Ukrainians of Polish descent who independently fled their home country for Poland cannot count on the same treatment as their evacuated compatriots.
Bathed in the intense early afternoon sunlight, the clock on Warsaw’s arguably most recognizable building, the Palace of Culture and Science, counts down the minutes to 1pm. The clatter of rolling luggage dampens the humdrum of the surrounding traffic din. Warsaw central railway station is just across the street, with an infinite number of people rushing in and spilling out into the Polish capital’s downtown area throughout the day.
A short distance from the station, Irena, 30, is standing under the flashy undulating glass roof of the nearby shopping center.
“This is my orientation point,” she says. “I don’t know Warsaw very well. I’ve been here a few times by train, but they always were brief tourist visits.”
This time it’s different. Irena’s last year has been a dreadful stream of events. She lived with her mother 3 kilometers away from the international airport in Donetsk, the coal and steel capital in the eastern part of Ukraine, close to the border with Russia. In May 2014, the area turned into a war zone and went through an apocalypse of its own kind. In many repeated attempts to wrest the facility out of each other’s control, the antagonistic pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military forces bombed and rocketed everything in sight.
When Irena, along with her mother, decided to flee to her cousin’s apartment in the other side of the city, the five-story building she was living in was still standing, but staying in it was a risk she didn’t want to take. It was June. In December, Irena’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, but they both decided to flee again, this time across the western border to Poland, her grandmother’s country of origin.
The decision had been floating in their mind for a while. The spark came when the news of evacuation planned by Poland’s government started circulating among the members of Polish organizations in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Now, they were determined to go.
The calls for help from Polish organizations in Ukraine started a few months earlier. However, it was not until the beginning of December, after the death of a Polish citizen, Kazimierz Wrobel, who was shot by a separatist in Donetsk, that they started to be taken seriously. Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz indicated that her government would take action. What followed was a chaotic stream of events with dates of evacuation being published and later retracted, and then the whole process was put on hold. However, eventually, on January 13, 178 evacuees from the war-torn Donbass region, which includes Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts, were flown out with military transport airplanes and set foot on Polish land.
Irena wasn’t among them. She needed to stay after her mother had died of cancer. But despite the tragic loss, she made up her mind to still make the journey to Poland. In February, she crossed the border by car with another family and joined the rest of her compatriots rescued by Poland’s government.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she admits. “What mattered was that I was leaving.”
Irena seems cheerful, giving the impression that her wartime experiences are just a distant memory. Her short, shoulder length, delicate double braids with a small bow fastened at each end give her a school-like look. The broad smile only amplifies it. However, her facial expression changes when talking about Donetsk, and at one point she breaks out in tears.
“I’m sorry,” she goes on apologizing apparently for letting the emotions spill out. “I left behind everything I loved—my cousin, my friends. I had my whole life there. Thinking about it makes me very sad.”
The evacuees (their final number totaled 195) were split into two groups and placed in centers in Rybaki and Lansk, two neighboring villages close to Olsztyn in the northeastern part of the country. In the following six months, under the government-backed support program, they were provided with accommodation, food and medical care. Children attended kindergarten and schools. Adults could learn and improve their language skills during Polish lessons. All the formalities concerning their future stay were quickly taken care of, along with the financial costs.
Just a few days after arrival, the first evacuees of Polish descent obtained most of their rights as citizens—except their right to vote—under the issued permits to settle, which are valid for ten years. In an unprecedented maneuver, spouses of Ukrainian descent were granted asylum just to be able to receive the long-term permits as well. Offers of jobs or flats to rent at favorable rates or sometimes both were coming in gradually.
“There were people who said they didn’t know how to do anything beyond their previous occupation, and I understand them because I would like to have the same job as in Donetsk,” says Irena, who has seven years of experience as a neonatologist taking care of newborn babies. “I had three offers and declined them all for different reasons. The fourth one included a flat to rent in Warsaw, but didn’t mention any job. The capital is a place with plenty [of] opportunities so I had taken it, got on a bus and arrived here four days ago.”
Irena is still waiting for approval of her education diplomas, which she needs to be able to work in her occupation of choice. Temporarily, she earns money working as a translator. She was among the last group of people who moved out of the centers.
Starting From Scratch
It’s Sunday. The water gushes and disappears in a matter of seconds like a row of playful dancers extending their hands and quickly pulling them back. But few feel invited. Besides a couple of children chasing each other, the fountains don’t attract any attention. Right next to them, a lane of still, sparsely situated skinny birch trees provides the only shaded spots at the Szembeka Square, on the other side of Vistula River, which cuts Warsaw in two. Towering above the square is the Gothic-style-reminiscent, Roman-Catholic Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Wiktoria, 38, and her husband Oleksandr, 45, have just finished attending the midday mass.
“We’ve been here a week ago and came back,” says Wiktoria. “I really like the sound of the organs and the fact that the texts of the songs are on display. We had none of that in Lugansk where there was only one, small Roman-Catholic church, an hour and a half away from our home. Here there are so many of them.”
Marveling at the thought, the married couple says their faith has helped them to make through the most terrifying night in their lives. In late June 2014, they were praying with the rosary an hour before midnight, which they do every day, when the missiles started falling in the area.
“We got out and realized that we were in a crossfire,” says Wiktoria. “Missiles were coming from opposite directions. One of the flats in a close-by building was already ablaze. Not far away, we could also see the flames that went up to the sky as a gas pipe was hit.”
It was then, seven months before the Polish government carried out an evacuation, that they decided to flee along with their teenage daughter. They had finished praying and, after a sleepless night, they had got on a train to Kiev. Oleksandr’s mother and sister couldn’t understand why they were leaving for western Ukraine and not for Russia. “They told us we would be killed there and that we had gone crazy,” says Wiktoria, adding that Oleksandr’s sister had broken up contact with him. “In Lugansk, there are people who identify modern Russia with [the] Soviet Union—especially elders. They think that when Russia comes, Soviet times will be back. Then, they won’t have to pay for anything and life will get better. That’s their reasoning.”
Wiktoria and Oleksandr didn’t budge on their decision, but it came at a price. They had to leave everything behind: the plot of land with a house they have lived in, a car and their jobs. The only things they took with them were their personal documents. They were leaving in a hurry and they couldn’t feel safe yet.
Several weeks before, Lugansk had come under the pro-Russian separatists’ control. Since then, the later self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic has gradually turned into a frontline of the approaching war. In June, the war was already in full swing.
On the day Wiktoria, Oleksandr and their daughter boarded the train to Kiev, another round of fighting ensued. In what seemed a never-ending stream of fits and starts, the machine was slowly jerking along. Nobody dared to speak until the whooshing sound of missiles grew distant.
Their next stop after Kiev was Wiktoria’s hometown, Kremenets, farther to the west. Wiktoria’s great-grandmother and grandmother were Polish and lived in Kremenets, before World War II, when it belonged to Poland. After the war, the town changed hands and became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It has stayed within Ukraine’s borders after the Soviet Union collapse.
Without any prospects of finding a job and making a living, they started to think about going to Poland. They reached out to a priest from Lugansk who had already been there. With his help, they found jobs in a ceramic factory in Bydgoszcz, a city in northern Poland. They lived and shared bills with two other Ukrainian families, but when their compatriots, not of Polish descent, decided to return to their home country, the money Wiktoria and Oleksandr earned was not enough to make ends meet. In February, they arrived in Warsaw.
“We are living with a lady that took us in,” says Wiktoria, admitting that they don’t have to pay for their accommodation. If they had to they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Her Polish is much more fluent than Oleksandr’s, who sits looking at his crossed feet, occasionally raising his head. “For the last 25 years, my husband has been an electrician. In Lugansk, he repaired cable cars. I hope he finds something here soon. I worked at a jewelry manufacturing plant, but now I’m doing occasional house cleaning jobs. It’s tough. We have to start everything from scratch.”
Upon entering Poland, they both received a year-long visa. In April, they applied for a permit to settle. Despite their Ukrainian descent, Oleksandr could apply for a permit to settle being a Polish cardholder, which is usually issued for people with Polish roots living in territory of former Soviet republics. In his case, he’d been granted it for being involved in the Polish community’s activities in Lugansk.
Far from the fast-tracked pace under the government program, they had to wait two months to submit their documents. Among the papers was a request to be exempted from paying the costs of issuing the permit, which amount to about €165 per person. They haven’t received any decisions yet.
No Chance for Asylum
A three-hour car ride south of Warsaw, in the Upper Silesian capital of Katowice, Wladyslaw, 36, is gazing at the passed by factories, production plants and storehouses in fast forward. The mostly empty bus is on a long journey heading downtown. The window framed view quickly changes, but the landscape remains the same.
“It reminds me so of Donetsk,” says Wladyslaw. “I really like it here.”
Wladyslaw seems relaxed and calm. He works at an underground mining machinery production company and lives with his wife and two kids in a rented flat. A few months ago, he was granted a permit to settle.
“Our situation would be completely different without the help of various people,” he says. “I was very surprised that almost everybody we had met wanted to help in some way and we needed that help badly.”
In August 2014, he and his wife fled Donetsk, already part of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, when the war intensified in the city. They joined their kids, already away, near Mariupol, a port town on the Azov Sea in eastern Ukraine, on the other side of the frontline. Just two months before, Mariupol had itself been a target of the pro-Russian militants who attempted to take it over but the local forces prevailed. Wladyslaw’s plan was to wait until the situation in Donetsk calmed down and then return. But after a month of lingering, he lost his hope that the conflict could be quickly resolved.
Soon, without much preparation, he and his family were on their way to the Ukrainian-Polish border.
“We wanted to seek asylum, there was no other choice,” says Wladyslaw, whose wife wasn’t able to get a passport because there was no one to issue it at the time in Mariupol. He didn’t have any documents officially confirming his Polish roots. “My father was Polish. His parents lived in Shepetivka close to the Polish borders from before World War II. During the war, they were exiled further to the east of the Soviet Union, but then returned when the Germans occupied the town. My grandmother was later executed by them in her yard. To this day I don’t know why.”
Wladyslaw and his family were sent to the reception center for asylum seekers in Biala Podlaska, in the eastern part of Poland, close to the border with Belarus, where they spent the next four months. Like every other person in the facility they had shelter, food, medical care and could attend Polish lessons. His kids went to school. However, the lack of any information about what steps they could take to legalize their stay made them want to leave. The tipping point came when the existing tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim inhabitants started to rise. While their application was still being examined, they had decided to rent a flat in Zabki, a town next to Warsaw, with the available financial support from the Office for Foreigners of about €350 per month for a family of four.
“We weren’t sure what to do,” says Wladyslaw. “There was very little information available to us. Then I called the Polish Consulate in Kharkiv. They told us that there was a Polish NGO called Freedom and Democracy and if they wouldn’t help us nobody would.”
By this point, they were convinced that they wouldn’t be granted asylum as “everyone they talked to told them so.” However superficial it sounds, official statistics confirm that notion. According to the Office of Foreigners, in the period from the start of the year up to August 2015, only two out of 1,650 applying Ukrainians were granted asylum (the official numbers do not include the 50 evacuated spouses of Ukrainian descent who were given asylum under the government program). The rest were deemed ineligible. Back in February, the spokeswoman for the Office of Foreigners stated that the main reason for refusal was the fact that applicants had the option to stay in other war-free parts of Ukraine.
With the support of the nongovernmental organization (NGO), Wladyslaw moved to Katowice, where he was offered a job and given a flat to live in. He successfully applied for residency, however, it was only for himself. He didn’t have the money for his kids and wife’s applications. That’s why in July when the negative answer from the Office of Foreigners had come, he appealed the refusal to grant asylum. Otherwise, his wife and kids would have to return to Ukraine or remain on Polish territory as illegal immigrants.
Just recently, Wladyslaw applied for the settlement permit on behalf of his daughter and son. Unlike the evacuees of Ukrainian descent, without being granted asylum, his wife can only apply for temporary residence permit, valid for three years.
Exceptions to the Rule
Wiktoria Charczenko from the NGO Freedom and Democracy is in touch with over 30 families from Ukraine who came to Poland independently, just like Wladyslaw, Wiktoria and Oleksandr.
“There are incredible disparities between the treatment of people who were evacuated and who came to Poland independently,” says Charczenko. “I really don’t see any reason to treat them differently. But the reality is that the people who came to Poland on their own aren’t part of any government program, and in most cases they are left alone and can only count on the help of different NGOs and churches.”
The Ministry of Interior, which was in charge of the evacuation program, says that help for the families who came to Poland independently is available and provided by the governors of each of 16 voivodeships. Asked if the group is subject to uneven treatment, the ministry’s spokeswoman, Malgorzata Wozniak, responded evasively, reiterating in a phone conversation that governors are committed to helping with legalization of stay by speeding up the procedures and with finding work by organizing meetings at labor offices.
Charczenko, who herself fled Donetsk a year ago and joined the Freedom and Democracy Foundation in December, says that among the families she is in contact with, there are only a few people who received substantial help in their voivodeship and that those are rare exceptions. The lack of any support for the remaining majority is the norm.
“Some families need only advice concerning the legalization of their stay,” says Charczenko. “Others don’t have anything and need shoes, clothes, food and other basic things at the very start. The fact is that the number of people in the same situation who contact us is growing on weekly basis, and we can assume that there are others that we don’t know about.”
In May 2015, a group of over 30 people who fled Donbass, including Wiktoria from Lugansk and Wiktoria Charczenko, attempted to present their case to then-President Bronislaw Komorowski in an open letter (Wladyslaw didn’t know about it). In a desperate tone, they wrote about coming to terms with the fact that they can count only on themselves, and they asked to be granted Polish citizenship to be able to take full responsibility for their lives. Komorowski decided not to act on it. His successor, the newly-elected Andrzej Duda, hasn’t made any binding declarations on the subject yet.
With no foreseeable end to the war in eastern Ukraine, the Poles from Donbass and their families are starting a new life in a new country. A country that inexplicably treats them in an uneven way. But there’s one thing they have in common, no matter how and when they arrived in Poland: They want to stay and work—with or without the government’s help.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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