Bridge: Ocean to Ocean Highway YUMA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
COVID-19 Coverage

A visit to one of the busiest border crossings between Ukraine and Poland

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Medyka is the busiest border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, and today it's busy in a different way from when the war started. Back then, 1,500 Ukrainians were crossing into Poland every hour, escaping war. Aid workers from all over the world set up tents offering free food, medicine, SIM cards, whatever people might need. And now...

HARRY SCRYMGEOUR: So I'm breaking down our camp.

SHAPIRO: Harry Scrymgeour is part of a small Scottish charity called Siobhan's Trust, named after his late mother. His group has been here since the start of the war, back when temperatures were below freezing. It was a time that felt frantic and desperate. For months, they churned out pizzas, coffee and other supplies for Ukrainians arriving in Poland for the first time. Volunteers came from everywhere. Today, the team includes Mary Lucic (ph).

MARY LUCIC: And I'm from Hell's Kitchen, N.Y. Yes. And what I do is I push bananas, mandarins, juice, little bubbles for kids, coffee and tea. And in the morning, the coffee here is like Dunkin Donuts.

SCRYMGEOUR: It's like a table with water on it in a marathon.

SHAPIRO: Today, the last pizzas are coming out of these ovens.

SCRYMGEOUR: Of course, the sort of great joy in tearing down this camp is that it has been useful. It is no longer useful.

SHAPIRO: The needs at Medyka are changing fast. The flow of people has changed direction. Almost all the aid tents here are stationed along the same narrow pathway. Prayer groups face the U.N. Doctors from Israel can smell the food wafting over from the World Central Kitchen.

When I was reporting here two months ago, Ukrainian women and children in winter coats dragged suitcases through this crowded, muddy walkway. Everywhere I turned, people were crying. Now the sun is out. It's warm, and the pace is slow.

Occasionally, someone pushes a rickety cart down the path. This one is full of pet carriers. Christina Kunitskaya (ph) is shepherding five cats and two dogs into Poland. She lists off their names.

CHRISTINA KUNITSKAYA: This is Mikey (ph). This is Moussa (ph), Teddy (ph).

SHAPIRO: This is her first time leaving Ukraine since the start of the war.

KUNITSKAYA: It's a little stressed.

SHAPIRO: Of course, of course.

KUNITSKAYA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: But at this point, she's an outlier. My team spent a full day at the Medyka crossing from dawn until late afternoon, and not many people were entering Poland for the first time. It feels more like a commuter hub now, and the tears these days are often from happy reunions. Parents hug their kids for the first time in months.

OKSANA CHIKH: (Through interpreter) I haven't seen them since the beginning of the war. We drove our children to the border on February 26.

SHAPIRO: Oksana Chikh (ph) and her husband are both police officers in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk. They weren't allowed to leave Ukraine when the war started, so she sent her three boys to safety in Poland with their grandmother.

CHIKH: (Through interpreter) I was scared. It was painful but, most importantly, uncertain. When you don't know when you will return, you don't know what to expect. This uncertainty is the most frightening.

SHAPIRO: Her sons are 6, 9 and 11. The 9-year-old says he can't wait to get home and play with the cat he hasn't seen since February. The mother's hands keep touching the boy's shoulders as she talks.

When you get home tonight, what is the first thing that you will do with your whole family all together?

CHIKH: (Through interpreter) We will talk to kids who tell us about their travels, memories from their stay in Poland. Then tomorrow, I go back to work. The kids will study online. Life goes on.

SHAPIRO: The family stands in a long line of pedestrians waiting to enter Ukraine. Imagine the hellos and goodbyes that you see at an airport, but ratchet up the intensity. When there's a war on one side of the border, these separations and reunions can have much higher stakes because although this part of Ukraine is peaceful, areas in the country's south and east are still under heavy Russian assaults.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL TOLLING)

SHAPIRO: One man, who looks about 20, hugs his parents and siblings in line again and again. And then he turns around and quickly walks away from the border, wiping his eyes. A father sends his wife and kids through the line, then stands with his nose pressed to the glass of the immigration center, tapping the window and waving until he can't see them anymore.

He's going up to the door, peering into the glass, tapping on the window, waving at his kids, just looking at them until the last possible moment that he loses sight of them.

Yuri Vasylevych stands alone in the line, holding a saxophone case.

YURI VASYLEVYCH: (Through interpreter) Today is actually my birthday.

SHAPIRO: Happy birthday.

VASYLEVYCH: (Humming "Happy Birthday").

SHAPIRO: He turned 71 today. While most of the people waiting to cross wear hoodies or T-shirts, he is smartly dressed in a plaid blazer over a black polo shirt. As a senior citizen, restrictions on men of military age leaving Ukraine don't apply to him. He's just returning from a four-day conference of European saxophonists, where he was a special, honored Ukrainian guest.

VASYLEVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

(Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: He tells me to pull out my phone and find a video on YouTube. This is an old Ukrainian dance that he arranged with the Kyiv Saxophone Quartet. He plays the soprano sax.

In the war, when you feel afraid or anxious or angry, what is the piece of music that you play to become calm?

VASYLEVYCH: (Through interpreter) I love Bach. The thing is, the music comes from the heart. It informs your entire attitude. Do you understand? It's health. It's life. And we're going through life with music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: The giddiness in this line is not just from people eager to reunite with family members.

VIOLETTA NABOKA: I feel I'm very happy because I very, very love my sweet Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Violetta Naboka (ph) and her 14-year-old daughter have spent the last two months living with Polish strangers, who she says treated them like family.

NABOKA: These people really loves Ukraine. (Speaking Ukrainian). I'm very happy because I really want to my house...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

NABOKA: ...To my husband, to my mother, to my dog, Brooklyn.

SHAPIRO: Your dog is named Brooklyn.

NABOKA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

SHAPIRO: Aww (ph).

NABOKA: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: When you get home, what will be the first thing you do?

NABOKA: I am going to tell - (imitating kiss) - I love you, my husband (laughter).

SHAPIRO: This crossing no longer feels like a fork in life where there's no turning back. These days, you can wake up in Ukraine, cross into Poland and duck into a medical tent, where a doctor will see you right away.

AZIZ HAFIZ: How many weeks, months or years have you had headaches for?

SHAPIRO: Dr. Aziz Hafiz is chairman of a nonprofit called Humanity First. A lot of people here come to him with chronic conditions that aren't being treated, like diabetes and high blood pressure.

HAFIZ: So you ask them, when did you take your medication? Not had it for seven days. Why have you not taken it? And they laugh at you. They think, well, actually, I've just fled a war. That's why I've not had my medication - because I've left it behind.

SHAPIRO: His organization isn't ready to pack up the tent just yet, but they are changing their focus as the situation at the border improves.

HAFIZ: We're not seeing as much of the medical influx that we used to. We have still kept this as a base because we're using this - a lot of our medical supplies that we're distributing to hospitals within Ukraine itself. This is our sort of distribution center, almost.

SHAPIRO: The global community of helpers here even includes some volunteers from Russia.

IVAN LUZON: My father and my friends were political activists from Russia, from Kaliningrad.

SHAPIRO: Ivan Luzon (ph) wears a button that says, Russians for Ukraine. He's 21 with long, brown hair reaching the middle of his back. His family fled Russia on March 3.

LUZON: You know, meetings, demonstrations, pickets - and now it's very dangerous because Putin is a dictatorship.

SHAPIRO: Do Ukrainians ever hear that you are Russian or hear you speak Russian and feel afraid?

LUZON: No. People understand, of course, not all Russian people is [expletive] bastards who destroy their home, who killed your family. No. Russia have many good and kind people.

SHAPIRO: And so when you see these Ukrainians who have left their homes, do you think, I, too, have left my country and don't know if I will be able to go back?

LUZON: Part of want to return where the war is finished.

SHAPIRO: He struggles to find the words. Then he pulls out his phone and starts typing in Google Translate. He finishes and shows me the screen. It says, I do not know what Russia will be like after the war. I do not know whether Putin's regime will be overthrown, if Russia will become a free country or a new USSR.

Ivan Luzon looks at the Ukrainians crossing here and sees their joy at returning to their home country. He hopes that someday he'll be able to do the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAWN")

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow on the program, the underground network of abortion rights activists in Poland helping pregnant Ukrainians access care that's illegal on this side of the border.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Now I feel here most needed because I'm not only language translator but also Polish reality translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.