“People talked about an impending war, but we didn’t want to believe it. Still, people took precaution amid the skepticism—they packed their bags and had their IDs at the ready,” shared Natalia, a 33-year-old Ukrainian woman who made the precarious journey to Poland from Kyiv, Ukraine.
On February 24, Natalia felt her apartment building tremble as air raid sirens rang and bombs fell on her neighborhood. Despite the imminent danger, Natalia decided to stay in her apartment, with her mother and two-and-half year-old son, Sergiy. When a bomb struck the building next to hers the following day, she grabbed her son and hid in the bathroom. Later that night, the family decided to take shelter in an underground parking lot, where they found many Ukrainians already hiding.
After a night underground, Natalia made the difficult decision to leave her homeland, cross the border, and seek refuge—first in Poland and then in Western Europe. The first leg of her journey took her family to Lviv, in western Ukraine, where they would join thousands of Ukrainians waiting for long hours to escape on trains and buses. The normally seven-hour drive from Kyiv to Lviv took them 23 hours.
As they made the long, arduous drive, they witnessed a bomb fall on a Ukrainian Army air base near Brody, a small town 90 kilometers (56 miles) northeast of Lviv. “Mama, boom boom!” exclaimed Sergiy. Natalia recounted this moment, longing for a time when “he was [simply] a happy baby.” But now she laments the effects the war is having on her young child. “Now he panics when he sees an airplane.”
Once in Lviv, Natalia reunited with her brother, who was sheltering underground. Air raid sirens would ring every two hours. At first, the Ukrainian people in the city took these sirens seriously, but soon speculated that these alarms were perhaps being triggered by drones or set off by the local authorities to keep the city awake, or that the Russians may even have tampered with the siren system.
After their brief stay in Lviv, Natalia said goodbye to her brother and homeland and boarded a bus to Poland. After a grueling 12 hours, Natalia and her family made it to the Medyka border crossing, the main crossing point between Poland and Ukraine.
This is where Arturo comes in.
Across Poland and the rest of Europe, private citizens have mobilized in an extraordinary effort to help Ukrainians seeking refuge there. Volunteers bring donated blankets, clothing, hygiene products, food, and water to border and reception centers. They offer Ukrainians free rides to various cities within Poland and even other countries. At reception points, the volunteers share information about where they are going and how many people they can accommodate.
Arturo is one of these volunteers. He is a Polish citizen who felt compelled to help and, being a multilingual tour guide and driver, knew that he could contribute in this way. Arturo drove Natalia and her family to Rzeszow, a town an hour away from Medyka. There, Natalia temporarily settled into a 300-square-foot apartment with seven other Ukrainian friends and children.
Arturo is the only Polish person Natalia met. “She didn’t need anyone else,” Arturo teased. “He was my savior!” she affirmed.
After two days in Rzeszow, Natalia, Sergiy, and her mother took a bus to Germany, where her cousin would receive them and offer an apartment. Like in the 2015 Syria crisis, Germany has become a hub for Ukrainians seeking protection. Similar to the response of Polish people, German locals have mobilized to welcome over 20,000 people fleeing Ukraine.
Though Natalia is grateful for the solidarity from her European neighbors, she is unsure what life in Germany will bring. She hopes to return to a safe Ukraine soon. “I still can’t believe there is a war. I cried for 2 days, but now I have no more tears,” Natalia said resolutely. Like so many, Natalia is uncertain about how events will develop in her home country, but she is confident that “[her] people have a strong spirit.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Arturo (left) and Natalia (right) at dinner. Photo by Irla Atanda