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“Putin will stop at nothing”: this is how young Ukrainians live the war in Poland – Culture

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Translated from the French by Odile Kennel.

Paloma Coffee on Plac Solny in Wrocław’s Old Town has become the meeting place for young Ukrainian expats in the city. Dove, like the dove of peace, who no longer has a voice in her country. In a small room at the back of the café, Anton, the owner, personally roasts Brazilian, Colombian and Honduran beans.

He is Ukrainian from Cherson and has lived in Wrocław with his wife and three children for six years. “Three kids. One year. Three years. Six years,” he says.

Anton left Ukraine in 2015 after Euromaidan. He was a prosecutor in his native country, but after two years of work he had had enough: “Too much corruption. Everybody hates prosecutors. And twelve hours of work every day, including weekends. I decided to start a new life in Poland. I feel good here. The Poles are the best version of the Ukrainians, and on top of that there is political and economic stability here. Poland is the gateway to Europe. Last summer we climbed Etna. With three children!”

At Paloma Coffee everything is done to show solidarity. Blue and yellow bouquets on the tables, Ukrainian flags on the cake counter. Anton and his wife have brought the confectioner from the Kherson branch and his nine-year-old son to their house. Anton picked her up at the border by car.

“There is no point in going to war without experience”

Show a photo on your cell phone. In the gloom of a basement dimly lit by a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, people wrapped in thick anoraks, children wrapped in blankets. “These are my employees who stayed in Kherson,” she says.

But when you ask Anton if he’s thinking of going to war, his face crumples. The self-confident family man is crying. “My wife doesn’t want that. We have three children.”

Those who decide to stay feel more useful here. Filip, a regular at Paloma, sits around a table with a group of friends and wonders, “Does it really make sense to go to war with so little experience?” Filip, Tetiana, Ana and Adam are constantly on the alert and hanging from morning to night on their cell phones.

Every few minutes, the messages will flash on the Telegram app on your screen. They hardly sleep at night anymore, and when they wake up very early in the morning, the first thing they do is jump on their mobile phones: has something happened to their parents, relatives and friends in Ukraine?

If you live in the west of the country, you are lucky and have been spared from the war so far. But those in Kiev send them “almost unreal” selfies, Ana says.

They are young and highly qualified.

His parents huddled in the corridors of the subway. When the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Tetiana planned a ski vacation in the Dolomites with a group of friends on both sides of the border. The trip has been cancelled. “A week ago we were exchanging ‘How many sweaters are you packing?’ Now some of my friends are packing their bags to go to battle.”

Tetiana is 33 years old. She has been working as a computer scientist in a large company in Wrocław for five years. Ana came from Kiev on a scholarship to study biotechnology at the University of Wrocław: “We just wanted to see something of the world, like all young people our age in the rest of Europe.”

Tetiana left her bedroom to a Ukrainian mother and her nine-year-old son. Her husband stayed in the Ukraine. Tetiana gave them a key and filled the fridge. She sleeps on the sofa in the living room.

For her, it is the least she can do: “My brother in Ukraine is thirty years old and studied political science. He volunteered to fight. He got weapons. He is my hero. Before joining the army, he took his wife to a safe place in the west of the country. The trip took three days, the roads were very full.”

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Tetiana has that dark sense of humor that she unleashes in desperate situations. Give yourself courage, defy fate, protect yourself. She would like her parents to come to her in Poland. But they refuse. Her mother is a pharmacist in Dnipro and she wants to be useful. Her father would like to fight like her son, but he doesn’t want to leave his wife alone.

Tetiana, Ana and Filip are between 26 and 33 years old. They belong to the young and highly skilled diaspora that has settled in the city of 630,000 people.

Before the outbreak of the war, one in ten inhabitants here was Ukrainian. Working and living in Poland was not a decision made out of necessity, like many of his compatriots. They would not have had to leave their country.

“In Ukraine, computer scientists like us drive Teslas or Porsches,” says Ana. “They earn very well and the prices are lower than in the West. Why should they leave for economic reasons? Only in Switzerland would they perhaps earn even more. But Switzerland is boring. Also, we love Ukraine. It is our country. Why would we want to leave it forever?

“We are next on the list”

So nothing in common with the diaspora, the cleaning ladies in the hotels, the stockists in the supermarkets, the Uber drivers, the young women who do manicures, the bartenders and waitresses or those who come to pick strawberries. These low-paid Ukrainian workers are replacing Poles who have gone to work further west, in Britain or wealthy Germany. Berlin is a four hour drive from Wrocław.

“The status of Ukrainians in Poland is very uncertain,” Anton complains. Without a permanent work permit, they cannot take out loans, build a house or truly integrate into their host country. In recent years, Ukrainians have repeatedly denounced racist incidents on social media.

World War II often plays a role here, in particular the murder of Polish civilians by the Ukrainian insurgent army, which made a pact with the German occupation forces.

But ever since Russian tanks invaded Ukraine, the city has come together in a great wave of solidarity.

“The Polish government is really doing amazing things for us. As soon as the Ukrainians manage to cross the border, they are safe,” reports Anton. A four-star hotel in Wrocmaw has opened its doors to refugees.

During the entire conversation Adam, Ana’s Polish husband, did not say a word. Suddenly his face darkens: “No wonder the Poles show so much solidarity. We are next on the list. Putin will stop at nothing. We are scared.”


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