A frontline aid worker at Ukraine’s border with Poland has revealed heartbreaking stories about the challenges refugees are facing as they flee their war-torn country.
Niki Ignatiou, a humanitarian adviser for Action Aid, has been in Poland for the past three weeks supporting refugees crossing the border from Ukraine.
Last week, she encountered an “incredibly troubling” incident whereby a Cuban couple were barred from getting onto a bus to cross the border at Medyka, Poland, despite the fact the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, had just suffered a miscarriage on the journey.
“Most people get on the bus no problem; there was only that one couple that got refused,” said Ms Ignatiou.
“It was just a couple from Cuba who only spoke Spanish and they were refused to board because their passport was not Ukrainian.”
She continued: “It’s absolutely appalling and devastating to witness that people of colour are treated differently – in this instance too, the woman was incredibly vulnerable, as she told our team that she had unfortunately miscarried on her journey from Ukraine to Poland.
“She had to endure a very difficult journey to safety and yet is still facing additional burdens, challenges, and discrimination on her journey through.
“This incident is incredibly troubling – all those fleeing a conflict situation, despite their background have the same right to safe passage.”
The ActionAid team worked with their local partners to help the couple board a train to Germany where they have relatives.
Refugees are still fleeing Ukraine in their masses, with recent figures from the UN Refugee Agency saying that on the week beginning 6 March, a maximum of around 140,000 people crossed the border per day.
This figure has dropped in the course of the month, with around 80,000 people crossing per day on the week beginning 13 March and about 35,000 people crossing a day the following week.
“What we’ve seen in crises and time and time again is that women are usually the most vulnerable,” said Ms Ignatiou, explaining that women are at a higher risk of sexual and gender-based violence during conflict, especially when they have been displaced from their homes.
It is her job to work with local women’s rights organisations to give women safe shelters, food and drink as well as emotional and psychological support.
A 35-year-old mother Maryia* her daughter Natalia*, 11, fled their hometown of Chernihiv after they had to hide in a basement for 15 days while the city was bombarded.
“Her journey took three days into Poland and that wasn’t easy. She mentioned having to travel under fire,” said Ms Ignatiou.
“Her husband supported her to cross the border but had to stay behind and she wasn’t sure if she was going to be reunited with him again, or whether she’d have the option to go back.”
In time, the nature of the refugee crisis has changed, said Ms Ignatiou, as initially, people who had family in neighbouring countries were leaving. Now, people have been forced to leave their homes despite having nowhere to go.
One mother called Kateryna* had planned to stay in Ukraine, but her 14-year-old daughter Liliya* has severe cerebral palsy and needs 24-hour care.
Initially, they hunkered down in a basement, but it was difficult to take care of Liliya who uses a wheelchair.
So Kateryna*, aged 52, left Ukraine with her daughter, leaving four other adult children behind so that she can take Liliya* to a rehabilitation centre in Poland.
Another woman, Vira*, travelled from her home in Kyiv to the Polish border with her five children, including her newborn baby Artyom*, who was three months premature.
She was forced to leave the premature baby unit as the family escaped from the city.
The mother felt relieved to have made it to safety in Poland, said Ms Ignatiou, but uncertain about what the future holds.
A common theme among the women at the border was the “incredible resistance” they have, Ms Ignatiou added.
“What they’ve gone through is unimaginable and yet they’re standing strong and continuing to really want to support their family as best as they can,” she said.
*Names have been changed to protect people’s identity