Ukrainian child refugees in Poland fear for their safety after explosions

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The children were from an orphanage in Zaturtsi, Ukraine.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Children at the orphanage in Zaturtsi, Ukraine, thought they had finally put the war behind them when they fled to Poland last March with the help of a Polish charity.

But this week’s explosion in the nearby town of Przewodow, which killed two men, has rekindled terrors of the conflict. Some children are so scared that they have asked to go elsewhere.

“They got scared and started asking, where are we going? said Natalia Duda, a Ukrainian teacher who accompanied the group to Poland. Ms Duda said a little boy grabbed his teddy bear when he heard of the blast and said they should leave. “It’s not safe across the border, and now it’s not safe here,” she added.

Poland has been on edge since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, but the fighting only crossed the border on Tuesday, when a rocket slammed into a grain warehouse in Przewodow, about three kilometers from the border Ukrainian. Two granary employees – Bogdan Wos, 62, and Bogdan Ciupek, 60 – were unloading a truck at the time and died instantly.

Physiotherapist Ivanna Kalynych, a Ukrainian refugee, tries to call her son in Ukraine.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

The incident sparked a rare rift between Ukraine and its Western allies. Polish officials said the evidence pointed to an errant rocket fired by Ukrainian Air Defense Forces. This conclusion was supported by the United States – but rejected by Kyiv. Ukrainian officials said they have proof the rocket came from Russia, but the Russians deny firing any warheads at Poland.

On Friday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said investigators from his country had joined the Polish team to investigate the incident. “I am grateful to the Polish side for granting them access,” he said on Twitter. “We will continue our cooperation in an open and constructive manner, as our closest friends do.”

The children in the orphanage don’t know who is right or wrong, but they all understand that war has returned to their lives.

The group includes 27 children aged 5 to 17 years old. About half are orphans; the others have disabilities and have been cared for by their parents.

They moved to Poland on March 1, just days after the outbreak of war, with the help of the Polish charity Honor in Helping Children. They now live in Ostoya Roztocze, a former hotel in Kaweczynek, nestled in rolling countryside and state forest.

Roxanna, 14, runs through the snow in eastern Poland.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Roxanna, left, Viktoria, 14, Maria, 16, and Kateryna, 15, have fun on a swing.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

It was supposed to be a haven of peace, where children could continue their education and benefit from rehabilitation. But the explosion shook everyone and the small staff – two teachers and a physiotherapist, also refugees – spent a good part of the week trying to reassure the children and themselves.

“The war has affected us here,” said Ivanna Kalynych, the physiotherapist. She joined the group a few months ago after leaving her husband and 16-year-old son in Zaturtsi. She’s felt safe enough in recent weeks to make regular trips home to visit them, but now she’s not so sure. “It’s painful for us,” she said Friday as tears welled up in her eyes. “We thought here was a safe place, but you can’t be safe because of Putin.”

Outwardly, the children show few signs of the stress and dislocation they have experienced. On Friday morning, they got together for a short workout and danced to a video featuring an animated, twirling corn cob. Then come the mathematics and physics lessons. By noon the group had been released and they ran outside to ride the donated bike or swing in the playground.

But for many of them, war is never far from their minds. Kateryna, 15, said she was following news from Ukraine closely and, although she didn’t fully understand what happened in Przewodow this week, she knew enough to be scared. “We were all scared,” she said as she sat on a swing with her 14-year-old sister, Veronika Vira, and two friends. “We don’t know if it was a Russian or Ukrainian missile.”

A group of children are getting ready for a morning of lessons with some exercises.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Kalina, 15, helps in the kitchen.Anna Liminowicz

The girls try to put the conflict aside and chat with friends at home about the latest Ukrainian pop star or the most talked about TV series. Kateryna likes to sing, while her sister and her friends prefer to dance, paint and ride bicycles. But their discussions are sometimes interrupted by power cuts in Ukraine or air raid sirens. And some of the orphans flinch when they hear warplanes overhead, patrolling the border region.

The children remain largely alone in Kaweczynek. Only a few attend the local school; the others stay at the hotel, only rarely venturing into town. Even their neighbors have not set foot in the field to talk to the orphans, who are not fluent in Polish. And though they love the surroundings – the woods and the flock of geese roaming the yard – their hearts are in Ukraine. “We want to go back to Ukraine, but it’s war there,” said Veronika Vira.

Ms. Duda and the other teacher, Irena Kasenczuk, try to keep the children comfortable by not discussing current events. But it’s a challenge when they also feel the tension of the fights, which now seem too close. Ms Duda said she and Ms Kasenczuk spoke this week about what would happen to the group if Poland were drawn into war. “It would be World War III,” she said. “We thought that if Poland joined the fighting, we had to go back to Ukraine.”

Children enjoy a snack served by teacher Irena Kasenczuk during a break in class.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Kasenczuk could go to Canada. She has a visa and a brother who lives in Calgary. But she won’t leave the orphans or her husband and two sons, who are back in Zaturtsi, especially not as Russia steps up its bombardment of Ukrainian infrastructure.

On Friday, thinking of the deadly explosion in Przewodow, she apologized to Poland for bringing war to the country. Ukrainians fleeing the conflict came here unexpectedly, she says, like snow in summer. “I know we are a burden.

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