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More than 300,000 people fleeing the Russian invasion have ended up in the Polish capital, and the challenges of supporting them are only now becoming clear

Njavwa Nondo is playing host to Ukrainian refugees in her apartment in Warsaw. Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine, has taken in most of those who've fled since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Njavwa Nondo slowly enters the access code to her apartment building in Warsaw as Vika Lukianets intently looks on, trying to memorize the combination. But the numbers fly by too quickly, and Ms. Nondo has to start over. Then once more.

The process is painstaking because the two women don’t speak the same language and most of their communication has been via Google Translate. In fact, they have little in common and likely would never have met had it not been for the war in Ukraine.

The only reason they are here on this busy Warsaw street wrestling with the access code is because a couple of hours earlier Ms. Nondo got a frantic call asking if she could take in Ms. Lukianets, who had just arrived from Ukraine with her two children – Nathan, 9, and three-year-old Nika. Ms. Nondo said of course, without knowing anything about Ms. Lukianets or how long she and her children would stay.

They’re just four of the tens of thousands of strangers who have been thrust together all across Warsaw because of the war. Poland has taken in two million Ukrainians so far, and while many have moved on to other destinations across Europe, more than 300,000 have found their way to the capital. As the emergency response to the crisis begins to subside, the reality of how to support so many displaced people has begun to set in – for the refugees and the volunteers.

Outside Ms. Nondo's building, Vika Lukianets holds daughter Nika, 3, as her host tries to share the access code. Ms. Nondo's apartment is not large, but she says she's willing to keep sheltering families there.

Ms. Nondo and Ms. Lukianets couldn’t be more different.

Ms. Nondo, 24, is originally from Zambia but she’s been in Poland for five years and considers the country home. She works in Warsaw’s financial sector, speaks Polish and English and shares a tidy two-bedroom flat with a roommate who travels a lot for work. “I like to believe I have a lot of sympathy and compassion,” she said of her decision to take in families.

Ms. Lukianets was a seamstress back home in Dnipro. She and the children fled the city just before bombs began raining down on their neighbourhood. She left her husband and parents behind and cries when she thinks of them, not knowing how they are coping.

Bridging the divide between the women was never going to be easy. Aside from the language barrier, Ms. Nondo knows she’s likely the first Black person the Lukianets have ever met, let alone lived with. She’s also aware that she has to tread carefully and give the family space.

At times she has found the sudden request for shelter a bit overwhelming. She covers virtually all the costs, and when she’s asked how much longer she can offer up the room, she hesitates and says she’s not sure.

Ms. Lukianets tries to stay out of the way. She sticks largely to the second bedroom, but her children are restless and eager to explore. She declines offers of food and insists she’ll buy whatever her family needs. But she has no idea how long they’ll be here or where they will go. “I have to find work,” she says in Russian through tears. “I have to live.”

Sofia Hawes and her American husband, Oliver, are staying with a family friend in Warsaw after they fled Kyiv.

Across the city, Oliver and Sofia Hawes also have no idea where they’ll go next.

They got married in Kyiv two days before the war started. He’s from the United States, but his family has lived in Ukraine for years. She’s Ukrainian, and most of her relatives are still in Kyiv.

They made it to Warsaw after a seven-day drive across Ukraine with Mr. Hawes’s mother, Jody.

Now they’re sharing a mattress in an apartment owned by Nate Espino, a family friend who is sheltering two other refugees and sleeping on the kitchen floor.

The young couple are stuck. She can’t travel to the U.S. without a visa, and the American embassy has been overwhelmed with requests. The earliest appointment to start the paperwork is in mid-June, and the Hawes aren’t sure they brought the right documents in the rush out of Kyiv. While she is considered a refugee in Poland, he isn’t sure about his status or how long he can stay on his U.S. passport.

“I don’t know where we are going,” Ms. Hawes says.

At a vacant office building turned into a refugee centre, the flags of Ukraine, Poland and Warsaw fly outside. A volunteer delivers children's shoes; one of the stores now offers free clothes. Nadia Murackovskij, bottom, lives here after arriving from Lutsk, Ukraine, with seven children.

In another corner of Warsaw, there’s a glimmer of hope. A bold experiment is under way that could be a template for how refugees resettle here. City officials have taken over a vacant seven-storey office building and refurbished it with showers, washing machines and cots for 400 people. With the help of roughly 100 volunteers, they’ve also arranged free meals and clothing and offered a variety of services, including medical care, job searches and help finding housing.

This is no ordinary shelter. Officials have invited refugee families – nearly all single women with children, as men of fighting age are not permitted to leave Ukraine – to stay as long as they want. But there’s a caveat: Over time, most of the volunteers and officials will withdraw, and the refugees will have to take over. “We know that in a couple of weeks, months, the volunteers will be tired and we won’t have so many hands to work here,” says Aleksander Wlodyka, a volunteer. “So that’s why we are trying to build a community to take care of themselves.”

The centre opened March 3 and has already surpassed expectations. Many of the programs are now run by Ukrainians, and the services have been expanded thanks to the array of talent among the women who’ve arrived.

There’s a full-time veterinarian, several doctors, social workers, teachers, lawyers and psychiatrists who have all posted office hours. The kitchen is now managed by a lawyer from Ukraine – who co-ordinates three meals a day, including a hot dinner – and there’s a “store” neatly displaying donated shirts, pants, jackets and shoes. Several conference rooms have been turned into classrooms for Polish language lessons and tutorials in physics, math and other subjects. Other rooms have been used for film nights and activities for children. On Thursday, a volunteer was showing a group of 20 kids the basics of electricity using a small battery.

Each floor has also been assigned a “queen” who organizes a cleaning roster, and several women have banded together to form a daycare. Many families have also joined together and begun sharing rooms that were once corner offices.

“I feel very good here,” says Yulia Kolesnik, who arrived at the centre Thursday with her young sons, Bogdan and Roman. She was an accountant in Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, and hopes to find work in her profession. “If not I will help here,” she says.

Zmicer Chriedaruk has fled two countries this year: Belarus, then Ukraine.

Not every experience is as happy.

Zmicer Chriedaruk feels a deep connection to Ukrainians fleeing the war. Mr. Chriedaruk and his pregnant wife, Anna, left Belarus on Jan. 1, 2022, after he’d spent more than a decade being arrested and beaten for opposing dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

He thought they’d finally found safety in Kyiv and dreamed of starting a new life as a church pastor. Then the Russian invasion began and they quickly headed to Warsaw, sleeping in a friend’s office at first before finally securing a tiny apartment.

Since he arrived, Mr. Chriedaruk has been organizing rides to help people get out of Ukraine and estimates his network has helped about 300 refugees. But when some Ukrainians discover he’s Belarusian, they turn cold.

“There were several sad cases when we were helping people and after help they would say, ‘Oh, you’re Belarusian, you’re an aggressor,’” he says. “And I felt so bad after that. Do you know my story? I’ve just run away with my pregnant wife from the Belarusian regime. I’ve been in your city, Kyiv, and then moved here. Why are you saying that I am an aggressor?”

He has issues with Ukrainians, too, and believes the country failed to fully support the opposition movement in Belarus. But he’s getting better at just keeping quiet. “I say nothing because I realize it’s a very emotional story for everyone and I don’t know what I would be saying in their place,” he says.

Though she fled Ukraine with daughter, Veronika, 8, Julia Kohut continues to work for its Health Ministry on the Ukrainian COVID-19 response.

For some refugees, just clinging to something back home offers some kind of normalcy.

Julia Kohut hasn’t stopped working for the Ukrainian Ministry of Health since she arrived in Warsaw last week with her eight-year-old daughter, Veronika. They left shortly after the first missiles struck near their home outside Kyiv. “This sound I will never forget,” she says of the strikes. “I don’t wish anybody to feel the same. I began shaking.”

Every morning she faithfully opens her laptop and presses on with her job. She’s part of a group that has been managing Ukraine’s response to COVID-19, and her colleagues won’t let a war get in their way. They still hold regular meetings online. “Can you imagine the meetings we have?” she says. “Some people have to excuse themselves because of bombings.”

Veronika too has stuck with her schoolwork, and her teachers have been conducting four online lessons each morning, sometimes from bomb shelters. “They are heroes for me, such teachers,” Ms. Kohut says.

She is desperate to go home and reunite with her husband, who is now in Lviv. But she’s realistic and knows she may be here a while. She’s looking for a school for Veronika and has been quietly searching for work. But a big part of her remains defiant.

“Our spirit is unbroken,” she says of her countrymen. “I am sure that we will win. We don’t have any other options.”

Exodus from Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail

Convoy of hope

Earlier this month, dozens of Ukrainian children with cancer were spirited to Poland in a complex rescue operation. The Globe and Mail got to ride along.

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The Decibel

Kasia Smith is a Polish-Canadian in Konstancin, south of Warsaw, whose household has welcomed three Ukrainian families to stay as long as they want. Reporter Kathryn Blaze Baum spoke with them. Subscribe for more episodes.

Dispatches from Europe

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Fleeing their homeland, Ukrainian women fear for the men unable to leave

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