She looked hot, dishevelled and desperate, but Valentina spoke calmly as she entered the small office in central Warsaw. She was looking for help – any help.
She had come to the Polish capital alone in late April from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, fleeing Russian bombs and worried about the toll the war was taking on her health. At 74, she knew that finding work was virtually impossible. She’d been living rent-free thanks to a kind Polish landlord and surviving on handouts of food. But the accommodation wouldn’t last forever, and many of the refugee centres that offered hot meals were closing.
She had already been turned down for financial aid from one charity because she did not meet its criteria. Now, in the office of the Polish Center for International Aid, she received more bad news: The organization was offering financial assistance only to people with disabilities that morning, and she did not qualify.
“I have to survive, somehow,” she muttered as she wandered down the street, hoping to try another aid agency.
Valentina, who refused to give her last name, is among the millions of older Ukrainians who have been driven from their homes because of the war. The high number of elderly refugees is partly owing to the fact that Ukraine has one of the oldest populations in Europe. About a quarter of Ukrainians are 60 or older, according to the charity HelpAge International, and that figure jumps to 30 per cent in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where some of the bloodiest fighting has taken place.
The vast majority of refugees are women, since adult men are not allowed to leave Ukraine, and many are grandmothers who have helped get their children and grandchildren to safety. Now, after living in a foreign land for almost six months, psychologists say a growing number of older refugees are struggling with trauma, the loss of their homes and the strain of trying to get by on a meagre Ukrainian pension.
“For them it’s very hard,” said Liudmyla Zana, a psychologist who left heavily bombed Kharkiv in March and now counsels older refugees in Warsaw. “They have very big emotional problems. Almost everybody has anxiety.”
Dr. Zana runs a weekly session with people all over the age of 60. None of them speaks Polish or has a job. They all live with family members but are desperate to return to Ukraine.
“For older people it’s hard because they have more memories of Ukraine. It’s more difficult to adapt,” said Dr. Zana, whose counselling sessions are supported by Polish charity HumanDoc.
A survey last spring of 737 Ukrainian refugees by a team of Polish researchers found that 76 per cent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorders and 50 per cent had some kind of psychological distress. “The war and its consequences have led millions of Ukrainians to severe psychological shock,” said the study, which was led by Piotr Długosz, a professor at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. “Leaving one’s life’s possessions, fleeing one’s home under fire and the great unknown of one’s future fate are tremendous shock and stress.”
For many older refugees, the pain can often be even more acute.
Raisa Levayk, 65, fled to Poland from Chernihiv in mid-April with her two daughters and a grandson. She left her husband, son and son-in-law behind.
For now they are living rent-free in a house provided by a Polish family, but that support could end this fall. Ms. Levayk says she worries about money and has struggled to adjust to life in Poland. She doesn’t speak Polish, can’t find work and spends most of her day knitting. “I can’t adapt and feel at home here,” she said after attending one of Dr. Zana’s counselling sessions last week.
Sitting near Ms. Levayk during the session was Lidiia Zub. She couldn’t stop tearing up when asked about the difficulties she has faced since arriving in Warsaw from Brovary in late March with her daughter.
Ms. Zub, 61, has problems with her pancreas and lives with constant pain. But the earliest she can see a doctor is December. She has some medication and has thought about returning to Ukraine for an operation. But she is afraid that if she leaves Poland, she may not be able to return as a refugee.
“It hurts all the time,” she said. “It’s very hard for older people to get medical help in Poland.” She, too, just wants to go home and be among familiar surroundings.
Many older refugees like Zinaida Polosina, 61, have decided to head back to Ukraine – regardless of the danger.
Ms. Polosina and her granddaughter, 10-year-old Sonia, came to Warsaw from the Zaporizhzhia region during the height of the refugee influx last March. They’ve been staying with a family friend ever since, and Sonia has picked up Polish and a few friends.
But Ms. Polosina has found living in Poland too difficult. Her pension – roughly 6,750 hryvnia a month, or about $235 – barely covers expenses, especially with the Ukrainian currency steadily losing value against the Polish zloty. “When I came here it was seven hryvnia to one zloty, and now it’s eight to one,” she said. “Here life is difficult. I’m getting some money, but to try to live here on my own with my pension, it’s impossible.”
And while Poles have been largely friendly and helpful, she doesn’t speak the language and has found it hard to meet people. She has never travelled much in her life – the farthest she had ever gone before the war was to Russia.
She is now determined to move to Kyiv in August to be close to her son. “It would be different if I came here when I was younger – if I was 30 or 40 years old and came here with kids,” she said. “But I’m older and I miss Ukraine.”
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