Shelling destroyed her home, and Anna left everything behind
In the early stages of the war in Ukraine, millions crossed into Poland in search of refuge and protection, and without knowing where to go and what would be next. Crossing into Poland and arriving in the city of Prezmysl is a well-known lifeline to get to safety and away from hostilities in Ukraine.
As many other countries in Europe, Poland offers temporary protection and along with that access to public services, financial support, and other types of critical assistance. Some continue their travel into Poland or beyond, while a smaller number decide to stay in the vicinity of the border and as close to home as possible.
"I hesitated for long, hoping for things to change so I could stay at home," says Anna*, 73, who arrived in Poland on 5 January 2023 from Donetsk.
Before Anna left her home and everything behind, she had endured months without steady electricity, heating, or running water. It became unbearable during the coldest winter months. Then shelling started in her neighbourhood. When her home was destroyed beyond repair, she left.
Along with many others from the region, Anna was evacuated by the Ukrainian army, then travelled by train to western Ukraine, and from there by bus across the border into Poland. Suddenly on her own.
"I remember standing there, not knowing what was next. Some people came to help me as we got out. I move only slowly and with a walking stick. And they offered to carry my bags and take me to a safe place nearby," Anna says.
The memory makes her cry and smile – relieved that she managed the escape and long journey, and sad as she misses her home.
More than more than one in four of the population of 44 million in Ukraine prior to February 2022, are believed to be displaced within the country or across borders.
It is estimated that over five million people are displaced within Ukraine and with additional 6,217,800 persons globally registered as refugees from Ukraine. The vast majority (5,861,300) are in Europe.
By now, Poland is the country hosting the largest number of Ukrainian refugees with nearly one million people from Ukraine with active registrations for Temporary Protection (July 2023).
Information and shelter in a critical location
Prezmysl is located a key location for access between Ukraine and Poland. Before the war, this was also a place visited by many Polish tourists. Today, those traveling from Poland are Ukrainians visiting family who stayed behind, wanting to check their homes and belongings, or those who have decided to return home after depleting their savings during displacement abroad.
Ukrainians arriving into Poland for the first time, often seek information about their rights and opportunities, and logistics for moving further into the country or abroad.
"It is a critical location and DRC Danish Refugee Council has set up an office here at the border to make sure that we can both offer direct assistance, but also support local organisations and grassroot initiatives that often are working with volunteers and little means," says Helena Lassen, DRC Country Director for Poland, Moldova, and Romania.
DRC is part of the UNHCR Blue Dot Centres in the town and right at the border crossing, functioning as information hubs where refugees can seek advice and find concrete help.
Many arrive with little or nothing and need a place to stay for just days or for longer. Others need medical aid, psychological support, travel documents or legal aid.
'My son is the only family I have’
During the first months of the war Prezmysl was overwhelmed with the number of arrivals and to find ways to support the often exhausted and traumatised people.
Many wanted to travel onwards but the need for short term local shelter rapidly increased. Local authorities established a shelter in a former dormitory in a nearby town with room for close to 50 people. Anna from Donetsk was one of them. Many elderly and vulnerable Ukrainians who have become refugees, do often not have the capacity or economy to move on and explore other options.
“My son is the only family I have, but I am not sure where he is. All I hope for is to be able to reunite with him sooner rather than later,” Anna says.
She has difficulty walking and are unable to move far or fast. The ordeals from her escape still fresh in memory, she is not sure she has the energy to travel on or the courage to face an unknown future once again. And she's not sure there is anything to return to at home in Ukraine.
But in September the dormitory-shelter, where Anna has stayed beyond the standard three months, was closed. She and the other residents has been transferred to an accommodation centre in Jaroslaw, others have rented apartments or moved to other refugee accommodation centres further away.
*Names changed to protect the identity of the persons interviewed