‘There is no time to cry’: Ukrainian refugees arriving in Warsaw focus on helping each other
Olga Bolchova walks around a small room in Warsaw filled with three beds, a table and a small fridge. It is a temporary home for her, her husband Sergei and daughters Ivannka, 15, and Stephania, seven, who fled Kiev the day Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We have everything we need,” she said in English with a smile.
The room is inside a convent where the high stone walls still bear the traces of shrapnel from the bombings of the Second World War. The nuns had a free guest room and offered it to the family.
“Polish people were very nice from the first minute,” Olga’s husband Sergei said in English.
The Bolshovas are among the 1.6 million people fleeing Ukraine who have arrived in Poland as refugees. Their stressful journey was punctuated by such acts of kindness. Rather than focusing on the uncertainty of their situation, they spend their time helping other refugees like them, giving back the kindness they have been shown.
The family first left their home to stay with Olga’s parents in a small Ukrainian village 300 kilometers to the west. But the air sirens quickly went off and they all hid in the basement. The tension and fear were too much for Stephania, who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Olga and Sergei, who adopted Stephania as a baby, decided their daughter’s health came first and moved on. They headed for Poland.
“She was the reason we were so quick to leave Ukraine…we left for her, she couldn’t tolerate this tension.” Sergei said. “She was losing her ability to speak.”
Sergei originally planned to see his family cross the Polish border and then return to Kiev, where he works in sales for a financial products company. Ukrainian martial law obliges men of military age to remain in the country. But it also allows primary caregivers of disabled children to travel with them, so Sergei left the car at the border and ventured into the unknown with his family.
Refugees helping each other
“There is this narrative in our society [that men should fight] but my wife needs me and, in the long run, my children need me,” he said. “Who am I living this for if not my family?
The Bolchovas list the many acts of kindness they have received since that day. Among them are the border guard who gave Stephania gloves, the man who drove them in his own car to Warsaw, the family they stayed with for a few days and now the nuns who offered them shelter in the convent. .
“When I arrived I noticed how hospitable the Poles were to us,” Olga said.
This helps the Bolshova family find their way through the confusing and exhausting new existence of refugees.
At first, Olga volunteered in a women’s social action group to help other refugees arriving in Warsaw.
“There’s no time to cry. I’m here right now. I just want to be helpful,” she said. “If I can go and help the Ukrainians, I will. There is no time to think and cry.”
But many arrive without realizing that the road is long, according to Tomas Pactwa, head of the Warsaw social affairs department. The city government has set up a refugee center at Arena Ursynow, a local sports venue.
“‘OK, we’re going back after the war, so we’re looking for a place for a week or two,’ that’s their view of the war,” he said.
“They don’t want to have serious plans.”
“We have lost everything”
But then Pactwa says reality hits soon – they don’t go home for a long time.
“Usually it changes after a day. They have the space to think, look on the internet and talk with families and loved ones. Then they start thinking about children…then they think about schools, kindergartens, kindergarten and obviously a job, but this is the next step,” Pactwa said.
More than 2,700 refugees have stayed at the refugee center since it opened on March 1. It sleeps and feeds around 400 people a day. Volunteers are helping Ukrainians settle by providing them with clothing, medical care and advice.
“It’s a trauma. You live in good conditions…you have plans for your life and suddenly war comes and you have to escape,” Pactwa said.
“You’re looking for friends, anything just to settle in and wait a while. It’s classic trauma, I would say.”
Plans to one day reach Canada
Olena Rasskazova has experienced something similar as she tries to think about the future. She is staying at the refugee center with her family – her husband Alexandre and their three children, Jacob 14, Eva 8, Sophia 3 and their two dogs.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do because our situation is very tiring,” Rasskazova said in French, her second language.
“We came from Kiev, there were bombs on our house and we lost everything.”
Rasskazova’s job in Kiev was to help immigrants. She now hopes to use this skill to help her family move to Canada.
“I know there are programs in Canada for Ukrainians. I hope to get the documents and go to Canada,” she said.
It will take time, and the Rasskazovas are struggling to find more permanent accommodation.
“Right now I don’t know what to do. We’re in the process of finding an apartment but a lot of people say – we’re a family with five people and two dogs – they say ‘Oh my, I don’t know'”, Rasskazova said.
The family therefore remains at the refugee center in the hope that local volunteers will be able to help them find a place.
In the meantime, members of the Bolshova family remain busy distracting themselves from long-term challenges.
Sergei still works remotely, using Warsaw’s stable internet to help his colleagues in Kyiv keep their business running.
Olga hopes to continue the NGO she founded to help families with children affected by FASD, and Ivannka, 15, is taking online typing lessons.
Olga says the stress of their sudden flight has eased a bit and Stephania is adjusting well.
“We tell him that we are on a family adventure together,” Olga said. “She’s happy. She keeps asking if the next place we’re going to have a dog.”