The Polish capital under the weight of more than 300,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine


The fierce dinosaur puzzle, which is half finished on the dining table, serves as a bridge between a Polish couple and the Ukrainian family they are hosting.

In the small apartment in the center of Warsaw, they converge at all hours at the table to work again and again on the puzzle. It has a calming effect on Yaroslava Shumyk’s young children, Svyatoslav, 3, and Mia, two, who hastily escaped from their kyiv home as Russian shelling began to pound the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital .

“I said bad guys have come to our country and they are making our house unsafe,” Shumyk told his children when explaining why the family was forced to leave.

They are among more than 300,000 people fleeing war in Ukraine who have traveled to Warsaw in just weeks, prompting an almost 20% increase in the city’s population of around 1.8 million and prompting warnings of Poland’s capital mayor that services are dangerously stretched.

“It was like a bad movie for us”

Housing is becoming increasingly scarce, volunteers are running out and schools are struggling to accommodate the influx of new students.

“We are doing our best, but 300,000 people in two and a half weeks is really a lot,” Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said in an interview with CBC News, adding that city officials have largely improvised in their efforts. to adapt. the flow of refugees.

“We need help now, and we need synchronized and organized help from the whole western community.”

More than two million people from Ukraine have crossed the Polish border, with the UN Refugee Agency estimating that a majority have remained in the country, which is geographically close and culturally similar to its neighbour.

A crowd of Ukrainian refugees waits at Warsaw Central Station on Sunday. The mayor of Warsaw said some 30 refugee centers across the city are at or near capacity, and around 40% of those currently arriving in the Polish capital need help finding accommodation. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

According to the mayor of Warsaw, some 30 refugee centers across the city are at or near capacity, and around 40% of those currently arriving in the Polish capital need help finding accommodation.

Hundreds of Poles have offered space in their homes, including Shumyk’s hosts, Marta Maleszewska and her husband, Lukasz Maleszewski.

“Marta and Lukasz, they opened their hearts to us,” Shumyk, 39, told CBC News on Sunday, two days after she and her children arrived home. “We feel it from the first second, and the kids feel it too.”

Yet the two toddlers cling to their mother, shy and unsure of their new surroundings, as Shumyk tries to create a sense of normalcy away from home.

Yaroslava Shumyk, center, with Mia, two, left, and Sviatoslav, 3. The kyiv family escaped the war in Ukraine and are staying in Warsaw with a couple who volunteered to take them in. Her husband had to stay because Ukrainians of fighting age cannot leave the country. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“He is very close to his father,” Shumyk said, referring to Svyatoslav, as she recalls how emotional her young son was to leave his father behind at the kyiv train station at the start of the war. . Ukrainian men of fighting age cannot leave the country.

“He was crying, ‘Daddy, Daddy,'” she told CBC News, barely more than a whisper as she wiped away her tears. “I knew it would be for a very long time that I wouldn’t have an answer on when he would see it.”

The chaos of that day weighs on her. “It was really a mess,” Shumyk said. “It was like a bad movie for us,” because everyone was running to the train and not knowing where she and her kids were going to land.

They reunited in Warsaw, and now she’s trying to put her life back together with the help of her hosts.

“We wanted to help as much as we could,” says Marta Maleszewska, left. She and her husband, Lukasz Maleszewski, are hosting Shumyk and her two children in their Warsaw apartment. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“Having history like Poland, knowing a lot about what happened to people in World War II, we immediately hit it off,” Maleszewska said, when asked why she and her husband decided to move on. invite a family to their home.

“We wanted to help as much as we could.”

Long queues outside the Canadian Embassy

Volunteers, some of whom have taken weeks off to provide 24/7 assistance, distribute food and toys to arriving refugees at Warsaw Central Station.

But there is little they can do to ease the long queues outside the entrance to a giant stadium – part of which has been requisitioned to serve as a paperwork center, where newly arrived refugees can apply for Polish identity papers which will allow them to start their new life.

Refugees who fled the war in Ukraine wait outside the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw for biometric appointments. Authorities sent mobile biometric kits to collect fingerprints and other data needed to issue refugee visas, an attempt to cut red tape. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

ID cards are needed to apply for a job, receive health care and enroll in school for the next 18 months.

The crowds to get the cards are so big that you have to wait a whole day outside before the refugees are given a wristband which guarantees that when they return the next day they can go straight inside to wait some more another line for their documents to be processed.

There are also long lines outside the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw, where officials have sent mobile biometric kits to collect fingerprints and other data needed to issue visas for Ukrainian refugees, a attempt to cut red tape.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), there are over 1,000 biometric appointments per day in Warsaw alone. IRCC operates at a capacity of approximately 14,000 biometric appointments per week at 13 centers in Europe, including Poland, Romania, Austria and Moldova.

WATCH | Resources in Warsaw are stretched as Ukrainian refugees flood the city:

Ukrainian refugees flood Warsaw, straining resources

Warsaw is struggling to deal with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, with the city’s mayor asking countries like Canada for help. 2:33

The average wait time for an appointment is two to four days and biometric screening results are available approximately 48 hours after completion.

But that pace isn’t fast enough for many queues, even those who have made appointments.

Mayor asks for more help from West

Sergiy Yakovenko, who is originally from Ukraine but now lives in West Virginia, traveled to Poland to accompany his niece and sister-in-law, who escaped from Kharkiv and want to come to Canada.

Yakovenko, whose elderly parents are asking to travel to the United States with him, said he was surprised at the lack of information about the process.

Sergiy Yakovenko, right, who is originally from Ukraine and now lives in West Virginia, traveled to Warsaw to accompany his niece, Daria Yakovenko, 15, center, and sister-in-law, Olha Kumeiko, who want to come to Canada. They escaped from the besieged city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“We’ve seen this huge line and a lot of chaos up front where people are trying to intervene because, you know, livelihoods are at stake,” he said. “I was just thinking, wait, we should be able to do a little better,” especially since the refugees have already escaped an extremely stressful situation.

The mayor of Warsaw insisted that more help was needed from Western countries, including Canada.

“I talked to [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau myself when he was in Warsaw, and he promised support, and I know Canada is open to Ukrainian refugees,” Trzaskowski said Monday.

“So I welcome that, and I would just say as quickly as possible and with minimal red tape.”

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski talks to reporters on March 14. Trzaskowski says the city is overwhelmed as it accepts large numbers of refugees fleeing war in Ukraine. More than two million people from Ukraine have crossed the Polish border and the United Nations estimates that a majority have remained in the country. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

Whatever bureaucracy she encounters, Yaroslava Shumyk, still reeling from the Russian invasion of her country, said she was ready for it.

“I saved my babies. Now I have to take the next step: how to live, what to earn, find a job.”

But this task, of rebuilding life in a new country, is much easier, she said, than living in constant fear of bombardment.

“It’s not the rocket [attacks] that I can’t control,” Shumyk said. “I can solve this problem.”