Hope rising: a refugee family’s journey to Poland
On World Refugee Day, sharing the story of Oksana and how a Blue Dot Support Hub in Krakow provided a lifeline and a new start for her two boys
Nobody chooses to be a refugee. They flee afraid, without their belongings and anxious about what the future holds.
“I remember feeling lost. We got off at the station. I didn’t know the city; I didn’t know where exactly I was,” recalls Oksana. “There were lots of people around, but when you don’t know the language, you don’t know who to ask for help or directions.” She arrived in Krakow in the summer of 2022 with her two sons, Oleksiy, 10, and Pavlo, 11, from Uman in central Ukraine. It took them 28 hours, including a 12-hour wait at the border. She made the decision to leave home for the wellbeing of her boys, while her daughter stayed in Ukraine to finish university.
“Really, it was for the children,” she says. “They weren’t able to cope. Both of my boys have autism and developmental disabilities.” Oksana adopted one of her sons just five days before the war started. He was living in an orphanage where she described conditions as challenging. She is determined to give him a better life and much-needed peace.
In Poland, there have been over 12 million border crossings from Ukraine since the war escalated in February 2022. The country is hosting more than 1.6 million registered refugees from Ukraine, around 90% of whom are women and children. But behind these numbers are stories of families, friends, and loved ones – stories of resilience, compassion, and renewed hope.
A journey to safety
“We tried to stay in Ukraine for a few months, but the last drop for me was when my son started screaming at night. That’s when I understood that we can’t stay,” recalls Oksana. “Before coming to Poland, I was getting ready for the journey. I was reading about Krakow online and that’s when I learned that there is a Blue Dot at the train station, Platform 4. I read that one could get information here, that there is legal assistance, support with accommodation. I was certain that I will get help here, so I went straight to the train station and started asking people where Platform 4 was.”
UNICEF provides immediate support through Blue Dot Support Hubs established jointly with UNHCR and partners. They are safe spaces where Ukrainian and Polish staff provide up-to-date and accurate information about accommodation, travel and services. The hubs have been set up in critical locations including border crossing points, train and bus stations, and accommodation centers. The Blue Dots have proven to be effective as the first point of support for newcomers, but also as a point of reference for people who settled in Poland.
“The temporary accommodation space at Krakow train station was really a lifesaver. We were supported there by the Blue Dot staff at Platform 4. This was my first encounter with Poland. This is how my life here started. We stayed there for four days,” remembers Oksana.
A new beginning
The first days and weeks in a new country are mostly about arranging the basics – finding a place to live, enrolling children in school, getting access to healthcare. But for Oksana it was particularly important to get guidance on how to verify the disability status of her sons in Poland and how to access specialist care and education, all of which she was able to get at the Blue Dot.
“I was referred to a school at a rehabilitation centre for children with disabilities supported by UNICEF. This was really fantastic. The school is amazing,” says Oksana. "Both of my boys are studying there now, and it is great, because otherwise they would have to be in different schools. For now, there are just four children in the class, all with different disabilities, and it’s free.”
Finding a school and establishing a routine for children can bring a sense of normalcy again, giving them a chance to socialize, develop, and learn. Additional mental health and psychosocial support can also help children and their parents cope.
“The changes for my children are immense,” says Oksana. “They have calmed down here. Their behaviour has changed for the better, for the most part I think because it is calmer here. The school has played an immense role in this as well.”
It’s hard to say what’s next
When you are a refugee, it is difficult to have clear plans for the future. Many refugee mothers in Poland experience emotional distress, they miss home and loved ones. Most families would like to return to Ukraine, but it is unclear if and when that will be possible.
“For now, we have made a decision to stay here at least until the end of the school year. Then, I will make a decision based on what is best for my children,” says Oksana. “I have a home in Ukraine. It is not just a house, but a feeling. We have a cat and a dog. They are with my daughter. But now I also have a home here. What’s next? It’s hard to say.”
Other issues that arise upon settling in a new country as a refugee include learning a new language, finding a job and a stable source of income. “I used to work two jobs in Ukraine – as a fitness instructor and an inclusive education assistant. Here, because the school is a bit further away from where we live, I haven’t been able to find a job yet,” says Oksana.
The war in Ukraine currently shows no signs of ending. Refugee children and families who have fled the conflict continue to need our support, especially those who are arriving in Poland for the first time. Many newly arriving children and families, including families displaced by the recent Kakhovka dam explosion on 6 June, have more complex needs. Having experienced and witnessed more than a year of war, the newcomers are much more vulnerable, arriving with less resources and much higher emotional distress. In the last three months, nearly 200,000 people from Ukraine received support at UNICEF-led Blue Dot Support Hubs across Poland, with half of them accessing services for the first time. There is still a huge amount of work needed to support families who’ve fled conflict and to protect and support the most vulnerable.
Our work to support refugee children and families in Poland has been made possible thanks to generous contributions from public and private donors from around the world, including our long-term public sector partners, including the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) of the U.S. Department of State, the Government of Austria, Government of Spain, Government of the Republic of Korea, the Government of Japan, the Government of Switzerland.