Anastasia Laurikova knew she had to get out of Kharkiv the day a 13-year-old boy was killed by a Russian missile not far from her home.
She’d been desperate to leave Ukraine ever since the war started in February, but she lives with her 60-year-old mother, Irena, who had refused to go. The bombing was enough for her, too, and Ms. Laurikova got them on a train to Poland two weeks ago.
“I don’t feel safe in my country any more,” Ms. Laurikova, 34, said as she stood outside a refugee shelter on the outskirts of Przemysl, a small Polish city about 10 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. “Something happened in my head and I had to go.”
She’s worried that she left it too late and that because so many Ukrainians have streamed into Poland, the country’s support services will be stretched and the best housing and jobs will be taken. “Those people will have more opportunities because they came earlier,” she said.
It’s a valid concern. As the war reaches the six-month mark on Aug. 24, the refugee crisis has changed dramatically and much of the early support has vanished. The number of Ukrainians leaving their country has fallen sharply and there’s no longer a global sense of urgency.
But aid workers say the situation could change quickly if fighting intensifies or if Ukraine faces a brutal winter. And they worry that there won’t be the same outpouring of support as there was six months ago.
Had Ms. Laurikova arrived at this shelter in a vacant Tesco store at the end of February, she would have marvelled at the activity.
Dozens of buses and vans lined up to take refugees to cities across Europe for free and hundreds of volunteers stood ready to assist.
The shelter was so crowded with people dropping off food and clothing that police officers had to direct traffic on the surrounding streets.
Now as she looked out at the empty parking lot, Ms. Laurikova was convinced that Poland had little to offer and she and her mother planned to move on to Germany where they hoped more help was available.
There’s no doubt that demand for shelter space has plummeted. The number of Ukrainians arriving in Poland has dropped from around 200,000 per day in late February to 24,000, and almost as many are returning to Ukraine.
And yet, there are still thousands of refugees living in shelters across Poland. The Tesco store houses 200 Ukrainians. Warsaw’s Expo trade centre is home to 3,300 and 400 refugees live in a shelter in an empty office building in the city. Many stay for weeks or months, unable to find a permanent home in Poland’s overheated housing market. Some hold down full-time jobs and leave the shelter every morning for work.
“There are people coming, not as quickly, not as intensely as at the beginning, but they are still coming and I know that there’s also a need to find a place for them,” said Marianna Ossolinska, a volunteer at the Catholic Intelligentsia Club, a Polish charity that runs several refugee programs.
Poland has taken in nearly two million Ukrainians and while the initial public response was generous, interest has faded. In the first weeks of the war, 77 per cent of Poles volunteered or gave money to refugee relief agencies, according to a study by the Polish Economic Institute. Donations totalled more than $2-billion and thousands of Poles offered up rooms in their homes to refugee families.
By May, the engagement had fallen to 39 per cent, the study found. Fewer families are willing to take in refugees any more and hosts no longer receive a government subsidy. Most cities have also stopped allowing refugee to ride for free on public transit.
“It seems that people are not prepared to continually help others in need of support over the long term,” the researchers said.
Iwona Warzynska is among those bucking the trend. She’s squeezing as many refugees as possible into a building outside Warsaw that’s owned by the Camillian Mission for Social Assistance. Before the war, Ms. Warzynska focused on sheltering homeless men. Since Feb. 24, she has freed up rooms for nearly 150 refugees, all women and children. Last week, 15 refugees were living with 80 homeless men, and finding ways to support each other, she said.
But the future is uncertain. Donations have fallen and Ms. Warzynska frets about the homeless refugees she sees on the streets. “We have a lot of worries but we try to be helpful,” she said.
As the war drags into the second half of the year, many charities are finding it hard to keep donors engaged. “Fatigue is obvious. There are many things happening in the world,” said Jose Andres, founder of World Central Kitchen, which has spent US$300-million on emergency food programs in Ukraine and border countries including Poland.
WCK partners with local restaurants and it once had a huge presence in Przemysl. Its colourful tents were ubiquitous, and the charity built a kitchen that could cook 100,000 meals a day. The last tent closed this summer and the kitchen has gone dark.
“We are going short on funding because the money we are spending is real. We are spending a million and a half to two million dollars daily and that’s a lot of money. And I need to assess,” Mr. Andres added in an interview in Kyiv. He said WCK pulled back in Przemysl because the number of refugees has dwindled and he’s confident the charity can ramp up if needed. But he’s worried about how aid agencies will respond if winter is as bad as many expect.
“I’m saying winter is coming and I’m trying, behind the scenes, talking to the big players to say, ‘Hey, either we work more like one unit or there are going to be a lot of holes,’ ” he said.
Most of the international charities that rushed to Przemysl in February have left and it’s hard to imagine now that this city of 60,000 was once the epicentre of the refugee crisis. At one point, almost every school and civic building in town was turned into a shelter or a collection point for donations, and the train station was so jammed that officials put in makeshift beds.
Today there are two shelters left – at the Tesco and Ukraine House – and only a handful of volunteers remain at the railway station.
Around 1,500 Ukrainians still arrive every day by train, including many from places like Mariupol, Kherson and Donbas. “These are people who not only saw the war but they also lost everything; their houses, their families,” said Tatiana Nakonieczna, a volunteer at the Ukraine House shelter which accommodates 50 refugees. “Now, we have much more difficult situations than we had in the beginning.”
There had also been hope among many people in Przemysl that Russia’s invasion would unify the city and end prejudices against Ukrainians that date back to the Second World War.
“In the first month it was really something beautiful. I met a lot of people from Poland, from different countries who came here to help,” said Laura Skibinska, 19, who has Ukrainian roots and helps refugees at the train station. “At some point, it started to not be so-popular topic. And everyone was tired of it and didn’t want to hear about it.”
Anna Grad-Mizgala, a local activist, organized a rally for Ukraine in the main square shortly after the war started. Only a few people showed up but at the time she was convinced attitudes could change.
She’s less optimistic now. Przemysl has largely returned to normal and some of the old attitudes have resurfaced. “The city has changed,” Ms. Grad-Mizgala said last week as she sat in a cafe not far from the square. “But not like I was dreaming.”
She lives in the city’s historic centre and she played host to a Ukrainian mother and her daughters for months. They’ve returned to Ukraine and she’s not sure if she’ll take in another family. But she’s reminded of the crisis every time she hears someone pulling a suitcase over the cobblestones. “That clack, clack, clack of the wheels; it’s the sign of the war for me,” she said. “That was the sound we heard every day at the beginning.”
Ukraine celebrates its independence day on Aug. 24, exactly six months since the start of the invasion. For Ukrainians like Faith Igogo it will be a tearful occasion.
She’s originally from Nigeria, but she lived in Ukraine for 13 years. She got married there, had two children in Kyiv and earned a medical degree in the city. Now, she’s a refugee in Warsaw heading to Canada.
“I still can’t come to terms with what’s happened,” Dr. Igogo said as she clutched her baby son Viktor. “Ukraine is my home. I miss it so much.”
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