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Makeshift shelters in border town operating without any support from the government or charities are struggling to stay open

Jaroslav Negrebecki, 63, sits with his granddaughter, 12-year old Sofia, as he prepares to head back to Ukraine after helping the family get to a Radymno shelter.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Until last Wednesday, Pawel Sanocki’s biggest concern was lining up deliveries of corn and wheat for the family-owned trucking business he runs on the outskirts of Radymno in eastern Poland.

But when he and his wife saw what was happening in Ukraine, they decided to do something. They turned the four-room office in the company’s spacious repair shop into a shelter for refugees. The couple kitted it out with a microwave, a fridge, nine beds, a washing machine and shelves loaded with food. So far they’ve helped 50 people fleeing Ukraine, mostly young women and children.

But the strain is beginning to show. The business has suffered and the Sanockis’ finances are running low. They’ve done this all on their own without any support from the government or charities, and they can’t keep it up much longer. “Maybe one month,” Mr. Sanocki said.

That kind of stress is building in communities all along Poland’s border with Ukraine as the number of people fleeing the Russian invasion soars past one million. So far most of the arrivals have been able to move on to friends or relatives across Europe. But that’s beginning to change and more refugees are arriving with nowhere to go and no means to continue their journey.

Ukrainian refugees line the platform at the Radymno train station.

Above, Ukrainian refugees line the platform at the Radymno train station. Below, Krystyna Poradowska and a group of volunteers called Active Women serve hot soup to Ukrainian refugees waiting at the train station.

As the influx keeps swelling, the pressure is being felt keenest in towns such as Radymno, where Mr. Sanocki’s and another small shelter are struggling to stay open.

Mr. Sanocki said he and his wife have tried to do all they can for the refugees. They’ve not only covered the costs of running the shelter, they’ve also helped refugees arrange transportation to other cities, and they’ve started looking for permanent accommodation for those who have nowhere to go.

“It’s changing,” Mr. Sanocki said of the refugees’ needs. At first, most stayed a night or two and then headed off to meet family or friends. But now many arrivals don’t have family connections and need to find somewhere to live. He’s tried finding apartments in town, but vacancies are scarce. Meanwhile, his business has ground to a halt and two of his children are sick and need care.

He’s thought about crowdfunding or seeking donations. But he backed off after hearing gossip in town that he’s profiting from his shelter and out to make money.

Across the street from Mr. Sanocki, a trio of businessmen are facing a similar plight. They rented a former hostel and turned the building’s eight rooms into a shelter for around two dozen families. But they too have run short of cash and the owner of the building said if they don’t pay up soon, he’ll have to kick out the refugees.

Even a priest in a nearby town has had trouble trying to assist. He frantically called Mr. Sanocki on Monday seeking help finding shelter for 1,500 Ukrainian orphans. So far he’d had no luck.

Pawel Sanocki has set up a shelter for Ukrainian refugees in the office of his trucking business in Radymno.

Rozhena Aksamtovska feeds her three-month old son in the informal shelter run by Pawel Sanocki.

Mr. Sanocki said he can’t bear closing down and turning away people who arrive with their families, such as Rozhena Aksamtovska. She arrived on Saturday from Kyiv with her mother, daughter and three-month-old baby. She had to leave her husband behind along with her brother and his pregnant wife.

Ms. Aksamtovska, 30, was an architect in Kyiv who designed mansions for upscale clients and dreamed of buying her own house one day. “Now I’m homeless and without work,” she said. She’s hoping the family can be reunited in Germany eventually but she’s scared about starting all over. She can’t speak the language and doesn’t have her laptop with examples of her work. “Maybe I can only wash floors,” she said.

Across the hall, Jaroslav Negrvbecki, 63, was saying goodbye to his daughter-in-law and her daughter. He’d helped get them to Radymno on Monday from the family home near Lviv. Now he was heading back to be with his wife. He’d like to stay, he said as tears welled in his eyes, but he has to go back. His daughter and another granddaughter have an offer to move to Italy, but that’s a long way from Ukraine and they’d rather be home.

Ola Hanczakowska, a single mother, sits with her two-year old daughter Tereza in the shelter in Radymno, Poland.Photos by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Over in the hostel, Sari Kuzal Ammar arrived last week from Kharkiv with his wife and three children. His brother, Imad, came too and none of them know anyone in Poland or elsewhere in Europe. Mr. Ammar is trying to apply for a visa to Britain but that could take months, if it happens at all. His brother says he’ll take a couple of weeks to figure out what to do but he may have to take his chances and head to Syria to be with his mother. They hope they can stay in the shelter a little longer, but that depends on the building’s owner receiving his rent.

There are many people in town who are still trying to help. Several townsfolk show up every day at the Radymno train station, offering hot bowls of soup to the dozens of Ukrainians waiting for departures to all parts of Poland. “We have big hearts around here,” said Krystyna Poradowska, who organized the effort called Active Women. “We are crying when we think of them.”

Mr. Sanocki said he’ll try to keep the shelter open. He spent Monday bustling around the building with friends making sure everything worked and that rides had been organized. He’s also turned space in his repair shop into a storage area for several charities who plan to ship medicine and food to Ukraine. On Monday the floor was piled with boxes and packages, including several from Finland containing dog food.

As he took a break and stood in the small kitchen, Ms. Aksamtovska quietly offered her appreciation. “Thank you, thank you,” she said. “I don’t know these people. But they have been excellent.”


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