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Ukraine’s decision to ban men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country has meant that the vast majority of the two million people who have fled the fighting have been women

A vacant shopping mall in the border city of Przemysl, pictured here on March 8, has been converted into one of the largest refugee centres in eastern Poland.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Shortly after Natali Ticegko crossed the border into Poland from Ukraine on Tuesday, someone gave her a bouquet of pink roses in honour of International Women’s Day. She appreciated the gesture and in normal times, she’d join in the celebration. But not now.

Ms. Ticegko, 30, left her husband in Donetsk and she has no idea if he’s dead or alive. “This day for me, it doesn’t matter,” she said as she clutched her five-year-old son. As she waited to register at a refugee shelter in the Polish border town of Krowica Sama, she scrolled through photos of her husband and came close to tears with the flick of each picture. “I don’t care about women’s day this year, maybe after the war.”

Natali Ticegko holds a bouquet of roses outside a refugee centre in a village hall in Krowica Sama.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought new meaning to International Women’s Day, given the scale of the conflict and the mass of refugees fleeing for safety. The Ukrainian government’s decision to ban men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country has meant that the vast majority of the two million people who have fled the fighting have been women.

Poland has taken in the most refugees, and shelters in communities all along the border are filled almost exclusively with women and young children.

“I don’t know where I will go,” said Natalia Sobcinska, 63, who made her way to Poland from Donetsk this week in a wheelchair with her two-year-old dog Jarek. A car accident 25 years ago made walking all but impossible. She used to compete in wheelchair marathons and once coached young athletes. Now, she’s searching for somewhere to rebuild her life.

“I have hope that everything will be good. But we don’t know. Maybe God will do something,” she said.

Events commemorating International Women’s Day were held around the world on Tuesday and many included calls to stand with Ukraine. “To our sisters from Ukraine who are fighting to keep their country free and their families alive: We stand with you in solidarity,” said Jill Biden, wife of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Agata Kornhauser-Duda, the wife of Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, launched a social-media campaign aimed at women in Russia, where International Women’s Day is a major holiday stemming from Soviet times. Ms. Duda called on women around the world to post messages to Russian women calling for peace.

“Let’s ask them, the mothers, wives and daughters of Russian officers and soldiers who take part in the invasion of Ukraine, to protest on this day against further bloodshed and speak for life and peace,” she said in a video posted on Twitter.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he couldn’t offer his countrywomen congratulations this year. “Today, I cannot say the traditional words,” he said in a video released Tuesday. “I just can’t congratulate you. I can’t, when there are so many deaths. When there is so much grief, when there is so much suffering. When the war continues.”

Vaiya Zmeivstya, left, and her one-year-old son arrive at a border crossing in Budomierz.

That sentiment echoed across many Polish border towns where women’s day is usually a time to rejoice.

In Oleszyce, villagers usually hold a giant party in the school gym and hundreds of local women come together for a night of fellowship and celebration. But this year’s party was cancelled and instead the school’s cafeteria has been making meals for 30 refugees housed nightly in the town’s cultural centre.

“It’s the first hard ladies’ day for me,” said Anna Pracalo, who normally teaches children art and drama at the centre but is working full-time caring for refugees, nearly all of whom are women.

Ms. Pracalo, 31, said a man from the village came to the centre with flowers on Tuesday and handed them out to some of the refugees. They were grateful, she added, but after he left, one woman began crying and said; “We don’t have women’s day in Ukraine any more. It’s just another day now.”

Anna Pracalo at the culture centre in Oleszyce, which has been turned into a shelter for 30 Ukrainians.

Like many people offering help, Ms. Pracalo worries about where all these women will end up and whether they’ll stay safe on their journey. Refugee centres are full of men offering free rides to women and young families to cities all across Europe, which refugee advocates say leaves many vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Ms. Pracalo said she’s heard too many stories of refugee women getting into cars with strangers only to jump out in a hurry when the conversation turns scary. The culture centre deals only with local drivers who are well-known in town, she said, and volunteers gather women together to make sure they travel in groups.

But there’s only so much she can do. The women rarely stay for more than a day in the shelter and Ms. Pracalo has no idea where, or how, they’ll eventually settle down. “I think about that all the time,” she said. “But we can’t do anything about it.”

Some women like Ielyzaveta Kukhar plan to go back to Ukraine, if only to provide some kind of support. Ms. Kukhar, 37, arrived in Poland last week from Kyiv and she’s living and volunteering at a shelter in Korczowa, near the border. But her heart is in Ukraine and she’s keen to return despite all the danger. “I want to help my family and friends,” she said. She doubts she’ll take up arms but she’ll try to find some other way to volunteer.

For others, returning home is only a dream right now. Eliza Savicheva, 18, was studying interior design in Kyiv before she had to leave with her mother, her aunt and her nine-year-old nephew. She made a few Molotov cocktails with her friends before fleeing but now her mother is thinking of heading to Germany and Eliza has no idea when she’ll see her father or brother again.

“We will have to start over,” she said as she sat with her friend in a shelter in Radymno.

As she got off the bus from the border in Przemysl on Tuesday, Anastasija Tikhonova marvelled at the number of women crowded into a shelter set up in an empty shopping mall. She’d been pursuing a masters in philosophy at a university in Dnipro but now was scrambling to find a way to get to Germany with her mother.

International Women’s Day was far from her mind, but not the war or the violence at home. “Our people don’t want war,” she said, and then she ran for a bus.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought new meaning to International Women’s Day, given the scale of the conflict and the mass of refugees fleeing for safety.

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