The women, children and elderly leave Ukraine and enter Poland, carrying bags and trailing small, wheeled suitcases. Some have plastic pet transporters containing their cat or small dog. An unjustifiable and unnecessary war has forced them to flee their homes, sometimes leaving behind relatives too old to make the arduous journey to the border. Their fathers, uncles, brothers and sons have stayed behind to defend their country. The refugees arrive with very little, yet they hold themselves with dignity.
Some are focused on reaching the buses that will take them to a local refugee centre, and walk briskly past our stall. Others accept the offer of hot food and drink, and the chance to sit down after hours of queueing at the border. The children are respectful and polite, and when offered fruit or chocolate will hesitently take only a single piece, saying ‘dyakuyu’ or ‘spasiba’ (thankyou).
Despite being the innocent victims of the Russian invasion, there appears to be no sense of victimhood amongst the Urkainian people crossing the border. They are stoic and strong. Despite how gut-wrenchingly unfair all this is, they appear to accept their situation, and are doing what they must to keep themselves and their families safe.
Standing beside the long queue on the Ukrainian side of the border, I am constantly amazed at how ordered and civil the exhausted refugees remain. With few exceptions, children of all ages wait patiently with their mums and grandmothers. Occasionally a two-year-old melts down, not surprising considering the circumstances, yet the people stuck beside the little tornado and its exhausted mother appear unfazed. Despite the glacial pace of the line, there seem to be no harsh words or frayed tempers.
We serve food and drinks to those who wait, trying to make the last hurdle of their journey a little more bearable. I held out a hot cup of coffee to a lady, and she wrapped both of her hands around mine and said ‘thankyou for all you are doing’. Another refugee stopped me as I headed from the queue for more supplies. ‘I just wanted to say thankyou for being here and helping us.’ My eyes welled up. ‘You’re welcome. You’re welcome.’
I will take many memories away from my time here at the Polish Ukrainian border. One I will never forget is the strength and stoicism shown by the Ukrainians. Guns, bombs and rockets may have taken their homes, kin and livelihoods, but it has not taken their dignity.
Back on the Polish side, a Ukrainian man, too old to be required to stay in the country for military service, acccepted my offer of a hot coffee. He spoke a little English, and we shared a short conversation about what was happening in Ukraine. He then thanked me, bid me goodbye, and began to walk away. After a few steps he paused, turned around, and walked back up to me. Looking me in the eye, he said ‘We will prevail’. I nodded. ‘Slava Ukraini (glory to Ukraine)’ I said. ‘Heroyam slava (glory to the heroes)’ he replied.
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