Sharif Muhriddinov left his home in Tajikistan a couple of years ago to study architecture in Kyiv. He planned to make Ukraine his home. But when the Russian army moved into areas around the capital in late February, he headed to Poland. Now he’s stuck in a legal limbo.
While Poland has opened its door to more than three million people fleeing the war in Ukraine, not all refugees are treated the same. Refugees such as Mr. Muhriddinov, 25, who aren’t Ukrainian citizens, have far fewer options and receive much less support from the government and the public.
A Ukrainian citizen arriving in Poland can stay for 18 months. They can also work and are eligible for medical care. Poles who take them into their homes are entitled to receive the equivalent of nearly $12 a day for each refugee.
None of that is available to the other refugees. “They have it much harder,” said Marianna Ossolinska. She’s a volunteer with a Warsaw-based human rights group called the Catholic Intelligentsia Club, which has set up Poland’s only shelter for non-Ukrainian refugees on the outskirts of Warsaw.
Ms. Ossolinska said that under Polish law, non-Ukrainians can only stay in the country for 15 days. They also have no right to work and no access to free health care. Poles who take them in aren’t eligible for the daily subsidy.
They can try to make a refugee claim in Poland, she said, and the club has lawyers who visit the shelter every week to offer free counselling. But the process can take months and claimants aren’t allowed to work while their case is pending.
Another option for non-Ukrainian citizens is to apply for temporary stay in Poland. But that requires a job offer, a place at an educational institution or a marriage proposal, she said.
Public attitudes toward non-Ukrainians can be harsh. Because the Ukrainian government has banned adult men from leaving the country, the vast majority of Ukrainians pouring into Poland have been women and children – people the Polish public has been eager to help. But most non-Ukrainian refugees are young men, often Black, who are subjected to racism.
“So many people are quite afraid of what is unknown and what is different,” Ms. Ossolinska said. “People from Nigeria or Tajikistan are not as welcome in private houses as Ukrainian refugees.”
She recalled a young medical student from Turkmenistan who arrived in Warsaw from Ukraine shortly after the war started. He and a couple of other friends, who also aren’t Ukrainian citizens, were quickly taken in by a Polish woman. But once the woman found out that she wouldn’t receive a subsidy, she threw them out. “She didn’t even give them time to organize a new place,” Ms. Ossolinska said.
The Catholic Intelligentsia Club shelter can accommodate 79 refugees and Ms. Ossolinska said it’s almost always full. Since it opened on March 2, it has been home to almost 700 refugees from Ukraine who are citizens of 39 countries, including India, Egypt, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
At first, most refugees stayed only a few days and many returned to their home country. But now most refugees stay for several weeks while they wrestle with where to go.
The Polish government “wanted to motivate those refugees to go back to their original countries,” Ms. Ossolinska said. “But in fact what we observe here at the hostel is that there are very few that make such a decision.” She said many refugees have been in Ukraine for years and built a life there. Returning to their birthplace is unrealistic.
That’s the situation Imanov Mahir is in. He moved to Ukraine 20 years ago from Azerbaijan and built a business selling fruit and vegetables in Kyiv. When the war started he joined the Ukrainian army and fought in Mariupol. He left for Poland in early April after injuring his leg. Now he’s stuck here with few opportunities and longing to return to Ukraine.
“I’m here but I want to turn back,” Mr. Mahir said as he sat in the shelter’s kitchen. “I have everything there.” When asked whether he would consider going back to Azerbaijan, he just shook his head.
Gayrat Begaliyev, a university student from Turkmenistan, arrived at the Warsaw shelter from Ukraine in late April after a roundabout trip through Moldova. He was in Odesa when the war broke out. “I saw a lot of panic,” he recalled.
He is better off than others at the shelter. Mr. Begaliyev, 26, had residency in Ukraine, which allowed him to apply for a Polish identity card. That made him eligible for many of the government’s refugee programs. He hopes to find work and eventually rent a flat in Warsaw. But he’d also like to return to Ukraine once the war is over. “I don’t want to live here long,” he said.
Ms. Ossolinska’s new challenge is keeping the hostel open. It’s located in a skatepark complex and the owner agreed to rent it to the charity at a modest cost, but only until the end of May. “We are searching for a new place because we see huge need,” she said. “Almost every day we have to say, ‘I’m sorry we don’t have any more places.’ ”
For Mr. Muhriddinov, his best hope is to get accepted at a local university, which would allow him to stay in Poland and receive some government support. He’s been trying to find a place with the help of the club’s volunteers. But there’s no guarantee. And even if he does complete his studies and become an architect in Poland, he wants to return to Ukraine and take out citizenship. “If it’s safe, 100 per cent I’m going back,” he said. “That is my country.”
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