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U.S. Secretary of State makes surprise visit to Mlyny refugee centre as humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine worsens

The refugee shelter in Mlyny is among the largest in Poland accommodating the influx of refugees from Ukraine. On Saturday, it housed around 3,000 people, and the strain on resources began to show.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Larissa Gerasymenko wasn’t going to waste a surprise opportunity to tell U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken what she thought about the world’s response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Ms. Gerasymenko, 77, and her daughter had fled from their home in Kyiv last week and made it to a refugee centre in Mlyny, just across the border in Poland. They were among roughly 3,000 bleary-eyed refugees camped out on cots in the centre when Mr. Blinken made an unexpected visit on Saturday.

As he came over to speak to Ms. Gerasymenko, she smiled and stood up, her tiny frame barely visible among the crush of security staff and government officials surrounding the dignitary.

“Everything that’s going on right now is not acceptable. It’s a violation of international law,” she said firmly. “The entire world should be united and very concerned. You politicians just think about it. A lot depends on you. Don’t sleep, please.”

After apologizing for not being fully prepared in speaking to Mr. Blinken, she added; “I wish you luck in this, and also together we are united and we are going to win.”

Larissa Gerasymenko, who recently arrived to the Mlyny refugee centre from Kyiv, speaks to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 'Everything that’s going right now is not acceptable,' she told him.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

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Mr. Blinken listened intently and sought to reassure her that the world was indeed unified in its response. “What the Ukrainians are doing is inspiring the world. And the world is united in support of Ukraine and against Russian aggression,” he said. Then he chatted with another family, met some volunteers and left.

For Mr. Blinken, the tour of the centre was one of a series of stops along the Polish-Ukraine border to show support for both countries. He also met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in a tent at the border crossing near Mlyny.

The two discussed the provision of weapons to Ukraine and international efforts to isolate Russia. They also walked on both sides of a painted line that marked the official border. “The entire world stands with Ukraine, just as I am standing here in Ukraine with my friend, my colleague,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Kuleba added: “I hope the people of Ukraine will be able to see this as a clear manifestation that we have friends who literally stand by us.”

Mr. Blinken’s stop at the Mlyny refugee centre offered him a glimpse into the devastation the Russian invasion is causing families in Ukraine and the growing pressure it’s putting on countries such as Poland that have opened their borders to those fleeing the war.

The Mlyny refugee centre is located in a vacant shopping mall that’s been renamed Kyiv Hall. The Polish military has provided dozens of soldiers to work alongside volunteers, co-ordinating transportation and lodging for refugees.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

The United Nations has estimated that more than 1.5 million people have left Ukraine since the Russian attack began and most have come to Poland. The mass exodus is “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II,” Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency, tweeted on Sunday.

The Mlyny refugee centre – located in a vacant shopping mall that’s been renamed Kyiv Hall – is among the largest shelters in Poland. On Saturday, harried volunteers barely noticed Mr. Blinken as they tried to keep up with the constant flow of arrivals from the nearby border crossing.

So many people are coming here every day that volunteers said they haven’t had time to set up a proper registration system and refugees are largely left on their own to find a cot on the floor. “It’s organized chaos,” Kasaia Saferna said, before she rushed off to help a family. “We need more people. We need more help.”

Despite the frenetic activity, people helping out here say Kyiv Hall has managed to cope so far, owing largely to the extraordinary co-ordination of non-profit groups and the resilience of hundreds of volunteers. Even the Polish military has stepped up and provided dozens of soldiers who work alongside volunteers in bright green vests, co-ordinating transportation and lodging for refugees.

There’s no central oversight here and instead aid agencies from across Europe have banded together to provide an informal structure.

On Saturday, the refugee shelter in Mlyny already appeared to be reaching its limit, even as more refugees arrived.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

They’ve set up a medical centre, organized a separate area for women and children, and arranged numerous stands of hot food. There’s also an information area for refugees who lack proper documents and a loudspeaker that broadcasts departure times for free bus rides to Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and beyond. There are even special bus services for LGBT refugees and those from Africa and Asia, who were working or studying in Ukraine when the invasion began.

Volunteers from Polish groups that often tangle with police and quarrel with authority have found themselves working alongside cops and soldiers. “The soldiers have actually been incredible,” said Anna Ptak, who is from Warsaw and works on LGBT issues. She also praised the police for launching a system of recording the licence plates of buses and cars that offer refugees rides. “I’m glad they are doing that. It helps prevent people trafficking,” she said.

A volunteer from Germany also spoke highly about the efforts to help the refugees.

“Somehow it all works,” said Daniel Hertel, who belongs to a Christian group in Germany. On Saturday, he came offering transportation and accommodation in Saxony for 14 people. Within minutes, he and his partner were off with two families in tow.

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Outside in the parking lot, Bakhromov Nurbek, an official from the embassy of Uzbekistan, was helping several dozen Uzbek refugees from Ukraine board a bus bound for Warsaw. “We’ve been running about 15 buses a day,” he said. The refugees are then driven to the airport where they board free flights to Tashkent. He estimated that so far the embassy had helped 2,300 Uzbeks fleeing the invasion return to their homeland.

There are worries that as more refugees arrive, the centre’s carefully balanced structure won’t cope. On Saturday, the building already appeared to be reaching its limit. There were few cots available and long lines for some services.

Local governments have been setting up new shelters across Poland and another large reception centre is being put together in a vacant shopping mall in Przemysl, the country’s busiest border crossing with Ukraine.

But many here say the Polish government has to do much more. “This place is working but there is no co-ordination,” volunteer Pola Salicka said. “There’s no crisis management at the national level.”

The refugee shelter in Mlyny has a medical centre, a separate area for women and children, and arranged numerous stands of hot food. There’s also an information area for refugees who lack proper documents.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

For refugees such as Zukhriddin Aslanbekov, the centre in Mlyny has provided a welcome respite from the horror of war. He fled from Kyiv a few days ago after watching a Russian rocket blow up a car. Though Ukrainian men, aged 18 to 60, are restricted from leaving the country, Mr. Aslanbekov’s family is from Kurdistan.

Like Ms. Gerasymenko, he got a brief chance to speak to Mr. Blinken.

Afterward, he said his message to Mr. Blinken had been blunt: “The U.S. and NATO must help us to stop this war because we want to come home.”

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