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On the front lines of Poland's makeshift response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis

Waves of refugees from Ukraine arrive each day at the southern Polish city of Medyka. Among the crowd is Paulina Andrieva (center, wearing sunglasses) from Nikolaev, who traveled to the town with her two daughters and one son.
Ben de la Cruz
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NPR
Waves of refugees from Ukraine arrive each day at the southern Polish city of Medyka. Among the crowd is Paulina Andrieva (center, wearing sunglasses) from Nikolaev, who traveled to the town with her two daughters and one son.

MEDYKA and KROSCIENKO, Poland — At the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, an exhausted Ukrainian mother carries her toddler over the checkpoint and onto Polish soil.

There, a young man in uniform is waiting to take the child into his arms, while others rush to help.

Thousands of feet have trampled the dead winter grass into mud at the crossing in the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. Nearly 3 million people have left Ukraine, and more than half of those have come to Poland.

There is a crush of people in Medyka, some wearing fur coats, carrying pets or babies. And everywhere you turn, someone is offering whatever refugees might need: grilled sausages, COVID tests, veterinary services, food, diapers and medicine.

A Ukrainian refugee at Medyka.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
A Ukrainian refugee at Medyka.
Toiletries and bottled water are among the free offerings for incoming refugees. The many aid organizations here also provide medical and veterinary care, warm food and clothing.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
/
NPR
Toiletries and bottled water are among the free offerings for incoming refugees. The many aid organizations here also provide medical and veterinary care, warm food and clothing.

A long line of Ukrainians in winter coats waits to board buses that will take them to big cities further west and away from war.

Polish volunteer Tom Madry has been driving here every day to help, and right now is unloading palettes of water from the back of a truck.

"There are tons of people trying to help, but it's very difficult to organize in a very structured way," he says. "For example, here is the soup, here is just a fireplace for refugees to warm up, here is just a pile of trash."

"It could be better organized, but I have no idea how to organize it better."

Ukrainian refugees board a bus bound for a nearby reception center.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Ukrainian refugees board a bus bound for a nearby reception center.
Of the nearly 3 million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion began, more than half have fled to Poland.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Of the nearly 3 million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion began, more than half have fled to Poland.
A woman with a microphone and speaker offers encouragement for refugees who have made the journey from Ukraine to Poland. Above her are the Ukrainian and Polish flags.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
A woman with a microphone and speaker offers encouragement for refugees who have made the journey from Ukraine to Poland. Above her are the Ukrainian and Polish flags.

The crossing is a free-for-all of those who came to help. A French man named Lilian Boulard made the 23-hour drive from Bordeaux and is wearing a pirate hate and a flag as a cape while he hands out food to those in need.

One woman, Evgenia, has just crossed from Ukraine with her daughter. She says her husband stayed behind and she doesn't yet know if he will be called to fight.

A few miles up the road, an indoor reception center holds resources for people planning the next leg of their journey. It's an entire ecosystem that sprung up in just two weeks.

It's organized chaos.

Carrying their luggage, babies and pets, Ukrainian refugees line up to board buses that will take them inland.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Carrying their luggage, babies and pets, Ukrainian refugees line up to board buses that will take them inland.
Most of the nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees are women and children.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Most of the nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees are women and children.
Angelina (right) traveled to Medyka from Poltava, Ukraine, with her mother, Lydmila.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Angelina (right) traveled to Medyka from Poltava, Ukraine, with her mother, Lydmila.

At a crossing about an hour's drive south of Medyka, the scene is completely different: peaceful, quiet, calm. This is the small mountain village of Krosciencko, where there is still snow on the ground and helpers outnumber refugees.

Instead of the torrent of refugees found elsewhere, Krosciencko sees just a trickle. And instead of a barrage of volunteers rushing to help, it's a system of aid groups moving in concert.

But the one thing both crossings have in common is the dramatic gender imbalance — the refugees are almost all women and children; Ukrainian men have been barred from leaving the country lest they need to be called on to fight.

The number of refugees arriving in the border town of Krościenko is a trickle compared to Medyka.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
The number of refugees arriving in the border town of Krościenko is a trickle compared to Medyka.

Tatiana Szkolna is a grandmother from Kyiv who has just crossed over.

She begins describing the fear of exiting the city while it's under attack by Russian forces when her 14-year-old grandson interjects.

She quickly scolds him for speaking in Russian. "Death to Russia. Death to Putin," she says.

As she dissolves into tears, Szkolna says she cannot forgive the Russian president for what he has done to her country.

A few yards away stands Daria Biestschasna, who illustrates the calm of Kroscienko. She crossed the border from Ukraine two days ago and has come back to help others.

A young refugee is greeted by an aid worker at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
A young refugee is greeted by an aid worker at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland.
Refugees at Medyka.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
Refugees at Medyka.

"We do what we can because when we cross the border, we were shocked and didn't understand what to do," she said. "A lot of people don't know Polish or English. In our way, we can help them."

Biestschasna is a high school economics teacher and when she is done volunteering here, she plans to teach her regular class over Zoom.

Some of her students are still in Ukraine while others have evacuated, but they wanted to keep the classes going. Asked whether she is planning to stick to the curriculum or just let the kids process what they're going through, she says: economics.

"I try to explain all the situation in Ukraine, and all the economics laws," she says. "We all understand that we want to build our Ukraine."

A man and woman embrace at the border in Medyka, Poland.
Ben de la Cruz / NPR
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NPR
A man and woman embrace at the border in Medyka, Poland.

At both crossings, a seemingly effective, if varied, emergency relief effort has been stood up almost overnight. But it's meeting immediate needs — it was not built to last.

The challenge Poland now faces is to create a refugee infrastructure that can continue supporting millions of people for a war that may be only just beginning.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Patrick Wood
Ben de la Cruz is an award-winning documentary video producer and multimedia journalist. He is currently a senior visuals editor. In addition to overseeing the multimedia coverage of NPR's global health and development, his responsibilities include working on news products for emerging platforms including Amazon's and Google's smart screens. He is also part of a team developing a new way of thinking about how NPR can collaborate and engage with our audience as well as photographers, filmmakers, illustrators, animators, and graphic designers to build new visual storytelling avenues on NPR's website, social media platforms, and through live events.