‘We are all standing with you’: Justin Trudeau meets refugees in Poland as exodus from Ukraine continues

WARSAW, Poland—Thousands of traumatized refugees, mostly women and children, crowded Thursday into Warsaw’s massive central train station, a midpoint for many in a desperate flight from the Russian bombardment of Ukraine.

Their stories are harrowing — of homes, schools, medical clinics and lives shattered by rockets, family members left behind.

But for all the humanity shuffling around or sleeping on two floors, the cavernous station was oddly quiet, save for toddlers playing or crying, and people on video chats with relatives in cities under attack.

In the overwhelming sadness that hung over those lined up for train tickets onward and others resting on the few benches, there was the shy smile of 12-year-old Uliana Bonderenko.

War has “just ruined” her beautiful native city of Kharkiv, she said, “and I’m very sad about that. I’m afraid about my city because I love it a lot.”

Her mother, stepmother, brother and sister have no idea what they’ll do next — maybe stay for a month in Poland “because we want to save our lives.”

Yet Uliana said she needs to share her positivity. If she doesn’t, “people will get a bad mood… it’s just my feeling,” she said. As for her future from her? “I want to be a therapist” — but she will also go back to Kharkiv and volunteer to help rebuild the city.

Uliana’s energy radiated hope in a place where there was little of it.

The war in nearby Ukraine has pushed a refugee tide of 1.5-million people over the border into Poland, and it threatens to become a tsunami.

Faced with what he fears will become a “deep, deep crisis,” Polish President Andrzej Duda made a direct appeal to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for more help.

Behind closed doors, Duda said he and Trudeau discussed how to provide flights for those taking advantage of Canada’s special emergency travel program to come to Canada.

“This is the issue of negotiations, who will give the plans… to travel to Canada,” said Duda, calling it a “technical issue” in an impromptu conversation with Canadian reporters following a formal news conference with Trudeau.

Before the cameras, Duda had made a more diplomatic call for action, but behind the scenes they are talking details, he said.

Duda said Trudeau told him, “’Yes, we are ready. We are ready to take people to Canada especially those people who have families in Canada.’

“I told him, ‘Yes, please, Justin, try to introduce some very, very, very simple procedures, yes? Simple procedures of visas and et cetera to move this process faster, to accelerate it.’”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded for Canada and other countries to offer more help to repel the Russian attack.

Zelenskyy is also scheduled to address Canada’s Parliament on March 15, the government house leader announced Thursday, which will undoubtedly raise the pressure on Trudeau’s government to do even more for Ukrainians.

Canada has not waived its visa requirement for Ukrainian immigrants, despite creating new study and work permits for stays of up to two years, saying it would have taken up to 14 weeks to change regulations and other systems to do a visa waiver. However, Ottawa says it has cut out most paperwork other than a basic security check for fleeing Ukrainians.

It’s unclear how many Ukrainians currently want to travel to Canada, and how many want to remain in Europe, closer to the husbands and sons who remained behind, Duda said.

Trudeau himself got a glimpse of the tremendous needs facing Poland and the other countries bordering Ukraine who are taking in refugees.

Accompanied by Warsaw Mayor Rafat Trzaskowski and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, the prime minister visited a downtown hostel after a planned visit to another refugee shelter was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are watching what’s happening in Ukraine every single day from around the world,” Trudeau told the refugees, “and we are all standing with you and we all want this to be over.”

Trudeau was visibly moved during the 45-minute visit as an emotional Freeland translated the refugees’ stories for him with tears in her eyes, according to a Canadian Press photographer.

Trudeau later met for about an hour behind closed doors with US Vice-President Kamala Harris, who traveled to Poland and Romania this week to assess those countries’ needs and to show a united front to NATO allies on the eastern edge of Europe.

“Vladimir Putin totally underestimated the strength and resolve of the Ukrainian people,” Trudeau said as he greeted Harris. “But he also underestimated the strength and resolve of democracies to stand up in support of Ukraine, in support of those values, and principles that underlie everything we do.”

Ottawa has provided $100 million in humanitarian aid, $50 million of which will go to international agencies here on the ground, including the World Food Programme, the UN Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies , the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, HelpAge, Save the Children and SOS Children’s Villages.

Trudeau said Thursday that his government would also match $30 million in donations to the Canadian Red Cross, a figure that had been surpassed well before last week.

Red Cross spokesperson Leianne Musselman told the Star the Ukraine fundraising appeal has already raised $59 million to date.

But at the Warsaw train station, few of those the Star spoke to knew about the offer to fast-track applications to come to Canada.

Polina Staseoskaya, a 17-year-old from Kharkiv, was alone.

“To be honest, I’m nervous,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on in the future.”

She said her mother and father are in their mid-50s and won’t leave Ukraine, and her older sister wouldn’t leave without them.

So, the Grade 11 student will head to Germany to stay with a friend, then maybe go to Paris “because I want to work in fashion.”

Canada is a long way away.

“I saw a lot of posts on Instagram where people said that Canada doesn’t allow Ukrainians to go there,” Polina said. Told that’s not so, she said she would do more research on the internet because “people say different things.”

Then there was Betty, a miniature Yorkie cradled by Tatiana Petryhina. Petryhina stroked her pet de ella as her 13-year-old daughter Elizaveta translated. The air sirens and bombs drove them out of Odessa three days ago, she said. Now an aunt in Canada is trying to help them get visas.

They’re daunted by the prospect, and they’re really worried about Betty’s papers. Clutching their pet’s vaccination records and “passport,” they ask whether Ottawa let them bring Betty, who is trembling in their arms from her.

For now, they’ll probably head to Germany. But Canada beckons, they say, because there they can find family.


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