MEDYKA, Poland – They traveled for two days. Weaving in and out of a war, the line of their escape intersected by Russian checkpoints, 25 in 60 miles.
First a caravan of buses took them from Berdyansk, Ukraine, a coastal city less than 50 miles from besieged Mariupol, the scene of some of the worst devastation.
Then once back into Ukrainian-held territory, they took a train; 16 people crammed into a space meant for four.
And finally, on the last leg of their journey, they walked, the wheels of their rolling suitcases clicking over the cobblestones. For 13 hours they shuffled forward, passing into Poland at 1 a.m. Friday – three among more than 30,000 who arrived that day. They entered at Medyka, a small village in the southeast of the country where they were welcomed with food, coffee, candy, clothes, medical care and more.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, millions have fled, causing one of the most acute refugee crises in the world. In turn, that has triggered a massive humanitarian response. Volunteers have flooded to Poland and Ukraine, and many countries have welcomed the displaced, none more so than the Polish government, which is providing housing, money and food to Ukrainians.
Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review
Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review
But, at 1 a.m. after that long journey, 6-year-old Karim Gaity’s stomach hurts, and his mother and father are thinking only about his health.
They hustle the boy, face obscured by a hood against the chill of the early morning, into an army-green canvas tent where Spokane doctor Kyle Varner waits by a woodstove.
On this day, Varner had been at the tent, run by Israeli-French aid group Rescuers Without Borders, since midnight. He’d been there for six nights. Most were slow – usually treating just a few patients during his overnight shift – but this one was different.
Humanitarian travel corridors had opened near Mariupol, and refugees were arriving in larger numbers. Already, Varner had checked on two children with stomach problems – a norovirus outbreak, he wondered. He helped get an older man heart medication and gave Valium to a woman who couldn’t stop crying.
That’s the nature of the work here. Mostly common ailments. Ones that in normal times would warrant little concern. But a stomach ache after fleeing your home lands differently, and Karim’s parents, Monsef and Daria Gaity, were worried.
“He is 6 years old, and he’s passed (through) situations that grown men can’t pass,” said Monsef, who was born in Egypt but has lived in Ukraine for eight years. “Virus. Quarantine. War. Six years old. When I was 6 years old, I was doing different things than this.”
Since the war started, more than 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled, and an additional 7 million are displaced within Ukraine. In the first weeks of the war, border crossings like Medyka were packed with thousands of mainly women and children walking and driving into Poland, said Helena Krajewska, a spokeswoman for Polish Humanitarian Action, the country’s oldest nongovernmental organization. Krajewska spent that first week helping refugees cross.
Some are motivated by familial ties. Alex Hajduczok is a cardiologist from Philadelphia who joined the flood of volunteers.
His grandparents were Ukrainian, driven from their home by the Nazis and brought together in a German labor camp.
In those first weeks, that raw interest was vital, Krajewska said. That’s why, when the Gaitys crossed the border, they were met with a bevy of services. Cooks fried up samosas and ladled stew into paper bowls at all hours. There was a place to charge cellphones, a place to make calls. A quiet tent for mothers and children, and buses and vans to shuttle refugees farther into Poland.
Now, a month into the war, fewer people are crossing the border each day and “the immediate needs are being met.” Which raises the next question, and the one that is often overlooked after the drama of a humanitarian crisis wanes: What happens next?
“That’s why we think in the long term. We know this situation is not temporary. Even if the war ends tomorrow, people will not be back to Ukraine for weeks or months,” Krajewska said. “Because they will have nowhere to go back to. I know that the demining of Ukraine will take at least two years.”
‘It’s an impossible journey’
Back in the aid tent, Varner examined little Karim. The boy was quiet and drawn into himself. It was 1:30 a.m., and Daria, his mother, talked nearly nonstop, her concern ricocheting from subject to subject. She worried about Karim, complained that the train they took was too crowded, the night too cold. How long did the trip take, Varner asked?
“I don’t know how long we’ve been traveling,” she said. “It’s an impossible journey.”
Berdyansk is a city of about 100,000 on the Sea of Azov, the northern end of the Black Sea. Within four days of the war starting, it was captured by the Russians, and its port has been used to supply the siege of nearby Mariupol.
Before the war, Monsef Gaity worked in customer service for an online company. He didn’t believe war would come.
“I have no problem with anyone. I had no idea what might happen,” he said.
One of his friends, a doctor in the Ukrainian military, warned him Russia would invade.
“That will not be possible,” Gaity recalled thinking.
The Russians did invade, and four days after the war started, Russian soldiers surged in. Although there was little fighting in Berdyansk, life changed quickly. Cellphone coverage was spotty. The city’s grocery stores cut their hours and only one ATM worked city-wide.
“There is no pasta. There’s no rice. There is no bread. There is no oil. There is no eggs. There is no dairy products. There is nothing,” he said of shopping for food. “You just find Pepsi-Cola, beer and that’s it.”
They hunkered down and got by. Six-year-old Karim was tough, and the family did what they could to shield him from it all, turning the scarcities of war into an adventure of sorts. But then at the beginning of the week, water taps stopped flowing and the family decided to leave.
“It was serious, serious suffering,” Gaity said.
‘Everybody is getting tired‘
The Expo Center in Warsaw is a 160,000-square-foot event center normally filled with concertgoers, conferences, trade shows and more. Last week, for instance, it was scheduled to host a European architectural conference, co-owner Krzysztof Szczęsny said.
Now, the building is full of refugees. The atrium is an intake area where newcomers can settle. The main auditorium is full of cots, the lights dimmed and the murmur of muted voices reminiscent of a library. There is a children’s playroom in a former conference room, tables pushed to the side. In a room for pets, rows of litter boxes are lined against the wall. At the end of one hallway, a Ukrainian woman cuts hair. Customers sit patiently on the floor.
Szczęsny is tired and distracted, constantly taking phone calls and responding to texts. For a month, he’s organized the inflow and outflow of Ukrainians, and while he’s glad he has the resources to help, he wonders about the long term.
“No one is thinking about the big picture,” he said.
In reference to canceling the architectural show, he added: “This is killing us financially.”
Joanna Fixs, a Polish volunteer in Warsaw said, “It’s the fourth week, everybody is getting tired.”
Neither Fixs nor Szczęsny believe the Polish government is doing enough financially and they worry about the long-term effects.
The Polish government has started shuttling refugees to other welcoming European nations, but by and large Poland still has the majority of the displaced. In some cases, the Polish humanitarian response has been so good, refugees opt to return. On Monday, Szczęsny said a bus full of refugees who had gone to Germany came back to Poland citing better treatment.
That’s one of the big unknowns about the current crisis, Polish Economic Institute Deputy Director Andrzej Kubisiak said. Whenever the war ends, how many of the 2.5 million refugees who have crossed into Poland will go back to Ukraine? And how long will the Polish good will last?
“The last few weeks, Poles are very open to those refugees and those immigrants, but it’s not a typical reaction in Poland,” he said.
The Polish government is in the process of building a 350 million euro fence along the Belarusian border to keep desperate migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries from entering Poland. And Poland’s defense minister has said in the past that “the open-door policy led to terrorist attacks in Western Europe.”
The response is different for Ukrainians for a few reasons, Kubisiak believes.
First, Ukrainians are closer culturally to Poles. Already nearly 1 million Ukrainians live in Poland, with steady migration starting in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. All of which makes the integration of refugees into Polish society easier, he believes. According to a 2021 survey from the Center for Prejudice Research at the University of Warsaw, more than 90% of respondents said they accept people from Ukraine as colleagues and neighbors. Economically (not to mention ethically), Kubisiak is a fan of migration of all sorts, noting that it’s a way to counteract Poland’s declining birth rate, and that most jobs migrants do are ones that Poles don’t want to do.
Still, the sheer volume of people is concerning, he said.
“I believe that our country is quite ready to help or to prepare places to stay for around 1 million,” he said. “But maybe not more.”
Krajewska, the spokeswoman from Polish Humanitarian Action, believes it’s an issue of proximity. During other refugee crises, the problem was always happening “very far away.” The fact that this is happening in Poland’s backyard changes the response.
“The only difference between you and the refugee is pure luck,” she said. “They had the career. The houses. The cars. The children were going to school. Everything was going fine. Then something happened.”
‘Trying to humiliate you’
The Gaitys left their home Wednesday, just three hours before a Russian warship docked at Berdyansk was destroyed. They joined a convoy of buses passing through a designated humanitarian aid corridor. They left behind Daria’s elderly parents, who Gaity said he will return to get in several weeks. It took them 12 hours to travel 140 miles. At each Russian checkpoint, Gaity said, soldiers thumbed through their phones. Unable to read his Arabic texts, the soldiers deleted all his messages.
Soldiers would approach refugees from behind, hiding their Russian insignia and calling out “slava Ukraini,” which means “glory to Ukraine” and is the official salute of the country’s military, in an apparent attempt to trick refugees into the traditional response of “heroiam slava,” or “glory to the heroes.” Nobody took the bait.
“They’re trying to humiliate you,” he said.
Along the highway, they passed bullet-riddled cars and burned-out tanks. Caravans of food and water headed in the opposite direction, although he claimed Russian forces commandeered many of those supplies and then redistributed them, pretending it came from the Russian government.
Finally, the family reached Zaporizhzhia, a city still controlled by Ukrainian forces. From there, they boarded a train headed to Lviv and then, finally, traveled to the Polish border.
“I’m exhausted,” Gaity said, after recounting the journey.
A different experience
The different responses to refugees have been evident to Varner, the Spokane doctor. He’s volunteered his medical skills along the Venezuelan border. Working on that border, his job was establishing essentially a “parallel medical system” to backfill the lack of medical care most migrants faced.
That’s not the case on the Ukraine-Polish border.
“When you think of a refugee crisis, you think about people locked away in a camp who are shut out of society and have just a ton of needs,” he said. “Ukrainians and Polish people are basically ethnically pretty darn identical, and it’s a quirk of human nature that we respond better to people who look like us.”
While that’s certainly a factor, many volunteers are also motivated by a belief that this is largely war against totalitarianism. Or, as Fixs, the Polish volunteer said, “We remember the Second World War.”
Regardless of motivation, Krajewska emphasized how vital it is that international attention doesn’t wane. At the same time, she said would-be foreign volunteers should consider whether they’re “fulfilling the needs of the refugees or their own.”
“If there are volunteers that are coming from Australia or New Zealand, which makes the coming very expensive and long and you are also taking space in the hotels or hostels which are very much needed, then it doesn’t make much sense because there are people in Poland who can do these jobs,” she said.
By 1:30 a.m., Varner has finished assessing Karim Gaity. He’d given him an anti-nausea medication and the boy had come to life, chatting happily with Hajduczok, the cardiologist from Philadelphia who speaks Ukrainian.
Soon after, the family left to sleep on cots in a large communal tent. When the sun rose, they ate breakfast and charged their phones, using the laundry list of services provided at this border crossing. They’d figure out transportation later. They have family in Marseille, France, who will take them in.
They are lucky, as far as refugees go. They speak English. They are still together and have somewhere to go.
Not like others. A 72-year-old woman came through one day after her son was killed in the war and she was running out of heart medication. Or the two sisters who fled with their three children, leaving husbands behind. Or as a result of other crises around the world, the roughly 90,000 refugees still living in camps in Greece, or the 4 million Yemenis forced from their homes, or the thousands who trek through Central and South America hoping for a new life in the United States.
None of which lessens the tragedy of this one family’s experience.
The Gaitys gather their belongings from the medical tent, thank the doctors and turn into the night.
Silence returns – silence that is broken only by the sound of rolling suitcases bouncing over cobblestones.
Spokesman-Review reporter Eli Francovich is in Eastern Europe to cover stories with ties to Spokane. His trip was paid for largely by Spokesman-Review readers who have donated to the Community Journalism Fund and through the newspaper’s Northwest Passages event series. To help support this trip and similar newsroom efforts, contributions can be made at www.spokesman.com/thanks.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.