Malgorzata Kopec stood in the doorway of her souvenir shop and shook her head when the conversation turned to the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees who have recently arrived in Duszniki-Zdrój, a small resort town nestled in the mountains in southern Poland.
She has owned this shop on the town square for 14 years, and she didn’t mince words when it came to what she described as the sorry state of her community. Even before the refugees came, she said, jobs were scarce and holidaymakers had made housing unaffordable for Duszniki-Zdrój’s 4,300 residents.
The sudden influx of 600 Ukrainians has left her even more troubled. She’s worried about the wayward refugee teenagers she sees hanging around the square at night. One of her friends, who works at a ski resort, was recently told to forget about asking for a raise, because the company could find at least two Ukrainians to replace her.
“No, no more,” Ms. Kopec said bluntly about the number of refugees in town.
Not everyone in Duszniki-Zdrój shares Ms. Kopec’s views. Plenty of locals have welcomed the Ukrainians and offered them generous support. But her comments reflect a tension that is quietly building here and in other communities across Poland, as the country struggles to provide for an outsized portion of the more than 2.5 million refugees who have fled the war with Russia. While many have moved on to other parts of Europe, around half have stayed in Poland and are now grappling with how to resettle.
In many ways, Duszniki-Zdrój is a microcosm of how the refugee crisis has played out in Poland – from the initial eagerness to help as much as possible, to the cold reality of struggling to fit everyone in.
“It’s a huge task,” said Piotr Lewandowski, Duszniki-Zdrój’s 38-year-old mayor, who has been in office for eight years.
Mr. Lewandowski knows better than most that this town is one of the last places in Poland someone would expect to find hundreds of Ukrainian refugees. The closest border crossing with Ukraine is more than 500 kilometres away. Until now, Mr. Lewandowski’s biggest priority was building a gondola to connect the town with a nearby ski resort. This is a place where Poles come to vacation and where the biggest annual event is a summer piano festival in honour of Fryderyk Chopin, who played his first international concert here in 1826.
And yet when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Mr. Lewandowski felt compelled to spring into action. He quickly sent two buses to the border and offered to take in as many refugees as possible. “It was kind of natural. We wanted to help them,” he said.
The town rallied behind him. Around 900 people, including dozens of resort owners, offered to put up refugees. Donations of food, clothing, toys, books and other essentials poured into the town’s sports hall, which was transformed into a shelter with 150 beds. Offers of support came from people in France, Britain and Germany. One day, a van arrived from Switzerland loaded with humanitarian aid.
When a charity called the Happy Kids Foundation put out a call on social media for places to house Ukrainian orphans, Mr. Lewandowski offered up three local educational centres, which in more peaceful times specialize in providing Polish kids with chances to experience the countryside for a few weeks each year.
Within a couple of weeks, Duszniki-Zdrój had brought in around 800 Ukrainians, including 72 orphans, who took over the centres. Many of the refugees didn’t stay long, but roughly 600 have remained in town, including all of the orphans. And while the sports hall is no longer serving as a shelter, the beds and supplies have been left in place, in case there’s another wave of arrivals.
Mr. Lewandowski remains enthusiastic about the effort, and he has more plans in the works. He wants to turn over a vacant hotel and a closed restaurant to a group of refugees, and help them find financial support to reopen the businesses.
But difficulties have emerged. The local school can only accommodate 250 students, and there are roughly 320 Ukrainian children in town. Some primary classes now have more refugee kids than locals, leading to some grumbling from parents. There have also been complaints about the lengthy sports hall closure. And some locals fear Ukrainians will undercut them for work.
“Some of my friends worry that Ukrainians will take away jobs,” said Gabrielle Smichura, who works at the Hotel Sonata near the town square. “They say, ‘they have nice clothes, they have nice cars.’ But I say, ‘that’s all they have.’” Ms. Smichura dismisses the griping, but she admits that she has turned away seven refugees who came looking for jobs at the hotel.
Many of the refugees now living in the town – who are mainly women with children, because the Ukrainian government has banned adult men from leaving the country – have struggled to find work and daycare. Anyone without a car is at a disadvantage, and permanent housing is almost impossible to find.
Most private flats are reserved for holidaymakers. Rents for what’s left on the market start at around $800 a month. That’s a hefty amount for the Ukrainians, many of whom are living on savings. After collecting no rent for more than a month, some apartment owners who took in refugee families are anxious about summer bookings. It’s not clear how much longer their charity will last.
Lesia Bilolutska came to Duszniki-Zdrój a month ago from Brovary, outside Kyiv, with her 14-year-old son, her sister-in-law and her four-year-old nephew. She has been overwhelmed by the support they’ve received, including free use of an apartment. But she knows the help can only last so long.
She’s still working for a Ukrainian company online, but she hasn’t been paid in over a month and her employment looks tenuous. If the owner of the flat asks for some rent, she’ll have a hard decision to make. “If I’m asked to pay for the flat I will have to choose whether I pay or if it’s better to spend this money for two, three months of food in Ukraine,” she said.
Ms. Bilolutska added that her sister-in-law, Alla Nesteruk, can’t find a job. And Ms. Nesteruk can’t get her son into a nursery school because places are reserved for the children of people who are employed.
The refugees and townspeople are also wrestling with whether it’s possible to overcome language and cultural divides.
Ivan Ryzukov, 18, looked puzzled when he was asked last week if he’d met any other teenagers in town. He’s one of the 72 orphans who came here last month from Kropyvnytskyi, in central Ukraine. So far, he has had minimal interaction with people in town. “We don’t know them,” he said as he hung on a swing in a playground with six other orphans. “We’re not interested in meeting other teenagers,” some of the others chimed in.
Language is the biggest issue, they added, but there’s also a sense among refugees and townspeople that the two sides are more comfortable with some distance between them.
The orphans have been left in legal limbo, which has only heightened their isolation. Despite a flurry of adoption offers for the younger children, they all remain subject to Ukrainian law and can’t easily be relocated. Ivan and his friends had no idea if they would be staying in Poland, heading back to Ukraine or going somewhere else.
Caring for such a diverse group of orphans – they range in age from three to 18 – has been challenging for local officials. Some of the children have disabilities, and many come from troubled homes. Both of Ivan’s parents have been in prison for 10 years. He won’t talk about his background. Another orphan, Locsha Peknich, who is also 18, said they all have traumas to overcome.
The children are supposed to be attending online lessons offered by a school in Ukraine. But many of the older kids seem aimless. The police had to intervene recently when a few of the teenagers caused minor problems in the town.
Still, many townspeople and refugees are trying their best to make it all work. The sports hall is buzzing with volunteers and the school principal has set up an informal group to help Ukrainian kids learn Polish and keep up with other school subjects.
Valentin Pshenichnuy wants to do his part, too. He arrived here from Kremenchuk, southeast of Kyiv, with his wife and three children. He’s desperate to work, but his options here have been limited, largely because he lost all of his fingers to frostbite more than a decade ago. He has been volunteering at the sports hall, but life in Duszniki-Zdrój hasn’t been easy.
“We live in a different way,” he said. He wants to go home and help rebuild Ukraine. “But I don’t want to go home with empty pockets either. I have to find a job. I’m not used to sitting around doing nothing.”
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