Part VIII: Poland
Written by: Val Stutz. Edited by: Wilmer Rojas
“We had to cross a bridge over the river into Poland,” recalled Andy. “When we arrived, the Polish people were so nice. They had sandwiches for us. They had jackets and coats for the kids, as well as better clothing, or whatever we needed. They also had soup, tea, and coffee. That was the first real chance we got to have something to eat. But then, we had to wait again to cross. After getting through the crossing we had to find our next bus. Luckily, the border guard helped us.”
The bus would take them to Warsaw, where they had a hotel waiting for them. The woman from the British Red Cross who arranged the evacuation from Kharkiv had also reserved accommodations for Andy and his fellow passengers.
“So by the time we got on the bus, it was around eight or nine o'clock at night. We didn't arrive to Warsaw until about five o'clock in the morning. Then we went to this hotel where we had a free night’s stay. Now we had to figure out what we were supposed to do. We had about 20 people in our group fit into about 6 hotel rooms. I remember that there was one really big family. I think it was a mom and seven kids.”
There are two main challenges to evacuating a war zone: How do you manage to evacuate safely, and what do you do once you have evacuated? Andy’s group now faced the second challenge of their journey: getting settled in Poland, at least for the short term.
“Everybody was looking at me to lead and figure things out. I got on the phone with the woman from Great Britain in Ghana and started trying to arrange everything. She covered one night’s stay at the hotel for us, but we didn’t arrive until three o’clock in the morning. Since we had gotten the basics figured out, we decided to go to bed. Of course, I barely slept. I was awake at seven o'clock.”
It quickly became clear that one night at the hotel was not enough time for everyone to figure out their next move. Fleeing a war zone was jarring and traumatic; ending up in a foreign country that spoke a foreign language with no plans and nowhere to stay put was massively stressful. They couldn’t even exchange currency. Andy explained:
“None of us had any money because there was no place to exchange currency. Because of some strange legal reasons, it’s illegal to exchange Ukrainian hryvnia outside of Ukraine. The reason is that hryvnia is not a world traded currency. While there were a few places where we could exchange hryvnia, the way I understood it, it was not legal.”
Nevertheless, Andy attempted to find a currency exchange that would accept his Ukrainian cash, hoping that exceptions would be made due to the war and the refugee crisis. This issue led to other issues: without legal tender, Ukrainian refugees couldn’t purchase essential items like food and hygiene products.
“I looked for a few places to exchange our hryvnia and kept getting the response, ‘Sorry, it's illegal.’ So we're in Poland and we have no money. My first thought is that I am hungry, so let's see what they have for breakfast at the hotel. The problem was that the breakfast wasn't free, it didn't come with the room. Thankfully, I had some food in my bag that I had brought with me and I ate a bit of that.
“Eventually I was able to get a hold of the British woman from the Red Cross again. I explained that realistically we need another night. We had arrived so late last night that we could really use another night to get our bearings. Thankfully, she agreed, despite the cost of paying for hotel rooms for all these people and providing for them.”
The challenges of being a refugee were becoming crystal clear to Andy.
“What is it actually like to be a refugee? Honestly, it's horrible. You take somebody out of a war zone and just drop them into Poland and then say, ‘Here you go.’ But you can't really do that because then refugees are sitting there thinking: ‘Okay, now what?’ So luckily, the Red Cross paid for another night at the hotel and bought a meal for us. Now my task was to continue trying to find a place that would exchange our currency. I did eventually find one place.”
Andy found a place to exchange his hryvnia, and it seemed too good to be true. But there was a catch to converting Ukrainian currency to Polish currency.
“I went to five banks in one day. None of them would exchange hryvnia. The place I did find to exchange hryvnia was one of those shady kinds of places. Their exchange rate was awful. Poland doesn't use euros, they use złoty and the rate should be around one złoty to a little less than 7 hryvnia (1 hryvnia for 0.15 złoty). But the rate I was getting was around 0.09. Basically 1000 hryvnia will get you 900 złoty. 100 złoty is a little less than $25. Ultimately, we got the money situation kind of figured out.”
More recently, countries taking in refugees have begun to accept Ukrainian hryvnia through special conditions or local requirements. As we concluded our discussion with Andy, he expressed a few words of thanks.
“I definitely want to say thank you to the Red Cross. They did the best job that they could in this very difficult situation. There were definitely issues, but the situation is chaotic. How do you provide for the needs of 40 people?
“As for Poland, Poland has been very welcoming to Ukrainians. When refugees get to Poland, they can use any form of public transportation for free, as long as they have their Ukrainian passport. There is one location where refugees can apply for the equivalent of a social security number in Poland. It allows them to be able to work here and really get their life together. I think people realize that these people are going to be here for a long time, maybe even permanently.”
Andy had a home to return to in the U.S.; the Ukrainians in his group did not have this luxury.
“We still needed to figure out where to house all these people. So the Red Cross assigned everybody an individual caseworker. Everyone except for a few people had some sort of friends or family that they were able to stay with. Only one family and myself didn't really have anywhere to go.”
After his time at the hotel was up, Andy was taken in by a Polish host family with whom he stayed until his departure from Poland.
“I'm so thankful to them. They've been so kind and helpful. They were helping another Ukrainian woman to find a job and meet up with her husband as well. Another lady that was on the bus with me had a daughter who had a friend that lived in Poland and so they stayed with them. Some people have left for other countries. Some have met their family. I'm not 100% sure what happened to the mother with seven children that I traveled with. I know she didn't have anywhere to go, but I know they were looking into some sort of long term housing for her. That Polish family really did help.”
Andy shared some ideas of what he might do upon returning to the U.S. He knows his plans of living and working in Ukraine long-term had been destroyed and his life changed forever. At the time of our initial interview, Andy was still in Poland. We spoke with him again after he travelled to Germany.
“As far as my plans, I'm not really sure what I'm going to do. I can't legally stay in the European Union for very long. I believe it's 90 days. I've actually already been here for over a week. Time passes rather quickly. I definitely want to try to help out in any way that I can.”
After a few days in Germany, he flew back to the United States on April 6th. At the time of publication, he is residing with some relatives in the U.S. and looking into different ways he can get involved to support his friends in Ukraine. In a recent follow-up with Andy, he gave the following statement:
“This story is not over and the future will be better for Ukraine.”
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