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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Sent away from Ukraine, 17-yr-old struggles to cope as a refugee

Gregory is a volunteer at Warsaw Central, the main railway station in Poland that is a transit point for the deluge of refugees from Ukraine — over 2 million so far.

Written by Krishn Kaushik | Warsaw |
Updated: March 22, 2022 4:17:10 pm
A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (AP)

HIS PARENTS call him Grisha. He was studying in Grade 11 in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv when the Russians crossed the border 26 days ago. A day later, his parents sent him away with friends who were leaving the country. They decided to stay back.

Today, Grisha or Gregory is a volunteer at Warsaw Central, the main railway station in Poland that is a transit point for the deluge of refugees from Ukraine — over 2 million so far.

Tall, lean and mild-mannered, the 17-year-old is wary of having his photo taken or even sharing his last name. “My parents are still in Kyiv,” he says. He is also apprehensive about his future in Poland, even though the country has opened its arms to the refugees, offering shelter, jobs and education for children.

APTOPIX Poland Russia Ukraine War Poland has admitted some 1.95 million refugees fleeing war and Russian aggression on Ukraine. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Gregory doesn’t know Polish and is struggling to fit in. Then, there’s school. “Ukrainians who come here and do not know Polish are sent two grades down. I am in the final year of school but if I continue in a Polish school, I will be sent to Grade 9. I will not do that,” he says.

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On March 18, Poland’s Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek posted on Twitter that 75,000 children of Ukrainian refugees “are already in Polish schools”. Of them, 10 per cent are in preparatory departments, and 90 per cent in Polish class. “We estimate that there will be 700,000 children who can apply to Polish schools,” he wrote. Czarney had earlier spoken about ensuring that the Polish education system is not disrupted.

At Parade Square, a man in a yellow jacket has pitched up a dart board with headshots of Putin and his ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Gregory had hoped to study Computer Science in Lviv after graduating from school. Now, he does not want to spend two years in Poland studying what he has already learned. He is hoping that Ukraine will issue documents endorsing the grades of students like him, and that other countries would accept them.

Looking back on his journey, Gregory recalls that when they woke up on February 24, “we knew that the war had started” and his mother “said to me that you are going to leave”.

The family found out that some of his mother’s friends were going to Poland in a car. She requested them to take him along. They drove to Uzzhorod, a city close to Slovakia. “The normal route used to take about nine hours or so. But it took us two-and-a-half days,” he said.

Soon, they decided to move to Budapest in Hungary from where Gregory flew to Warsaw, to stay with his sister who is based there. In Kyiv, he says, his father is helping Ukraine’s armed forces but “hasn’t yet used the weapons” issued to him.

The family had an online sports equipment business before the war, and used to create training machinery for alpine skiers. But all that is gone — at least for now.

Gregory’s parents and grandparents wanted him to leave “because they wanted me to have a future”. For themselves, “they decided that they will stay back and help the country in any way”.

With Russian forces stalled by the Ukrainians just 50 km outside the city, Gregory is “scared for my family”. “I speak to them every day,” he says.

Asked about the future of his country, Gregory is clear. “We shouldn’t agree to Russian terms. I think we should fight the war. If we continue fighting, it will lead to more destruction, but if we surrender, there will be a lot of destruction in the distant future.”

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