeks,” she says, in a measured tone. “However I attempt to not do it in entrance of the youngsters. It’s not good for them.”

As we speak is a uncommon time without work. Often, a number of of the youngsters is just too anxious for college or down with a chilly, or she has to settle administrative paperwork comparable to her household’s PESEL utility.

Final week, Tasha earned some cash cleansing the home windows of a Polish acquaintance. Work isn’t straightforward to return by, particularly with so many Ukrainians within the nation now, and fewer jobs than there are folks.

Tasha is hesitant to comply with a longer-term position. She desperately hopes that the household can return residence by the summer time, and in addition doesn’t need to deprive another person of the chance to work.

Most Ukrainian refugees are ladies and youngsters, and the Polish parliament nearly unanimously adopted a brand new regulation to assist them by giving every little one 500 zloty ($111) per 30 days. Tasha hasn’t but utilized for these advantages, as she’d like her household to proceed supporting themselves.

For now, they’re residing as thriftily as potential off their financial savings, which that they had been hoping to make use of for his or her first household vacation to Egypt. Earlier than the conflict, Tasha and Taras had been collectively making round 50,000 Ukrainian hryvnia ($1,700) per 30 days from their kindergarten enterprise, personal classes and weekend occasion planning for younger youngsters. The couple labored 12 hours a day, together with weekends, however Tasha not often felt prefer it was exhausting. “I actually beloved what we had,” she says.

They’re nonetheless paying their workers their salaries, however with no jobs, the monetary pressure of their state of affairs is looming over them.

Tasha is saddened when she thinks of her kindergarteners, a lot of whom are nonetheless in Ukraine. One of many women she taught has a father who was combating to liberate the town of Bucha and has not been in touch with him for 3 weeks. “I cry quite a bit after I consider her,” she says.

Round 10am, Tasha went on social media, figuring out folks in Ukraine who want every kind of help – be it securing a spot to remain outdoors of the nation, or getting important provides – and directing them to her community of contacts in and in another country.

The information is all the time horrible when she reads it. The Russian military is accused of raping and killing greater than 400 civilians in Bucha – simply 50km (31 miles) away from the household’s hometown – and surrounding cities in March. “I’ve many mates in Bucha, and I really feel worry that the identical factor might occur to our village. Once I realized in regards to the ladies and women who’d been raped, I couldn’t describe my feelings. They [the Russian army] are simply creatures, not folks. I pray they’re punished, and I pray for peace and therapeutic,” Tasha says with anger and sorrow.

Hawar: At 10am, Hawar woke to a stern-looking police officer unlocking the door to the room the place that they had spent the evening.

Within the chilly gentle of day, Hawar took within the naked white partitions and a small window that seemed onto some railway tracks and a river. It was freezing chilly, and the group had huddled collectively on the ground. They’d been introduced a rice dish through the evening, however nobody might establish what it contained, and the youngsters refused to eat extra after tasting it.

The darkish gray tracksuit and jacket that Hawar wore hung unfastened on his often stocky body. He had misplaced 10kg (22lbs) within the Bruzgi camp.

The police officer led them right into a dank hallway the place he positioned an official doc up towards the wall and advised all of them to “signal it”. Hawar might inform it was written in English and Kurdish languages, however earlier than he might learn it, the police officer pulled it away from him.

Hawar requested to learn it, however once more the brief, middle-aged officer refused and raised his voice.

On March 21, the Bruzgi camp was closed, forcing folks, who had been notified just a few days prematurely, to decide on between trying to cross the border or returning to their homeland.

Since Hawar and his adopted household felt returning to Iraq was not an choice for them, a day earlier than the camp shut, they set off to attempt to enter the EU once more.

Now, within the police station, many within the group grew agitated, fearing that they might be pushed again to the forest. They begged to be taken to a detention centre the place they might probably start an asylum course of. The officer grew more and more offended.

After trying to learn the doc a couple of instances, Hawar and the opposite adults felt that they had no choice however to signal it. They weren’t in a position to learn its contents. Later, they might discover out that the doc acknowledged that that they had agreed to be returned to the Belarusian border.

An hour later, army vehicles arrived on the police station to gather Hawar and different detainees who weren’t a part of their group. Hawar requested the law enforcement officials in the event that they had been going to the detention centre, and to his aid, they replied, “sure”.

It was round midday, roughly 12 hours after that they had entered Poland, when Hawar and his adopted household climbed into the again of army vehicles that sped off down a nondescript nation highway.

Afternoon

Tasha: Pulling on a light-weight parka over her striped sweater, and a hat over her hair, Tasha reduce a forlorn determine as she headed to the refugee reception centre in the course of Krakow. She hoped to get a tube of toothpaste and a few juice for the youngsters. “Taras and I made a decision to provide most of what we had – together with our toothpaste – to the Ukrainian military,” she tells me.

On the tram, Tasha heard Ukrainian being spoken. Ukrainian refugees can take transport totally free across the nation if they’ve a stamp on their passports displaying they arrived after February 24.

Tv screens on public transport displayed translations of easy phrases in Polish and Ukrainian – a bid by the authorities to assist refugees really feel extra at residence. However this doesn’t make Tasha really feel any higher; it solely aggravates her sense of being marooned in a international land.

Over the course of the day, Tasha expressed her gratitude for the Polish state and its folks, though she is apprehensive about their generosity tapering off. “I believe they’re giving greater than they will afford to. As soon as folks see that we may be right here for a very long time, they’ll get sick of it. It’s solely regular,” she says.

A bit of after noon, Tasha had collected the few gadgets she wanted and left the reception centre. If she desires a scorching meal, there are eating places across the metropolis offering meals for Ukrainian refugees, however she prefers to cook dinner at residence when she’s hungry.

A automobile blared its horn loudly on the road, making Tasha bounce. Loud sounds have scared her because the conflict started. She says that Maiia can be petrified of planes, believing that they’re Russian plane despatched to kill them. “I maintain telling myself and the youngsters that we’re in a secure place now,” she says.

Because it was her first free day shortly, Tasha went on a stroll across the metropolis. It was sunny and heat, and the streets bustled with lunchtime crowds as Tasha wandered round. The info on her cellphone didn’t work correctly so she received misplaced and was often disoriented. On weekends, Ustyn and Maiia take accountability for navigating.

Taras referred to as her briefly. On video, he confirmed her a mattress lined with attire and provides that he deliberate to drive to the Territorial Defence Forces. Driving between cities is often harmful as vehicles can come underneath assault, one thing Tasha prefers not to consider. “I’ve a really energetic creativeness,” she says, laughing nervously.

At 4pm, Tasha picked Ustyn up from faculty. He was in good spirits, displaying her a comic book strip he had drawn. “As we speak I attempted a brand new kind of bread, and I learnt the Polish phrase for ‘milk’,” he advised her as they walked residence.

They arrived residence, choosing up the ladies alongside the best way.

Hawar: Relieved and exhausted, Hawar and his adopted household had been relaxed because the vehicles made their approach alongside the bumpy nation roads. Lower than half-hour later, Hawar noticed the border fences flanked by razor wire and the well-beaten footpath patrolled by border guards. He realised that the law enforcement officials had lied to them.

A crushing sense of disappointment and anger gave solution to panic. Folks started to cry. The three women, often so assured and playful, fell silent; they understood that they had been all heading again to the chilly, damp forest.

A police officer shouted on the group to get out of the autos, however they refused, asking to be taken to a detention centre. As a substitute, the officer pulled a person in his 60s out of the automobile by his legs. He landed on the ground in ache; his spouse remained crying within the automobile.

“Get out of the vehicles, or we’ll power you out,” shouted the policeman.

At this level, everybody realised that they must do what they had been advised. They stepped onto the muddy floor. The policeman handed them copies of the paperwork that they had been pressured to signal, together with their telephones, earlier than aggressively directing them right into a slender no-man’s land on the border.

Night

Tasha: Again within the kitchen, dinner consisted of fried fish and tomato soup supplied by the kindergarten for everybody within the house.

At dinner, the youngsters pulled books from the cabinets. Most of those books had been donated and had been in Polish or French. The kids didn’t perceive the tales, so they simply made sounds whereas pointing to the illustrations, or mentioned the names of objects in Ukrainian. Ustyn loved engaged on the few Ukrainian textbooks his mom had introduced from residence.

An illustration of a woman sitting in a chair in front of three beds with children in them.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Tasha packed the leftovers and put them within the freezer. They’ll eat these for days, cautious to not waste any meals. “All Ukrainians learn about Holodomor. Not ending our meals is a sin,” Tasha says, referring to the Nice Famine of 1932-1933 that killed thousands and thousands of individuals in Soviet Ukraine.

Taras rang at 5:30pm. There was no air raid siren right now, so he might name his household as he didn’t must be in a shelter, the place reception is poor. They chatted on video about their day, and the youngsters had been additionally in a position to see their grandparents.

Afterwards, Tasha placed on a Ukrainian instructional cartoon for the youngsters whereas she cleaned the communal staircases.

Later, if Tasha has time, she’ll examine in on Taras once more to ensure he’s secure.

Hawar: Two rows of fences divided the forested panorama, leaving between them a 100-metre-wide (328 ft) buffer zone, a no-man’s land, the place Hawar and his adopted household could be pressured to outlive on dwindling provides and drink yellowish water from the streams and rivers.

For 4 months, that they had endured life in Bruzgi camp, travelling as soon as per week to a hospital with the 2 women for his or her important remedy, within the hopes that they might attain the EU.

In the long run, they had been solely in a position to keep an evening and a morning within the EU earlier than being left to languish on Poland’s northeastern border.

It was mid-afternoon once they had been allowed again into Belarus. The Belarusian border guards understood that the household wouldn’t final lengthy in the event that they didn’t get some meals and relaxation so, in a uncommon show of sympathy, they organised transport to a sprawling army base close by. The army personnel on the base paid little consideration to the exhausted household; they assumed they might both return to Minsk and be repatriated or return to the border space the place Belarusian guards, as a part of what was dubbed a marketing campaign of “hybrid warfare” towards Poland, proceed to permit refugees and migrants in.

Within the early night, a automobile arrived to take them to Minsk, however the household requested to be dropped off at a small nation home in a village close to the town of Grodno within the nation’s west. Hawar had managed to rearrange a brief rental from an area contact he had met on the camp with the little cash he nonetheless had.

They knew they couldn’t keep lengthy within the nation. The six-month Belarus visa that that they had bought within the KRG was as a result of expire in a few weeks.

The kids’s father, who was in his early 30s, was affected by extreme kidney ache brought on by dehydration by the point they arrived and needed to be helped to mattress. Hawar, drained and disheartened, mustered the little vitality he had to assist cook dinner some meals. After consuming, nonetheless carrying soiled garments, someday earlier than midnight, everybody fell asleep.

Tasha: The kids had a candy bedtime snack – a convention within the Kyshchun family. Then they took a bathe and received prepared for mattress.

It was almost 8pm. Earlier than studying the youngsters a bedtime story, Tasha requested them to speak in regards to the issues they had been grateful for within the day, and the way they may also help different folks in want.

The kids had been excited to go to an occasion in a park the next day.

Together with different volunteers, they might be cleansing the park as a gesture of appreciation to Poles for receiving them with open arms.

After placing the youngsters to mattress, Tasha had some quiet time to herself. It had been a protracted day, and she or he seemed a bit weary, however she nonetheless wore an expression of decided optimism. She reminded herself to recount the little issues which have introduced her pleasure. “I inform myself this received’t be perpetually,” she says. “We’ll go residence sometime.”

Hawar: After a two-day respite, Hawar and his adopted household returned to the buffer zone solely after Belarusian border guards had aggressively pushed the lads within the group and hit them with closed fists. Guards searched the group, taking any cash they discovered.

They spent eight days there, interesting to Polish border guards on the opposite aspect of the fence to allow them to via as their restricted provides ran out. Within the chilly, damp setting, the youngsters’s medical situation started to worsen. With out sufficient meals or water, they discovered it troublesome to maneuver and spent day and evening of their tents.

Hawar pleaded with the Polish guards for meals and water, however they had been detached, even laughing at them. By the eighth day, everybody was critically dehydrated – together with the ladies, who had been in pressing want of medical remedy. Their father was nonetheless affected by kidney ache.

Hawar opened their tent that morning in entrance of a gaggle of guards who “simply laughed at us”, he recollects sadly. “We had to return to Belarus.”

After imploring the Belarusian border guards, they had been allowed again into the nation so the youngsters might obtain medical remedy.

They’re now within the relative security of Minsk, the capital, however with their visas set to run out, they face deportation to Iraq. Hawar should plan to return to the border.

Roughly 200km (124 miles) south of the place Hawar was pushed again into Belarus, Poland’s borders with Ukraine stay open to the thousands and thousands of Ukrainian refugees escaping the horrors of conflict. The jarring distinction between the remedy of non-European and European refugees is just not misplaced on Hawar.

“What hurts us a lot is the excellence made by Poland between us and Ukrainian refugees.”

*Title has been modified to guard the identification of the interviewee

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