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Sunflower War 🌻 Part 4
"It's a lost generation. They ruined their youth. I can't save the country, so I try to save a small part of it, my family," expressed Oleksandr.
“Build a new life in Poland or believe that the war will be soon over.”
Here we are a year after the unbelievable happened when Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing thousands of civilians to leave their houses and embrace the unknown. Most of them headed to neighboring Poland. How is their life there now? What are their plans and hopes? We've tried to find that out with the great help of Kelli Smith, a 38-year-old American living part of the year in Kędzierzyn Koźle, a small city in southwestern Poland.
Total displacement of Ukrainians
Between February 24, 2022, and January 12, 2023, 9,130 mln Ukrainians crossed the border between Poland and Ukraine to enter Poland, while 7,931 mln crossed it to go to Ukraine (official data). However, Lieutenant Anna Michalska, spokeswoman for the Commander-in-Chief of the Border Guard, emphasizes in her interview with one of the Polish journals (Rzeczpospolita) that this data "is the number of border checks, not the number of individual people. One person could cross the border dozens or even hundreds of times" she explains.
This data shows the scale of movement between two countries and the scale of the challenge it brings. Neither the Chancellery of the Prime Minister nor the Office for Foreigners has any data on how many Ukrainians crossed the border with Poland after February 24, 2022. The latest government figures show that 1,356,082 people from Ukraine have war refugee status. To understand this number better, according to Reuters, over the ten years of the war in Syria, EU countries have taken in about a million Syrian refugees, and more than half of them migrated to Germany. Poland alone received a wave bigger than that in one year. Many of those people are still there, not knowing what the future brings.
A marathon, not a sprint
The invasion seemed more surprising to the Polish government than to the Poles. A wave of immigrants collided with a wave of empathy. The world observed the unexpected mobilization of ordinary people, organizing themselves via social media into aid groups, picking Ukrainians from the border, and taking them to their own houses. Such a forceful reaction began to raise fears of being only a short-lived optimistic impulse. It was then that people in Poland began to say: "Let's save the energy; it's a marathon, not a sprint that we're running." As if they already knew it wouldn't last days but much longer.
No one could understand this slogan better than Kelli Smith, wife of David Smith - a professional American volleyball player who plays overseas in Poland for part of the year. In 2022, it was his third season in Kędzierzyn Koźle. Kelli is a passionate runner. She's been running competitively almost for 25 years, so she knows how to push her limits and properly distribute energy. Running experience helped her to turn anxiety into action when the invasion began. While her relatives urged her to return to the US, she decided to stay in Poland and help Ukrainian immigrants. As an outsider, she was not only able to gather almost $100k in donations, but also observe the situation from a different perspective.
“It's easy, I believe, when you're in the US to feel removed from the things that are happening around the world.”
Kelli thinks that Poles' initial empathy has its roots in the history of their own country.
“I think Polish people, especially initially, really responded to what was happening in the war because I feel like they have been through that with Russia, they've experienced this moment with Russia as a country when their country has been taken over, and parts of their country have been taken permanently even. So I think that initially there was this reaction that we know what this is like, we need to help those people from Ukraine."
But as she has lived in Poland for a while now, she cools the enthusiasm and brings her insights from before the war.
“My only experience about Polish-Ukrainian relations before the war was Polish people were having some negative thoughts or words towards Ukrainians, kind of like those are just Ukrainians, like they are immigrants, they're coming to Poland to work, and it wasn't a positive relationship as far as I heard, not across the board, but I definitely heard that more than I heard anything else. And so that was an interesting dichotomy to see how Polish people jumped in immediately when the war started because I didn't expect that.”
She's worried that this negative approach may come back sooner or later, making the immigration of many Ukrainians even more bitter and the hypothetical decision about staying less probable.
No place like home
Even those Ukrainians who came across wonderful people of goodwill can't feel at home in the neighboring country. Even when moving somewhere of our free will, sometimes we feel like a stranger, let alone a refugee with nowhere to return. Because of that, only some are prepared to run a marathon. Some prefer to run a sprint every single day - especially those who left their relatives in Ukraine. Huge numbers of Ukrainians treat their life in Poland as a temporary thing. They live day by day, hoping that the war will be over soon. That hope helps them to stay strong and bear the separation from their families.
“It's the acuteness of what's going on and the uncertainty day after day. Because so many of them, I think, wishfully were thinking this war was not going even last this long. I think if you look at the rest of the world, we say, ‘Oh, this could go on for two, three, four, five years potentially.’ But I think a lot of Ukrainians, out of just this hope, have thought, maybe tomorrow it will be over, maybe tomorrow I can go back."
As hope can be a great fuel to survive emotionally, in many cases, it's causing a type of freeze-frame effect.
“I kind of describe it as like they are in between, like they're here, but not yet. They can't decide where they want to be and where they are even at the moment.”
Lifecycle of hope
And that happened with two sisters, Lena and Maria, and Maria's son. They came to Poland right after the invasion in March, and since then have lived in a small town in southern Poland. They kept their things in bags in April because they were hoping to return soon. There was no point in looking for a job in May because the situation improves daily, and soon it will be over, they said. There was no reason to enroll Maria's son in school in June because he'll be back in his own school when the semester begins. In October, they thought it was a matter of holding out for two more months to spend Christmas with their husbands in Ukraine.
A year has passed and every day they keep pushing for this happy moment to return to their homeland. You can't start a new life here when you worry about the loved ones that stayed there.
"Every brief moment of happiness here brings guilt," Lena says. "What helps me emotionally is my Instagram account. After moving to Poland, I created a new one. I just couldn't post anything on my old profile, full of memories and happy moments from life that suddenly ended. But I like to write, to vent my emotions. So there's a new Lena now."
These two accounts appear as a sad symbol of life tearing into the one before and after the war. Of people that will never be the same again, no matter how and when this war ends.
Ordering a taxi in any big Polish city, there is a chance that your driver will be Ukrainian. Oleksandr lives in Wrocław. He came after the invasion, as his age allowed him to leave the country. In Ukraine, he was working as a veterinarian in ferret breeding.
"Sweet animals?" He laughs. "You wouldn't say that if they would bite you as many times as they bit me. Sad? Yes, it's sad. But some rich people from rich countries like beautiful fur. I feel sorry for animals, but I feel more sorry for people. They need to eat, and from furs, there was big money. Here I can't work as a veterinarian. They wouldn't accept my papers."
Oleksandr has a daughter. She didn't want to leave Ukraine, but he persuaded her. Now she studies at Jagiellonian University, recognized as one of the best universities in Poland.
I told her, "Look, you can't sit and wait. You are 19 and have all your life ahead. Our country is great, but even if the war ends today, we have nothing to do. It will take decades to rebuild what they did." Oleksandr talks with full conviction as if his daughter was sitting in the car.
"It's a lost generation. They ruined their youth. I can't save the country, so I try to save a small part of it, my family," expressed by Oleksandr to me.
So this is the other way of resistance — to assimilate, use opportunities, and save time.
Kelli admits that she met Ukrainians who decided to stay as well:
"Do I put my roots down in Poland, do I start to settle, do I start to learn the language, do I get my kids really invest in school, and do I try to find work, or do I just sit and wait and hope that we're going back soon. And I've seen that play out in different families that we've helped over the last six months. Some families have really embraced Poland.”
Blue and yellow
In extreme situations, everyone chooses the path that seems most advantageous to them. Hope is an effective survival strategy. Whether someone decides to return, stay in Poland, or keep waiting, they all feel like Ukrainians. Their country will exist as long as the colors blue and yellow do. We've learned from this war, and many other wars, that as long as someone calls himself by the name of a particular nationality, as long this nationality exists. The land is important, but the secret is its people.
Story by Joanna Kozuch
The conclusion of the Sunflower War 🌻 series is a message sent by an 18-year-old Ukrainian student, Anya Marchuk. Please have a read in the name of peace and hope. ✌️ 🌻