Since February 24, more than 6 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine, seeking safety with what little they can carry and not knowing what will happen next.
Of those who have fled, nearly 3 million have gone to neighboring Poland. Below, in their own words, refugees from Ukraine share their experiences of leaving their home country, their journey to safety and hopes for the future.
Victoria fled Ukraine with her child and two friends. She left the rest of her family behind, and waited at the border for 12 hours with hundreds of thousands of other refugees before crossing into Poland.
“How does anyone feel being forced out of their country, being made to leave loved ones behind? Or being exhausted waking up to sirens, taking our children to the shelter at night?
I made the unimaginable decision to leave Ukraine for the safety of my child. I have left everyone—my husband, my siblings, my parents, my entire family—in Ukraine.
After we reached Poland, I managed to contact a friend who said we can stay with them until the war is over. Now that I’m here, I use my voice to speak up for the people back home. Ukraine is a peaceful country. For a long time, it was full of peaceful people who never wanted any war. People were happy just living in Ukraine. We simply want to live.”
Iryna was still on maternity leave when the war began and her whole world turned upside down. She escaped to Poland with her 1-year-old daughter Varvara, her sister and her sister’s two children. She describes feeling a mix of happiness and guilt, for being safe and far away from the people she loves.
“It is difficult to describe how scary it is to hear sirens all the time. We had to go to basements and shelters several times a day. We are happy to have left that, but all of our relatives are still in Ukraine and it’s difficult to be separated from them.
For the journey we took only essentials, like children’s clothes and hygiene items. I took the least for myself and only a small amount of food, it was all we could carry.
I want this horror to stop, so that everyone can return. People, including children, are being killed everyday. This cannot continue. What we need is for everyone—politicians and states—to unite to try to achieve some meaningful peace. There have already been so many tragedies and losses.
Now that I’m in Poland with my daughter and sister, I hope that my husband will see that we are safe, so that he stops worrying. We’re so grateful for all the help we’ve been given, and that has been received by so many others fleeing Ukraine. I’d like to thank the world for all the help they have given us so far.”
We spoke to the 24-year-old Ukrainian refugee at the Ukraine-Poland border, after she fled with her mother and brother.
“It was a hard decision to come here because my dad can’t be with us—men are not allowed to go abroad. But we decided to leave because no one knows what will happen today or tomorrow. A lot of my friends and family stayed in Ukraine. It’s their native country and they don’t want to leave it, they want to defend it. In the beginning, we thought maybe this would be resolved in a week. Now, it’s been more than ten days, the same situation. But we don’t lose hope.
We were sad but we need to deal with that and be strong. My mom is a psychologist, and she knows a lot about these things. She’s thinking about how to help our citizens here, maybe with language courses. It’s really hard to go to another country when you don’t speak the language.”
We met Angelina after she caught an evacuation train from Dnipro to Lviv, Ukraine. From there she was helped, alongside her family, to cross the border into Poland.
“My father used to say to me: ‘when you are happy, you don’t realize it.’ Before the war, we were happy with our everyday routine and we didn’t realize it. But now, we understand that real happiness was all of those small things, moments we shared between us as a family.
Everyone has given us a warm welcome in Poland; we have clothes and people take care of us. Me and my family feel safe and we are happy to be here, but we’re also full of anxiety. We're so worried about our country and upset with everything that’s going on.
I want our children to be able to look up and see a clear sky above us, for there to be no more war and for this to never happen again.”
A mother of two from the besieged city of Mariupol, Valentina first fled to Kiev and then to Drohobych, in Western Ukraine. She came to Poland when the sounds of air raids became too much, traveling with her family and their beloved Yorkshire Terrier, Lala.
“[When we left Ukraine,] we didn’t know if animals could be taken abroad. So we left the dog with other people and she stayed with them for a few days.
The children were missing her. I had to go back and take my dog. She cannot lose us from her sight. She was with us all the way to Drohobych and Poland.
I didn’t want to leave Ukraine for a long time. But the last [air raid] sirens became almost constant. All my friends and acquaintances there are under shelling.
I have very many friends and relatives with whom I lost connection. Today, only my aunt got in touch. She wrote that she lost her youngest child. He was 18 years old.
I just have no words for all of this. I want it all to finish so I can go home. So we have a place to return to.”
Yevhenia, who did not want her photo taken, owned her own business in Zaporizhzia, Ukraine. On the fourth day of the conflict, she realized that her city would be encircled soon, and she made the difficult decision to leave on her own, even though her family couldn’t come with her.
You ask yourself, `was that the last time that we will see each other?’
“It is hard when you leave without knowing where you’re going, without understanding what will happen to you or if you’ll ever see your parents, grandmother, or friends again.You ask yourself, `was that the last time that we will see each other?’
The journey to Poland was exhausting, I didn’t sleep for three days and I kept crying every time I thought of my family back home. I’m safe now, but my relatives can’t evacuate because the journey would be too difficult; it is terrifying to think about my elderly grandmother unable to leave Ukraine. I wonder what life would be like after the war, because I loved my job and I hope I can return one day.
I’m so proud to be Ukrainian. I’m proud of the Ukrainian people, because like never before, my country has shown its unity, and shown others what it’s capable of. I think our country deserves the best. It deserves to live in peace. And the people who live in our homeland are the most extraordinary people.”
How the IRC helps people fleeing Ukraine
The IRC is on the ground in Poland working with three local organizations to meet the needs of families displaced from Ukraine, many of whom are staying in shelters across the country:
- With the Polish Red Cross, we are providing bedding, toiletries, mental health support and other emergency assistance to people arriving at border crossings or continuing their journeys into Poland from relocation points.
- We are working with the Polish Forum for Migration to provide newly arrived refugees with information on their rights and available assistance, as well as provide in-person and remote mental health support from trained psychologists.
- The IRC and the Polish Center for International Aid (PCPM) are delivering cash support to families living in cities including Lublin, Gdańsk, Łódź, and Poznań, to ensure they can buy food, medicine, clothing and other essentials.
- We are working with partners to set up Safe Healing and Learning Spaces across nine shelters in Warsaw, which will provide families, and children in particular, the space they need to recover from the trauma they have endured.
- With PCPM, we are connecting Ukrainian teachers with jobs in Poland and delivering cash support to ensure their salaries. This approach means that teachers can work flexibly and teach in schools where Ukrainian language skills are most needed.
- We are also working to help children who arrived as refugees integrate into Polish classrooms, providing cultural assistants and other support.
- A new grant by Google.org and a Google.org Fellowship team will help the IRC support United for Ukraine, an information portal and civil society effort that helps displaced people find access to critical services. The initiative will be part of the IRC’s Signpost Project, a global humanitarian technology program operating in 15 countries that helps refugees find resources to meet their urgent needs.
The IRC is also responding inside Ukraine with our Ukrainian partners, supporting evacuation efforts for women and children, providing psychological care and delivering groceries, blankets, warm clothes, stoves, cash and other essentials to displaced families. Learn more about our response and how you can help.