“I know it sounds crazy, but I felt like we needed a chance, and I had to wrap it up.” Lyudmila held up a tiny black leotard strewn with sequins – the dance costume her daughter had to wear for a competition in their hometown in central Ukraine until the conflict sent them fleeing to Poland.
Lyudmila, dressed in a purple tracksuit, her fingernails freshly manicured, arrived at the border with her sister and young daughter. They are among many families torn apart by the war that broke out on February 24. Mothers, wives and sisters forced to leave behind sons, husbands and brothers.
People flee for their lives
I have been in Poland since March 1, working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to help Ukrainians get to safety and as a result watching in real time the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II world. As the conflict escalates, it has become increasingly clear that people are fleeing for their lives. People now arrive with small shopping bags instead of large suitcases. The looks of defiance etched on the faces of the first evacuees have been replaced by blank stares and downcast eyes. A 25-year-old woman hugs the puppy that was a Christmas present from her boyfriend. A woman in her forties anxiously waits for her daughters who, when they finally arrive, are still wearing their pajamas.
More than 4 million people have now fled Ukraine to seek refuge in neighboring countries: Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova as well as Poland, which alone has taken in more than 2 million. Those who have left their homes without official documents are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including human trafficking. The first days and weeks are critical, as families urgently need information about the services available to support them.
IRC provides essential items
The IRC is on the ground in Poland working with partners to provide food, water, healthcare, emergency shelter, sanitation and other assistance. We are purchasing essential items such as sleeping bags and blankets, and providing medical equipment to health teams operating in refugee reception centers and border crossing points. We also help newcomers with psychosocial and legal support, cultural assistance and translation services.
Most families will travel further to Poland or continue to other European countries. Their needs will become greater. Ukrainian currency is practically worthless due to high exchange rates. Many people will need mental health support as the trauma of war reveals its emotional and psychological toll over time.
Some 6.5 million people remain internally displaced in Ukraine. Another 12 million could be stranded or trapped due to the destruction of bridges and roads and increasing violence. The IRC works with our partners inside Ukraine to support efforts to evacuate women and children and provide emergency assistance to internally displaced people. This includes helping people register as displaced people and ensuring they have groceries, blankets, warm clothes and stoves that work in places where the electricity was cut off.
Refugees must be welcomed everywhere
Here in Poland, I have been heartened to see an entire country stepping up to ensure people fleeing Ukraine have access to everything they need. Everyone, from grassroots activists to local leaders, from civil society organizations to the national government, stepped up to offer the refugees a warm welcome.
I see buses offering evacuees free transportation. And as Ukrainians travel to Poland, they see messages of solidarity beaming from roadside billboards. Volunteers provide accommodation, food and clothing.
But this is only the beginning. I am hopeful that what is happening in Poland will turn into a lasting welcome for refugees from all over the world. Those arriving in Europe today will need access to jobs, schools and hospitals later. And not just people fleeing Ukraine: they have been through something horrible, but also people who have fled conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Syria.
Seeking asylum is a human right and refugees should be welcome everywhere.