'This place is a sign of solidarity with Ukrainians'

In busy Krakow station, harried volunteers welcome Ukrainian refugees

Poles mobilize to absorb hundreds of thousands fleeing the Russian invasion of their eastern neighbor

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ukrainian refugees wait at an absorption office at Krakow’s central train station. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Ukrainian refugees wait at an absorption office at Krakow’s central train station. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

KRAKOW, Poland — Krakow’s central train station is a teeming place. Well-dressed Poles sip coffee as young backpackers head to hostels lugging their heavy packs.

Amid all the energy and promise, lines of tense and somewhat dazed Ukrainian families wait to talk to city employees and volunteers running refugee absorption offices in the station. These are located in the train station to provide services to Ukrainians fleeing to Poland by train. The staffers, who haven’t slept in days, seem even more harried than the mothers holding bags in one hand and small children in the other.

A blond girl bundled up in a pink coat clutches a white teddy bear by the leg.

Inside the office, Ukrainians rest on green cots, their baby strollers and suitcases nearby. A mother sitting on the edge of a cot nurses her baby as volunteers rush by. Makeshift dividers fashioned from shower curtains offer some rudimentary semblance of privacy.

Among the staff are Ukrainians who themselves fled the Russian assault only days before and are now focusing on helping their compatriots.

Government employee Grzegorz Sobol, 36, is running the center. Speaking in Polish, he says that the center provides information and food, offers a place to rest, and helps them get free tickets for PKP trains further into Poland.

It also provides medical assistance.

“This place is a sign of solidarity with Ukrainians who are currently under attack,” he says, walking quickly through the station. “Those who arrive to Poland will receive help, and we will do our best to support all refugees coming from Ukraine.”

Sobol’s sentiment is in line with the response of his country in seeking to help its eastern neighbor.

Overall, more than half a million people have fled Ukraine since its Soviet-era master Moscow launched a full-scale invasion on February 24. More than half of them have fled into neighboring EU and NATO member Poland, the United Nations said Monday.

Another 250,000 were waiting in massive queues at more than half a dozen crossing points to enter Poland, according to Polish media reports.

Ukrainian refugees have also fled to other bordering states including Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, which as members of both the EU and NATO offer safe havens ostensibly beyond Moscow’s reach.

At the train station, a dark, burly man named Yuri stands near the entrance to the absorption office, holding a plastic bag. A Russian-speaker from the eastern city of Dnipro, he fits the exact profile of the Ukrainian that Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is fighting to defend.

But Yuri, who would not give his last name, is heading back to Ukraine to do battle with Putin’s forces. “It’s my country, and I should defend it,” he says, having just dropped off his family at the absorption office.

Yuri, who served as a soldier in Ukraine’s armed forces from 2015 to 2017, wants the world to tell Putin to stop the war, and to go back home.

“It’s very painful in the heart,” he says.

AFP contributed to this report.

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