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Poland’s strained capital braces for more refugees

by ANDREW HIGGINS THE NEW YORK TIMES | April 24, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

WARSAW, Poland — Warsaw’s biggest pediatric hospital has put patients from Ukraine on its waiting list for liver transplants, sometimes ahead of Polish children. Schools in the Polish capital have had to search for extra teachers to keep up with the influx of new pupils. Public transport has risked buckling under the strain of so many new residents.

But Warsaw has kept working, defying predictions of a breakdown and a public backlash. The city, which has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees, has decked itself with Ukrainian flags and with banners of support for Poland’s war-ravaged eastern neighbor.

But just as the tsunami of refugees — which increased the city’s population by nearly 20% in just a few weeks — seemed to be receding, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski is now bracing for the possibility of a new influx as Russia’s military pushes to achieve what President Vladimir Putin recently vowed would be the “full completion” of his war in Ukraine.

“Warsaw is at capacity,” Trzaskowski said in an interview. “We accepted more than 300,000 people, but we cannot accept more. With the escalation by Russia in eastern Ukraine, we could have a second wave.” It looked for a few days as if the rush into Poland was over as a Russian retreat from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, encouraged some Ukrainians to risk returning home. Poland’s border service announced earlier this month that for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24, the number of people arriving from Ukraine had been outnumbered by those crossing the other way.

But that trend, the mayor fears, is unlikely to hold. And if it’s significantly reversed with a new surge of refugees, it could push an already strained city beyond its limits.

“Imagine your city suddenly increased by 15% to 20% — what an incredible pressure this would be and what it would cost to normal services of the city like public transportation, sanitation, education and so on,” Trzaskowski said. “These costs run to hundreds of millions of dollars.” At Warsaw’s central railway station, a major hub of Ukrainians going in either direction, Natalia Glinskaya, 54, said she left Ukraine in March, moved on to Sweden via Poland, and returned to Warsaw last week with plans to take a train back home.

But after learning that Russian shells had fallen early Friday on her hometown east of Dnipro, she put that plan on hold. Though she’s a Russian speaker, like most Ukrainians in the east of the country, she cursed Putin, who claims to be defending Russian speakers from persecution. Glinskaya described Putin as a “crazy terrorist” who is capable of anything.

“I’m going back and forth about what to do now,” she said Friday, predicting that Russia’s offensive in the east would deter many Ukrainians from returning home and encourage others to leave, particularly after today’s Orthodox Easter, an important family holiday.

“Then there will be a second wave,” she said.

Recent figures released by Poland’s border authorities showed the number of Ukrainians leaving and arriving roughly balancing out on some days. As Orthodox Easter drew nearer, however, more people returned to be with their families in Ukraine than arrived in Poland. The Polish border service reported Saturday that 19,900 people had crossed into Poland from Ukraine the previous day, while 23,800 went the other way.

After a peak of more than 30,000 Ukrainians arriving in Warsaw each day last month, the number recently declined to just a few hundred. The figure is now creeping up again, with 2,000 or 3,000 refugees now arriving in the capital each day, mostly from the eastern Donbas region.

Many Ukrainians who have fled to Poland since Russia invaded are agog at how well they have been received.

“It is wonderful to have a kind neighbor like this when our neighbor to the east attacks us with such cruelty,” said Roksolana Tyymochko-Voloshyn, 34, who arrived last month with her 7-year-old son, Volodymyr, who has cancer.

Driven from the border straight to Warsaw in an ambulance, they were taken to the Children’s Memorial Health Institute, a medical complex southeast of the capital, to treat her son’s eye tumor. He was halfway through a course of 25 radiation treatments in Kyiv when they fled Ukraine. His mother, who left her husband behind to fight, is at his bedside day and night.

Marek Migdal, director of the pediatric hospital, said patients from Ukraine “get exactly the same rights to treatment as Polish citizens.” He said he initially worried that “if their number increases, our capacity will not be sufficient.” B ut t h e n u m b e r of Ukrainian admissions stabilized as hospitals elsewhere in Poland and abroad took in Ukrainian children in desperate need of medical care.

Few of the Ukrainian children admitted to the Warsaw pediatric hospital needed treatment for war wounds. But the war, by choking supplies of medicine and diverting doctors, has put their lives at risk. “If we cannot help these children, we will be responsible for their deaths,” said Piotr Socha, a Polish doctor at the health institute who is responsible for a ward treating liver disease. “Ukraine cannot help them. We have to help.” But that welcome mat rolled out by millions of ordinary Poles in the early weeks of the war could fray, Warsaw’s mayor said, if another wave of traumatized people crashes over his city and if the national government, which has so far left most of the heavy lifting to private charities and individuals, does not step up with a clear plan.

“Numbers went down considerably, but now they are going up a bit,” Trzaskowski said. An upsurge of fighting in eastern Ukraine, he added, could prompt a new exodus to Poland by people who had previously decided to remain but who “have seen the atrocities in Bucha, Irpin and other places and are on now the move” as Russian forces bear down on villages and cities in the east.

“We cannot improvise any more,” he said, recalling how, in the absence of a clear national strategy, he had to call fellow mayors and beg them to send buses to Warsaw to help relieve the strain on the capital.

The city government provided temporary housing for more than 70,000 Ukrainians in unused office blocks and sports halls, but Trzaskowski said far more refugees found shelter with family members and friends or with “complete strangers who in a month or two might say, ‘I cannot prolong this offer for much longer.’”


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