WARSAW, Poland – Until recently, Olga lived a happy life in Kyiv. She loved spending time with her family. She enjoyed her job as a legal researcher. There was no indication that everything would soon fall apart for her, as it has for so many other families forced to flee everything they’ve known.
With tears in her eyes, Olga shows me a video on her cell phone of the chaotic scene that unfolded in front of her building the day she was forced to flee her home with her two sons, Maxime and Mark. Neighbours are running in all directions among the flickering lights of emergency vehicles as sirens wail in the background. The streets are filled with honking cars as people try to flee the city.
Olga says that she and her husband grabbed their boys and whatever they could carry. Eventually, her husband found a ride for the rest of the family. After a quick goodbye, Olga was suddenly on her own with her two children as they confronted an uncertain future.
“I tried so hard to be strong for the boys, but inside I was scared and worried to death,” she says. “How could I get us out of this? How could I protect them?”
After two days spent in one traffic jam after another, without food and unable to sleep, the family made their way to the Polish border, where the driver dropped them off. After crossing the border on foot, they hitched a ride to Krakow, then continued by train to Warsaw. Then to Berlin. Then on to Frankfurt. Sometimes the family would stay in the home of a friend of a friend. Sometimes they’d have to share a space with complete strangers – anywhere they could stay warm.
A new start
I’m meeting Olga in a football stadium in Warsaw, where she is registering herself and her two sons in the Polish social security system. As I walk up the steep steps of the stadium I wonder how the thousands of refugees who have ascended these stairs must have felt as they prepared to take the final steps toward administrative recognition allowing them access to health, education, and child protection services.
For Olga, Maxime and Mark, being here means safety. It also marks the end of a long, risky journey that began when the war started. It’s the kind of journey that millions of refugees have experienced as they have fled the violence and destruction of the war, journeys that are particularly risky for women and children, who are at heightened risk of human trafficking and exploitation.
Most of those fleeing Ukraine have been women and children – the draft in Ukraine has meant many adult males like Olga’s husband had to stay behind. Those who have fled have been welcomed by officials in neighbouring countries, including Poland. Yet the scale and speed of the crisis has made it difficult to properly screen and register arrivals.
“What’s needed now is that all receiving countries make an extra effort to register these women and children to ensure that their whereabouts are known to the authorities and that they can benefit from the respective protection systems,” Aaron Greenberg, UNICEF’s Regional Chief of Child Protection, tells me. “We’re advocating for this and supporting Governments in their efforts to do so.”
UNICEF is working with partners to assist refugees in accessing services in host countries, including by providing them information and support on registration, through Blue Dot hubs – family support centres located at the border and other strategic locations like trains stations. In addition, UNICEF is also providing training for border guards to help them better detect vulnerable women and children.
“I wanted to be closer to my husband”
Olga was lucky – she was contacted by a Ukrainian refugee network who provided details about a friendly family in the German mountain resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen who could take her and her children in. But after a few weeks in Germany, Olga decided to return to Poland.
“The family in Germany was super nice to us and the mountains were very peaceful and beautiful,” she says. “But I just wanted to be closer to my husband and be somewhere that my children could stay more connected to Ukrainian language and culture.”
For children like Olga’s, there are significant benefits to being registered. They’ll be able to go to the doctor when they are sick, for example, and attend public kindergarten and school.
Such hospitality is extremely welcome, but supporting refugees poses challenges for local services with so many people arriving so quickly. With that in mind, in Poland and other refugee receiving countries, UNICEF is supporting authorities at all levels to strengthen their capacity to cope with the influx of new children. This is particularly the case with accessing education – Ukrainian refugee children will need additional support with local language skills, adapting to the local curriculum, and accessing professional psycho-social assistance.
A brighter day
After successfully registering her family, Olga walks across the hall to the daycare centre run by UNICEF and its partner the Comenius Foundation. She is met by Yulia, a volunteer and Ukrainian refugee herself who has been looking after Mark and Maxime. Reunited with their mother, the two are now heading out to spend a sunny spring afternoon along the bank of the Vistula river, which flows through Warsaw.
After the family has left, Yulia shows me some of the pictures drawn by the group of children she has been minding. One of them is of two boys holding hands, one waving a Polish flag, the other a Ukrainian one. They are smiling as two hearts fly above them in the sky. It makes me think of the scene I’ve just seen, of Olga and her smiling sons, able to relax a little more today than they have been for the past few months of chaos and uncertainty.
Daniel Timme is a UNICEF Emergency Communication Specialist for the Ukraine refugee response.