WQ Dispatch April 2022

– Wil Sands

One Ukrainian refugee helps others while searching for a new home

“This is just a dream,” Svitlana Zots remembers praying to herself when explosions woke her at 5 a.m. on the third day of the war. Zots says all the bomb shelters in her Odesa neighborhood were shuddered. Thunderous anti-aircraft defenses and incoming exploding missiles lit up the night’s sky. There was nowhere to hide. The start of the war separated the recently licensed psychologist from her elderly parents. They were stuck at the family dacha 30 kilometers north of the city, just across the border from Moldova. “In the village it is safer,” she said as a simultaneous statement of fact and search for affirmation.   

Svitlana Zots is a Ukrainian refugee, and a volunteer psychologist at the “Hostel,” a grassroots dormitory for refugees located in the heart of Krakow, Poland. Agata Kluczewsla and other solidarity activists rented the first floor of the Baroque apartment building in 2021 to store materials for their response to the refugee crisis along the Polish border with Belorussia. Fast forward six months—three days after the first Russian troops invaded Ukraine—Kluczewsla negotiated a new contract with the property owner for the rest of the building. The middle aged anthropologist with heavy bags under her eyes explains the number of residents ebbs and flows between 90 and 200 people. Kluczewsla guesses the current population is probably closer to 200, not 90. With no major funding, she describes the space as a “hippie squat.” “We don’t work with the state.” Kluczewsla clarifies, “We take referrals, but we don’t receive any resources from the state. It is all through private donations, and some collaborations with other members of civil society.” She says refugees are allowed to stay for two weeks, but adds, “We never kick anyone out.” 

Mohamed Attiya is waiting for the British Consulate to give him documents to travel to the UK. His Ukrainian wife already can travel. Mohamed, an Egyptian citizen, must go through the normal immigration process before he can enter Britain. Photo by Wil Sands.

Not able to reach her parents and facing empty stores and growing lines at ATM machines Svitlana Zots decided to leave the country. At least for a couple of days. She chuckles nervously as she explains that she didn’t pack anything, just a change of clothes. Now Zots says her reaction all feels tragically naive. The trip to Poland took three days. “There were too many refugees,” she says. Once across the border a friend gave her a place to stay. To deal with her own shock and trauma Zots decided to volunteer with Poland’s humanitarian response to the wave of refugees from Ukraine. First, she did some translating at a train station, then she found the Hostel. Today she is helping people sign up for a free bus to Holland, but tomorrow she says she’ll probably have to give professional counseling to a traumatized child, mother, or grandmother. Svitlana is clear-eyed about the current situation and her own limitations. “Everyone is traumatized, everyone is in shock. I’m in shock.” But she worries about the psychological damage of refugees still to come. Zots says she has yet to counsel people who have personally witnessed violent attacks. She is convinced those people will eventually arrive at places with even less resources than the Hostel. “We are already overwhelmed. What are we going to do then?”

The three-story Hostel is divided into sections connected by a wide spiraling staircase dominating the middle of the building. The ground floor is a labyrinth of storage spaces littered with stacks of packaged diapers, used clothing, baby furniture, and piles of random odds and ends presumably donated by supporters. Off the entry is the volunteer space with a small office and rest area. Through a door and up to the second floor is the heart of the Hostel. There is a collective kitchen, bathrooms, a dining area, the living room/reception, a couple of bedrooms, and the children’s play area. On the third floor is the bulk of the sleeping quarters. Bedrooms vary in size from triples, to near a dozen roommates. Accommodation is dictated by demand.  There is very little privacy and a constant whir of movement, phone calls, children playing, adults sobbing, laughing. Silence can only be found in the far reaches of the ground floor storage spaces. 

Svitlana introduces me to Helena Novikova, a retired typographer originally from Kharkiv.  Novikova says she was in Kyiv when Russian troops invaded. She and her husband were helping their daughter with care for their granddaughter. The lethal uncertainty of the growing conflict was too much for the family. Novikova, her husband, daughter, and granddaughter first fled to Lviv.  “But it didn’t feel safe. The constant air raid sirens, for a child?” She sighs, tears gather in her eyes. Novikova says her daughter and granddaughter are going to start a new life in Europe. They don’t know where, but Novikova is encouraging them to lay roots. After two years of COVID-19 quarantines and online classes, her granddaughter needs to start school. However, Novikova is going to return to Ukraine. She starts to cry. “Our home in Kharkiv is gone. We’ve already lived through this horror. My uncle was shot. My mother used to shake when someone knocked on the door. ‘Are they here for me?’” Staring at the floor, she says she is happy that generation is not alive to see the terror of war again. “I have family in Russia.” Novikova says in Russian, “how are we going to live together after this? How are we going to call each other brothers and sisters? You cannot compare Russian democracy to the [albeit] flawed democracy of Ukraine.” Novikova worries what Putin will do if boxed into a corner. She reminds me of the existential threat to the world that a nuclear bomb would present.

Svitlana Zots next to a pile of stuffed animals in the corner of the Hostel's play area. Residents of the grassroots shelter for refugees are overwhelmingly women and children. Photo by Wil Sands.

Svitlana Zots shows me around the second floor. We shoot some portraits of her next to a mountain of stuffed animals in a corner of the children’s play area. She explains that when the children first arrived the stuffed animals became potentially dangerous projectiles.  So, a rule was agreed upon: stuffed animals could only be thrown in one direction and exclusively against the walls of the corner. As we chat, two children bury themselves under the colored felt and button beasts. Svitlana says she is stuck in limbo. She cannot move on because to do so would confirm her most profound fear: the war will not end soon. Her father says things in the village are relatively safe. There is no bombing. But he also tells her every day there are more tanks moving around.  

In a recent interview with NPR, Krakow’s mayor Jacek Majchrowski, explained the population of Poland’s second city increased by at least 20% since the invasion of Ukraine began. Poland has received an estimated 2.4 million people since the start of the invasion. Majchrowski and other mayors from eastern Polish cities are increasingly looking to smaller communities to host refugees from Ukraine. Agata Kluczewsla says the Hostel has the financial and human resources to sustain one more week of services. If there is no funding windfall during that period, Agata does not know what they will do. 

Svitlana Zots wonders where her home is now. “I need to find my home in the world. But it almost feels like home is the entire world now.”   

Wil Sands is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Richmond, Virginia. Sands' work focuses on social movements and political uprisings. He is the co-founder of the Fractures Collective and his work has been published The Washington Post, Mother Jones, and Harper's Magazine, among others. He received support for this article from ArtWorks Projects.

Cover photo: Irina Polezhaieva, right, talks with another Ukrainian refugee in the Hostel's living room. In the background a Dutch volunteer helps people sign up for a free bus to Holland. Irina has decided to move to Holland with her six-year-old son. Photo by Wil Sands.