The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They made the choice to flee Ukraine. But the next question is where to go.

Outside a main refugee center in Przemysl, Poland, Ukrainians prepare to board a bus on March 21 to go to Italy. (Chico Harlan/The Washington Post)
11 min

PRZEMYSL, Poland — The stream of people keeps arriving, safe at last in Poland, and for many, the next stop is a shuttered shopping mall four miles from the border. That’s where they encounter a place that some volunteers call the “decision room.”

It’s less a room than a bank of chairs, crammed among a sea of cots, near what used to be the mall’s supermarket. Now, it’s a riot of activity: volunteers, European national flags, information booths for various countries, and refugees trying to make sense of the staggering choices at hand.

“Free transport to Estonia,” one sign reads. “Free housing 90 days” in Denmark, reads another, posted in front of a whiteboard listing the buses departing daily: for Zurich, Dresden, Munich, and so many other cities that are everywhere but Ukraine.

“A lot of refugees start crying right then and there,” feeling overwhelmed, said Greta Ostrowska, one of the center’s coordinators.

For the 3.5 million people who have fled Ukraine during the month-long war, the first decision they make as a refugee is nothing less than how to live as one. That begins with the basic questions of what bus or train to board, how far to go from Ukraine, and it continues well after with the calculation about how thoroughly to remake their lives, and how hopeful to remain about eventually returning home.

First day as a Ukrainian refugee: Warm bed, guilt and cursing Putin

These decisions would be hard under any circumstances — much less under the strain of exhaustion and stress. But the alternative is staying in a packed refugee center. So, lives are forking in new directions by the minute.

“I am following the finger of God,” said Nataliya Fursa, picking a Spain-bound bus because its destination felt like the farthest possible point from where she fled: war-demolished Kharkiv. “It’s warm in Spain,” she said with a shrug.

Unlike the initial refugee wave, many of the people making these choices have no relatives anywhere outside of Ukraine. And so the impetus for picking a place can come from anyone, including the volunteers and donors who have swooped in from all around the world to try to help — people like Dennis Paaske, a Danish marketing executive who worked with private funders this week to bring a rented double-decker bus to Przemysl with the intention of filling all seats with any takers.

Paaske coordinated with a Danish volunteer inside the center, who described to refugees the country they’d wind up in if they boarded. Denmark needed workers, Paaske said, and the country had just signed a law that aimed to clear away bureaucracy and allow for easy residency. With him he had a Ukrainian translator, as well as a biotech office manager whom he called the “spreadsheet guy,” who would match the Ukrainians with host families during the 18-hour trip. When the bus arrived at its three drop-off points, Danish families would be there waiting.

“It’s a safe haven,” Paaske said.

Europe rewrote its migrant playbook for Ukrainian refugees. Some fear it’s not enough.

Soon the bus started filling up — 25 people, then 50, then 70, some making the decision to board only because of a conversation with Paaske, or with the Danish volunteer inside the center. Dmytro Hutsalov, 28, climbed on board with his wife, Tatiana, 24, and they said they could scarcely believe they were sitting there, given all they had been through in the past four days: a terrifying exit from Russian-occupied Berdyansk in a humanitarian convoy and too many Russian checkpoints to count.

“We won’t go back to our lives if Berdyansk is in the hands of Russians,” said Hutsalov, who was able to leave Ukraine because he has diabetes, which exempted him from military service.

He’d been a computer programming student, and she’d been a teacher, but all they were taking to their new lives was a laptop, a few bottles of water, some granola bars, a suitcase of clothing, and a phone showing videos of Russian soldiers beating Ukrainian civilians. The couple gripped hands.

“It’s hard to see what the future looks like,” Hutsalov said. “I’m afraid.”

What next?

The decision about where to go is also a judgment about the war itself — and when it might be safe to go home.

But this war has defied predictions.

There is the possibility that Russia uses siege tactics on major cities such as Kyiv, employs chemical weapons, and grinds Ukraine into submission. Some refugees fear the worst is yet to come. But, given that front lines have scarcely moved for several weeks, there is also the possibility that Ukraine gains leverage for a peace deal. And other refugees, particularly those from western Ukrainian towns less touched by war, reason that there’s no point in boarding a bus to some place like Denmark if the war might be over in several weeks.

Leaders add sanctions on Russia, warn against chemical weapons

The most common decision, so far, is to stay put in Poland.

“They want to be as close as they can be to Ukraine,” said Chris Melzer, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency who was stationed until recently near the Polish border.

President Biden, speaking from Poland on March 25, lamented not being able to witness the humanitarian crisis firsthand in Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

For that reason, while other countries are only beginning to see a surge of refugees, lodging all across southeastern Poland is booked. The population of Warsaw has swelled 20 percent in four weeks. Some 2 million refugees have so far remained in Poland, including more than a dozen at a hotel 45 miles from Przemysl, tucked away in a tidy residential town, where the 63-year-old owner sleeps on a sofa in the lobby, telling the Ukrainian families that they can stay there for as long as they want at no cost.

“I think I’ll stay in this hotel until the war is over,” said Oksana Sheherbyk, 43, who worked at a Swiss-owned blood laboratory in Lviv.

More than 3 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine; more than half are children. Their parents are trying to explain the war to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Up in Room 20, Kateryna Halushka, 39, had thought she’d already be back home by now. On the morning in February that she fled Ivano-Frankivsk with her two children and her sister, she’d told the children it would just be for a “few days.” Now it was Day 21. Her sister had already come to terms with a long war: She’d enrolled her son in a Polish school. She’d found a waitress job at the nearby Hilton Garden Inn. She’d told her employees at the coffee shop she owned in Ukraine that she wasn’t coming home any time soon.

But Halushka said she felt more conflicted about what to do. She signed a lease for a Polish apartment, starting April 1. But she still couldn’t quite wrap her mind around all it would take to learn a new language, to start a business. The nail supplies she used as a manicurist were still back home — not to mention her friends, her relatives, her two-bedroom apartment in the center of town.

It would take years to replace all that in a new city.

So, she was holding out hope for her old one.

“Two to three months, minimum,” she said, “and maybe I can go home.”

‘Just go and survive’

Denmark, on the other hand, required a near-total transition.

For Anna Cheliuskina, it meant arriving at a train station on the central Danish island, being greeted there by a 77-year-old macroeconomist whose connections to her country were a onetime stake in a Ukrainian pig farm and a sense of despair about the war. Steffen Moller drove Cheliuskina and her son, Misha, 12, through the Danish countryside, stopping finally at a five-bedroom farmhouse constructed in 1851, now filled with oil paintings and thick wooden furniture, already housing one Ukrainian with several more on the way.

Seeing the place, Cheliuskina, for the first time since leaving Ukraine, started to sob.

“I started to unfreeze,” she said. “My whole body.”

It was a house where Moller — a divorcée with six grown children — had lived alone until the war. And soon it was nearly full: four Ukrainian women, five children, who took upstairs bedrooms, played outside in the massive yard, in what could feel like a getaway.

Cheliuskina spent days trying to measure her decision, and its consequences were by turns joyful and daunting. One day, Misha told her how he’d headed out into the countryside, charming some Danish boys by borrowing their scooter and showing off some tricks. But another time, he collapsed on the bed at night, exploding with anger, saying he hated Russian President Vladimir Putin, until Cheliuskina took her son’s hand and said she understood.

“You should cry,” she told him, thinking about what she, too, had left behind.

She’d left behind an older son, 21, who had been called back to work as a sales manager in their hometown of Dnipro to help the Ukrainian economy. She’d left behind her brother, with whom she helped to manage a travel agency, as well as her mother, who one day called to describe the scene. More air raid sirens. A city under curfew at night. Total darkness.

Cheliuskina, in thinking about whether to leave Dnipro, had weighed how it would feel to part ways with her family — maybe for a long time — and go somewhere new. She’d considered Denmark even before leaving, hearing about Moller from Svitlana Volushina, 54, the first woman to take refuge in the farmhouse. (Volushina and Cheliuskina spoke on the condition that they be identified by their maiden names, out of concern about Russian reprisal against relatives still in Ukraine.)

Cheliuskina worried about setting off for a “whole new world.” But her last nights in Dnipro had included Misha shaking with fear and retreating to a closet, the safest place in the case of a rocket strike. Cheliuskina, who is divorced, decided she was ready for that world.

“Just go and survive,” she said.

‘It won’t be the dream life’

But the biggest question, as time goes on, is how to build a life.

Wednesday was her 42nd birthday, and she celebrated it as no other birthday before: with three Ukrainian women, as well as Moller, in the farmhouse’s conservatory, surrounded by flowering jasmine and an avocado tree. Moller poured champagne. Misha kept coming over to offer hugs. Everybody munched on little skewers of cheese and sausage before moving into the dining room, where red candles lit the room.

The meal was a blend of Ukraine and Denmark — borscht and smoked salmon — and to Cheliuskina, the farmhouse, too, was a sort of in-between universe, wonderful but not sustainable, not her own.

During dinner, Moller talked about the requirements that the four women would have to fulfill before gaining a certificate to be eligible for work. It could take several months, he said. But he also hinted at a bigger issue, the kind of jobs they might have to take. The four women were all well-educated — one an expert in agriculture, another a biology teacher — and Cheliuskina, in addition to her travel agency, is one year away from finishing her training in psychotherapy. But for everyone, there was a language barrier. None spoke Danish. Cheliuskina had the best English, conversational but not fluent.

“My biggest concern — how will you survive so long away from Ukraine?” Moller said. “What will happen in your heads in three or five months if you cannot go home?”

Cheliuskina translated for the other women.

Moller mentioned the possibility of cleaning jobs or assisting in home care of the elderly.

“If I need to, I’ll do it,” Cheliuskina said.

Others picked at the last of their food.

“It won’t be the dream life,” Moller said.

There were no answers at hand. But staying in Denmark for good seemed just as feasible as anything. So, the next morning, Cheliuskina started as she always did, sitting down at a chair in her temporary bedroom, joining her morning-long Zoom course in psychotherapy. The teacher was in Ukraine, a couple of the students had scattered to other European countries, and Cheliuskina might as well have been anywhere, but for the oil painting behind her. She had her notebook, her pen, and across the room there were four books that she’d brought from Ukraine for her training.

One was written by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian who’d survived the Holocaust.

Cheliuskina said it was a book “about how to make sense of life.”

Lucja Skolankiewicz contributed to this report.