Between fear and the future, Chris York reports from Poland about how the Russian President has upended so many Ukrainian lives

“We really had a cool life. We had a flat, a couple of cars. My boyfriend was a director, a really good job. And now I’m expected to be a cleaning lady for zł1,000 (£178) a month.”

Alla breaks down as she describes how everything she hoped for her future was destroyed three weeks ago when Russia invaded Ukraine.

The 29-year-old from Irpin worked for the Ukrainian state service on a public procurement programme that won a prestigious award last year for “improving the quality of life in society”.

Now, she sits in Warsaw train station with her son, her dog and a couple of bags of possessions – just one of the estimated three million people who have left Ukraine in the face of the devastating war launched last month by Vladimir Putin.

Alla. Photo: Chris York

“With the language barrier here it’s not possible to continue my career,” Alla adds. “The state services work in Polish legal frameworks so first I’ll have to become fluent in Polish and then the Polish legal system and I don’t think it’s possible when I’m nearly 30.”

Poland has been inundated with refugees since the war began, almost all of them women, children and the elderly after Ukraine’s mobilisation law forbade any men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. A huge, largely volunteer-led, effort is helping to house and feed them.

Almost every child in sight has left behind a father and almost every woman a husband, boyfriend or son. Behind them is the heartbreak of broken families and the terror of daily bombings. Ahead of them is nothing but uncertainty, strangers in a foreign land with no idea when they can return home – or even if they will have homes to return to.

Alina and Anya are sisters from Kyiv. Alina studied musical art and Anya was a primary school teacher.

“I wanted to develop my career in Kyiv,” says Alina. “I wanted to be a teacher and then maybe later to open my own café or business.”

With Kyiv now under daily bombardment and a strict curfew imposed, its streets are deserted and half of the Ukrainian’s capital’s population has fled.

“We feel like guests in an alien country,” Alina says. “We feel like we have to start our lives from a new page and it’s very difficult to realise that all the dreams and hopes we had have been crushed in one day. It’s very bitter and difficult at the moment. It took a few days after we left to feel safe again because we have a very strong reaction to loud noises or planes overhead.”

Alina and Anya. Photo: Chris York

For some, thinking about the future doesn’t extend beyond the next few days.

Languages student Masha, 21, from Severonetsk, simply expressed a hope from some relief from the journeys she and other refugees have been forced to make.

“It’s very hard to talk about any plans for the future now because we don’t know where we’ll stay so I can’t comment about the future,” she says. “I just hope to not have to travel from train to train and bus to bus all the time because it’s very difficult.”

Even where there is hope, it is tainted by the separation of relationships and the destruction being wrought at home by the Russian Army.

“Today I found a job as a spa therapist near Berlin in a hotel and they’re going to give me accommodation and work,” says 31-year-old Victoria. “My husband was an economist and a director of a big firm but he can’t leave the country so I travelled alone. But now he’s lost his job and he lives with relatives. It was difficult to say goodbye but we had no work and no money so I decided to leave and find a job so we can pay off our loans.

“Where we live in Ukraine is in Brovary, not far from Kyiv, and we have a flat there but now this place is destroyed and too many people died, even kids and women.”

None of the three million Ukrainian refugees know how long it will be before they can return home, a decision largely in the hands of the Russian President.

But Putin’s war is not going as planned. Now in its third week, Russian military planners had expected to have taken Kyiv in a matter of days, yet the capital still stands.

Composing herself and wiping away tears, Alla says: “It’s okay. Ukraine is a very strong nation. I really hope the war will be over soon so we’ll just roll up our sleeves and rebuild our Ukraine.”


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