This week, the world changed as we knew it. We had grown accustomed to a world that had learned the lesson of the 20th century and perhaps was earnestly trying to war less, to coexist more, and to try to advance the world rather than regress. And then Mr. Putin chose to unjustly attack the sovereign democracy of Ukraine putting the lives of millions in peril. At the JCC Krakow, we are keenly aware of the plight of the Ukrainians and the existential threat Russia poses on Poland’s eastern border.
With the intensity of evil wrought by an enemy regime, we also witness a groundswell of kindness exhibited by citizens all over Poland. The citizens as well as the government have mobilized to help those less fortunate, those displaced, those who managed to escape from the inferno that is Ukraine. We at the JCC have set up a help center, with individuals coming in at all times to drop off supplies, food and toys for refugees and their families.
Early yesterday, we heard of a young pregnant woman with her two daughters who made it to Krakow, but her husband was left behind. We immediately found a hostel for her and brought over food and toys for the kids. She is now safe, but her trip was harrowing.
Later, I was sitting in the JCC and a young couple came in to see if they could help out with the refugees. I asked them who they were and from where they were coming and they responded, quite emotionally, “From Ukraine. We arrived yesterday.” I asked them if we would sit down with me so I could write down their story to let the world hear first-hand of their frightening, yet inspiring, experience.
The kindness of refugees
Kseniia Stepanenko, from Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine on the border with Russia, together with her boyfriend, Emre Demircan (from Turkey), arrived on Sunday at 6 a.m., after having traveled one hour to get to a bus, 48 hours on the bus, 5 hours walking (20 kilometers, some 12 and a half miles) and another 4 hours hitchhiking the remaining distance to the border. Kseniia’s family is still in Kharkiv and she was visibly shaken up during the interview, but nevertheless she was poised and determined to tell her story.
They were woken up Thursday at 5 a.m. by an explosion outside of their apartment and they realized that they needed to leave immediately. Taking what they could, they feverishly booked a bus that was set to leave the country a few hours later, and ran to the subway to get to the bus — together with hundreds of people running frantically.
48 hours on a bus
Luckily, they caught the last two seats on the bus which normally was destined for Poland, but due to the situation, the bus driver was only going to Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, around 300 miles away. At this point, Kseniia and Emre engaged in what was going to be a true test of their determination and reason for successfully escaping — they began to try to convince first the people on the bus and then the bus driver to travel to the border rather than just the capital. They and the people on the bus collected money to pay the exorbitant demands of the driver, they appealed to the driver’s conscience, begged, pleaded and cried in order to get him to take them to safety. The bus driver was not interested, but the more money he could make, the more willing he was to take the risk.
The route of the bus went through major cities in Ukraine, constantly slowing down to drop some passengers off and pick others up. They drove to Poltava, then Kyiv, Zhitomir, Rivne, Lviv, and then through the border Shehyni. All together, 48 hours on the bus, passing by tanks and soldiers, explosions and bullets flying above, stopping only at the side of the road for toilet (for men and women), and of course to fill up at some gas stations (although many had no gas). Just to get out of Kyiv took four hours, as the streets were lined with cars and people and chaos.
“We were under that much stress that we didn’t have power to cry.”
Everyone was so relieved to get out of harm’s way, but incredibly sad to leave behind loved ones. While they still had battery on their cell phones, they would get messages by the minute, as with every bomb or attack they needed to ensure that her parents were safe. At different times during the retelling of their story, Kseniia broke down: when she would recall her parents, or the graphic details of the trip, the people who were suffering on the way, or the feeling of having made it to safety while others, her family, her countrymen, were still in harm’s way. But then, she collected herself and kept on talking.
A reluctant bus driver
On the way from Kyiv to Lvov, at 10:30 at night, while many were sleeping, the bus driver took a road off the beaten path, much to the chagrin and objections of Kseniia and Emre, who didn’t like the looks of the route. Pretty soon they heard a BIG BOOM and saw an explosion of 5 to 8 cannons, and they hit the ground immediately. The soldiers told them to turn around immediately. After four hours going east, there was no longer any traffic, and they finally relaxed, but then, after three more hours, there were explosions again, this time from Belorussia.
Remarkably, their journey just kept going on, with more buses and more difficult decisions. This type of saga was too much for many Ukrainians, and thousands gave up on the arduous trip. Kseniia and Emre kept going forward knowing that they must escape Ukraine for their own safety, for their future.
Twenty-five kilometers (15.5 miles) from the border, there was again a pile up of cars extending miles and miles, and at that point, the bus driver said he was not going any further. Everyone had to get off the bus and start walking. Little did they know that it was the beginning of a five-hour walk, together with thousands of others trying to get to the border. On the road, it was a surreal sight, with people shedding their belongings all along the side as they marched on. They also saw fathers carrying their children on their shoulders for miles and miles, only to return back, having dropped off their children at the border, but not being allowed to cross themselves. Heartbreaking.
The frigid temperature
Three kilometers (nearly two miles) from the border, Kseniia and Emre started seeing a whole bunch of people walking back! They were shocked and didn’t understand what was going on. The people explained that after waiting at the border for over 26 hours they just couldn’t do it anymore. It was too difficult and especially too cold, as at nighttime the temperature dropped to -2 Centigrade! They gave the young couple advice, which ultimately led to their success: “Try to find someone to take you in their car, because the lines for people walking is tens of hours!”
Kseniia noticed out of the corner of her eye a car trying to find its way. It was a mother and her two children traveling to the border, like many hundreds of thousands of others. She went over to the car to beg her to get into the car, pleading, begging, offering money, offering support. Finally the mother acquiesced and Kseniia sat inside with a child on her lap, and Emre did too.
The “golden ticket”
There was so much chaos at the border and if you missed one checkpoint, you didn’t get a “golden ticket,” the ticket that would be required at all subsequent checkpoints. This woman did not get a ticket, and for the rest of the trip, Kseniia cajoled the border patrol guards to let them through. This, after two full days of fighting to get to the border. They also tried calling any embassy that they had a connection to — Turkey, Italy, Poland. In Warsaw, a nice lady answered them, but said she couldn’t help until they get THROUGH the border.
At the final 150 meter (close to 500 feet) mark, they were asked for the ticket and, in their words, “We screamed at them and cried and begged. There were only three cars in front of us, but a lot of people who started moving forward pushed and pushed and screamed. Someone in the mob screamed “Bomb!” and people started running in different directions and we jumped to the ground of the car and protected the kids. Our driver had an attack — she started having a seizure — and Emre administered first-aid to her. After 20 minutes of nursing this woman back to health and helping with the kids, we tried to help this woman more, but every few seconds, there was banging on the car form people who were walking by and we were worried about them as well. It was incredibly traumatic for us.”
Hitching a ride made all the difference
Because of her seizure, the border patrol had mercy on the woman, so they got to the border, and the patrol said: “Passport, ticket, insurance and birth certificate, any documents.” They finally got through the Ukrainian border and in the 30 some odd meters (100 feet) between the two borders, the car’s battery died! But at least they were safe.
Emre and Kseniia got out and literally pushed their car to safety. They then met the Polish border guard who was amazing,. Everything on the Polish side was so nice, they said. Not one person was mean to them. They saw Polish soldiers carrying babies on their soldiers. “A crying moment. We knew at that moment that we were finally safe.”
From the border, they made it to Przemysl and from there to Krakow, in Krakow to the JCC to offer their support for other Ukrainians who suffered worse than they did! They want the message to get out and want people to be aware of the horrors the Ukrainian people are going through every minute, but also they want people to know of the heroism they saw with each Ukrainian standing firm and preparing to fight for their homeland.
* * *
Kseniia and Emre are two people with stories among a sea of traumatic experiences being told to Poles all over Poland as more and more refugees are welcomed to its borders. We at the JCC are privileged to be able to help them and any refugees who walk through our doors, old or young, man or woman, Jew as well as non-Jew. We also continue to gain inspiration from them and many like them, and will try to cater to the needs of anyone who turns to us. May God protect us.
Kseniia and Emre wrote up their story on their Facebook page and asked people who read it to check out this site to see how they can help out: https://how-you-can-support-ukraine.super.site/
Additionally, one can support the efforts of the JCC Krakow at this address: https://www.friendsofjcckrakow.org/support (write in the comments “for the refugees’”)