Abandoned mall offers refuge and friendship to Ukrainian refugees amid fear

Liudmyla Kuzmina and Kristina Goncharova live more than 500 kilometers apart in Ukraine. Kuzmina is 67 and Goncharova is 28. If not for the war in their home country, it’s unlikely the two would have ever met, but now they’re sitting together in the parking lot of an empty shopping mall in Przemyśl , Poland.

They met in a crowded train station in Lviv, Ukraine, as they tried to leave the country that has faced war for the last time. 11 days. On the day of their arrival, they estimate that there were 750 people at the station. They found each other.

Both women left their homes with very few possessions.

“Here is my handbag, where there are documents, passports and medical supplies. And there are things that I packed very quickly – a change of clothes, the same is in my backpack. C That’s all,” said Kuzmina, who is from Kyiv. said through a translator.

Goncharova wears a vest over her jacket that she got from piles and piles of donated clothes.

Kuzmina with her handbag, one of the few things she took with her on the trip from Kiev to Lviv and then to Poland. It contains documents, passports and medical supplies. (Melissa Mancini/CBC)

Both came alone and left their families behind. Kuzmina’s 38-year-old son was drafted to fight in the war against Russia, which invaded Ukraine late last month. Goncharova’s mother and grandmother remained in Zaporizhzhia.

They are among 964,000 people who have crossed from Ukraine to Poland since February 24. On Sunday, the day of their arrival, 81,400 people had crossed by 3 p.m., according to Polish border guards.

Both women said they had no intention of fleeing after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine.

“We didn’t want to leave at all. Because my friends said it was about to end, it wasn’t real. It’s kind of a dream. Everyone thought so,” said said Kuzmina.

“Rumble, rumble, rumble. Sleepless nights. Anxiety. Terrible anxiety, which is constant, almost a panic attack.”

People arrive at a temporary accommodation and transportation center for refugees in a former trading center, after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Przemyśl, Poland on Sunday. They are among 964,000 people who have crossed from Ukraine to Poland since February 24. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

The two women sit together, charging their phones and eating pasta from paper bowls under a blue tent, waiting to be transported to Stuttgart, Germany. Volunteers are buzzing around trying to find the best options for them. At some point an option is found, but it’s in Berlin, so the volunteer in the orange vest leaves to try again.

Buses roll by dropping more refugees within a few yards. People – mostly women and children – from all over Ukraine descended on this parking lot, finding food, temporary shelter, clothing and donated personal items. There are diapers and strollers, feminine hygiene products and SIM cards.

Inside an abandoned supermarket, each room is numbered and labeled with a destination – Krakow, Warsaw, Czech Republic, Slovakia – and people sleep on beds inside. Children play games. There are racks for blankets, pillows and yoga mats.

Heaps of donated clothes and goods are sorted by volunteers in the parking lot of a former Tesco supermarket, so refugees can take home what they need. People came from all over Europe to try to help. Some offer rides or drop off supplies. (Melissa Mancini/CBC)

People came from all over Europe to try to help. Some offer rides or drop off supplies. There are license plates from Poland and Ukraine, of course, but also from Germany, Estonia and Latvia.

Arriving here is only in the middle of a long journey to a final destination. Ksenia Pletnova spent nine days in a shelter in Kyiv before making the difficult decision to leave with her mother and two-year-old son Nestor. Her husband, father and sister are still in Ukraine.

They entered the shelter after a building 500 meters from her home was hit.

“The noise was like our building was collapsing. Yeah, it’s super loud and it was scary. That day I realized we couldn’t stay here. We have to go” , Pletnova said.

Ksenia Pletnova and her son, Nestor, are waiting to be taken to Prague, where they will stay with a friend. They spent nine days in a refuge in Kiev before traveling to Poland. (Melissa Mancini/CBC)

The nine days they spent in the shelter were like a horror movie, she said, the sounds of shelling being so frequent that her son imitated the noises as if it were a game.

“Boom, boom, boom,” she says, the toddler repeats to her.

Pletnova said she hopes the conflict will end soon so she can return to the city where she works as a tour guide.

“I love my city. It’s beautiful and I hope it won’t be ruined by Putin.”

About Renee Williams

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