Stories From the Field

Ukrainian refugees build new lives far from home

Ukrainian refugees build new lives far from home
Ivanna (center) left her home in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine with her two children for the Polish border, from where they continued to Belgium, a journey that took 35 hours. © Martin Thaulow

MEDYKA, Poland

Ivanna was four months pregnant when she and her two children fled their home. She left behind everything she knew in Ukraine, including where to access maternal health care. She also left behind her 65-year-old father, who wished to stay. Their destination was Antwerp, Belgium, where her husband has been living and working for the past five years. 

“It’s scary when your dreams and plans are destroyed,” said Ivanna, 32. “When your relatives and friends die, and you can do nothing. When in a few minutes, you have to take everything you need and run away into the unknown.”

They took a six-hour bus ride that dropped them off close to the Polish border. From there, she and the children – 12-year-old Sniazanna and 8-year-old Artur – walked four hours until they reached the border crossing. At some point they considered returning home because of the difficult situation. But, finally, after waiting in line for five more hours in the cold, they finally set foot on Polish soil. 

Ivanna told UNFPA, “I burst into tears because the people are so kind. I haven’t met anyone like that, helping with anything they can – food, diapers. I was deeply touched.” In war, she added, “There is a kind side and an evil side.” 

More than 4.2 million have fled Ukraine, with more than 2.4 million entering Poland. Of those, 41 per cent plan to stay. According to the Minister of Education, 85,000 Ukrainian children have enrolled in Polish schools with 10,000 more enrolling each day. 

Loss upon loss

After another 16 hours on the road, the family reunited in Antwerp. A week later, Ivanna lost the baby. “The stress, the experience, the hard road, I think, caused the loss,” she said. 

At the start of the war, UNFPA estimated 80,000 of the 256,000 pregnant women in Ukraine would give birth in the next three months, many without access to critical maternal health care. Since then, our screens have flashed images of babies born underground, pregnant women dying in shellings, and premature babies. The number of premature births has sharply risen, along with delivery complications, according to Jaime Nadal Roig, UNFPA’s Ukraine Representative. UNFPA has delivered 13 metric tons of supplies, medicines, and equipment to cover the reproductive health needs for a population of 500,000 people. We have also dispatched three mobile clinics, including a maternity clinic, to support safe birth.

Girl in hood with teddy bear
Twelve-year-old Sniazanna on the border of Ukraine and Poland. She and her 8-year-old brother, Artur, are now enrolled in school in Antwerp, Belgium, though their mother hopes the family can return home some day. © Martin Thaulow

Ivanna’s house has become a temporary shelter for a family fleeing shellings in southeast Ukraine. “Temporary” is a common condition these days. Though Sniazanna and Artur are now attending school and Ivanna has found work as a cleaner in their adopted city some 1,700 kilometres from their hometown, they hope their stay isn’t permanent.  

“If there is going to be peace, we will go back. We have family, friends and school there. Everyone is waiting for us,” she said. “We dream of returning to our home, not hearing air alarms, falling asleep peacefully and living a quiet life.” 

Dana Kirkegaard
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