Six months into the war, Ukrainian refugee agonizes about returning
POZNAN, Poland — Tatiana Afanasieva dreams of returning to Ukraine from her life of exile in Poland, but even though her neighbors back home in Kryvyi Rih tell her Russian shelling there has stopped, she is too afraid.
“People tell me that it looks normal, life goes on, people go to work,” Afanasieva, 34, told Reuters from her room in a flat she shares with a Polish woman who wanted to help refugees in Poznan, western Poland.
“I can say that I accept it and I will return, but maybe my body will not be able to cope with it.”
A mother of two, Afanasieva fled the central city of Kryvyi Rih in March, shortly after Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, becoming one of roughly 6.7 million of Ukrainians forced to leave by what Moscow calls its “special military operation.”
Like more than a million of the refugees, she has made a temporary home in Poland, Ukraine’s western neighbor, relying on the kindness of strangers and government aid.
And just like many of them, six months into the war, she has no idea when, or if, she will be able to return.
“I don’t sleep in my bed. I don’t wake up with my cat. I don’t go to my yard to drink coffee, water flowers in the morning,” she said.
“It feels like the devil has come down to our earth, in a different way. This is Armageddon.”
After several rounds of western sanctions launched against the Kremlin since the start of the war, diplomats acknowledge they are limited in how they can significantly further pressure Russia and force it to back down.
Meanwhile, after an initial outpouring of public support for refugees across countries neighboring Ukraine to the west, such as Poland, resources are drying up and property agents in many places find it increasingly difficult to find housing.
Magdalena Pietrusik-Adamska, from the Poznan city hall, says many refugees are worried that an economic slowdown spreading across Europe may eventually turn their hosts against them.
“We need to make sure we prevent what our guests and residents are afraid of, an escalation of tensions over employment … a change in social mood,” she told Reuters.
‘I didn’t want to come here’
When Kryvyi Rih first came under shelling, Afanasieva barricaded her bedroom and put a wardrobe against the window and blocked it with books and a blanket.
“I thought shrapnel would hit these items first. But I understood that if something fell on the roof, we would simply get buried right there.”
In early March, she took her two children and two backpacks and along with a friend and thousands of other refugees, she got on a train to Lviv, leaving her husband and her entire life behind. In Poland, thanks to a Facebook group for refugees, she found a free apartment in Poznan.
Her children started school soon after, but she has struggled to find jobs, and nothing that compares with her well-paying position at a pharmaceutical company in Ukraine.
She had interviewed for a promotion to a regional sales representative just before Fed. 24 but didn’t hear back before the war started, and now makes a living as a cleaner in Poznan, earning just over a 100 euros a month.
Most of the time, she is worried about her husband who stayed back.
“I want to go home … If only I was told that we can safely return, I would leave on foot now,” she said, her voice breaking. “I didn’t want to come here. I don’t want to take anyone’s place here. I have my own place.”