In Warsaw, the first Christmas of Ukrainian refugees since the Russian invasion

With sadness but also with the hope of a victory in 2023, hundreds of Ukrainian refugees celebrated in a Warsaw theater their first Christmas since fleeing the Russian invasion.

Gathered in the Nowy Teatr, a former truck repair shop transformed into a contemporary theatre, these refugees are among the approximately 1.5 million Ukrainians who have settled in Poland since the start of the war on February 24, 2022, the highest number among all the countries that hosted them.

These women, mostly Ukrainian men of recruiting age who are not allowed to leave the country, expressed in unison their pain at celebrating Orthodox Christmas away from their husbands and sons.

“How can we feel?” asks Svitlana Borysova, a hairdresser, before bursting into tears. Helped by some friends, she left Ukraine in the early days of the war with her two children aged 3 and 6, but had to leave her 21-year-old son behind.

Olena Sigitova, who came to Christmas dinner on Friday evening with her 10-year-old daughter, Daryna, said: “We feel sad but there are new friends here, new opportunities”.

“At least we are not alone,” she adds, wearing a paper wreath typical of Christmas celebrations in Poland for Epiphany Day.

Christmas Eve was organized by the Ukrainian House in Warsaw, a non-governmental organization that has helped to settle Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

“The main objective is to bring warmth, a sense of belonging,” Myroslava Keryk, the head of the organization, told AFP.

On the New Year’s Eve menu: traditional Ukrainian dishes such as borscht (soup) with beets, vareniki (kinds of ravioli) and koutia (a seed-based dessert).

– “Victory” –

(AFP – Wojtek RADWANSKI)

Some 500 people attended the New Year’s Eve, including many women who donned traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts. Christmas carols were sung and words of support from soldiers defending their country were read.

“The most important thing for everyone this year is victory. We dream of it so that we can calm down and think about the future”, summarizes Myroslava Keryk.

Several of the women interviewed said that having to look after the children made it difficult to find a stable job, but that their children were acclimatizing and starting to learn Polish at the crèche or at school.

For Olena Sigitova, who comes from Dnipro in eastern Ukraine, finding time for Polish lessons is difficult but she is grateful to her host family for hosting her and her daughter since the beginning of the war.

“They said we could count on them for as long as we needed,” says the woman whose husband is in the ranks of the Ukrainian army.

During her first three months in Poland, she barely left the house where she is staying. “I was so scared, I panicked.”

Since then, she has worked as a hairdresser at home.

Ukrainian refugees celebrate Christmas in a theater in Warsaw on January 6, 2023 (AFP - Wojtek RADWANSKI)
Ukrainian refugees celebrate Christmas in a theater in Warsaw on January 6, 2023 (AFP – Wojtek RADWANSKI)

Natalia Golomsha, who arrived with her 8-year-old son, Marko, found a full-time job in a company that helps Ukrainian children study in Poland.

“I was helped a little by my friends, my contacts, but also by the desire and the ability to adapt to the conditions,” she says.

Kateryna Krahmalova, a university researcher from kyiv, has also found a job, but with the advantage of already knowing how to speak Polish.

“The most important thing is that my family is with me, so my home is where they are.”

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