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KRAKOW, Poland – Galia Alacheva, a 17-year-old art lover from the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, sips tea in a pop-up lunch room inside a closed shopping mall.
She and her mother, Sara Tarashchanska, have lived in the mall since fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Polish authorities have turned it into a refuge for refugees.
“We eat here, we cook here, we sleep here, we do everything here,” says Alacheva. Since we left Ukraine, this is our home.
Joanna Kakissis / NPR
More than 150,000 Ukrainian refugees now live in Krakow, Poland’s second largest city. It has increased the city’s population by 20% in just a few weeks, prompting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to open an office here. More than 2 million Ukrainians have gone to Poland in recent weeks, but Polish authorities estimate that less than half have stayed.
Poland passed a law last month allowing Ukrainians to live and work legally in the country for at least 18 months, with the possibility of extension. The Polish state is financially assisting municipalities as they have difficulty finding long-term housing, employment and schooling for new residents.
From her point of view, Alacheva says that things are going smoothly.
“I have heard that it is difficult to find a place for us in Kraków,” she says. “But you know, I do not feel unwelcome at all.”
Authorities in Krakow are trying to help Ukrainians find work
Poland’s Minister for Families and Social Affairs Marlena Malag announced earlier this month that 30,000 Ukrainians had already found work in Poland.
Alacheva’s mother, a psychologist, is one of them – she is advising other Ukrainians on the run.
“A third of the Ukrainians I have met here have a university degree and more than half have a technical education or some form of training,” says Tarashchanska. “The key is to find a job that you have been trained to do.”
Tarashchanska considers himself lucky; she is working in her field. There are few jobs available for skilled or specialized workers, says Radoslaw Strzelecki, who helps Ukrainians find work.
“Most of the vacancies we have are basic jobs, such as working in a warehouse or cleaning,” he says, looking at a computer database of vacancies. “Ukrainians all apply for them, because they want to win.”
Strzelecki and two other Poles work at the work center, which is part of a help center on a huge sports field. Near the booth are rows of long tables where volunteers help Ukrainians fill out documents for 11-digit Polish ID numbers, which help Ukrainians gain access to benefits and health care.
Ukrainian teachers help refugee children adjust to new schools in Poland
Jacek Majchrowski, the long-term mayor of Krakow, whose office runs the relief work for refugees as well as humanitarian organizations and volunteers, says the local school system is hiring Ukrainian teachers on the run as assistants. This is especially useful for children to adapt to their new environment.
“The language is certainly a problem, because most people [Ukrainian] children do not speak Polish at all and feel very lost, “he says.” There was talk of opening a special Ukrainian school, but we did not want them to feel like we were putting them in a ghetto. We wanted to get them to our schools. “
In an elementary school named after the Polish writer and adventurer Arkady Fiedler from the 20th century, an assistant of a Ukrainian teacher walks down the aisle with a group of Ukrainian students.
Another is 11-year-old Linda Voronaya, a little girl with a spy haircut and a cautious smile. She claims to be from Kyiv where she loved to explore the gardens with her friends.
She has made a new friend here, Kristina Vitkovska, 12 years old, also from Kyiv. Kristina tells Linda about her father who died two years ago. She brought his sweater to Krakow. Leaving Kyiv, where she had so many memories with her father, felt like he was leaving her life behind, she says.
The school’s principal, Bozena Mikos, hugs the girls in his arms. She says that the school has made room for a large number of additional Ukrainian students and that parents have skipped buying them backpacks with all the essentials – notebooks, pens, pens.
“We want to offer students security, not just education,” says Mikos.
She says that every Ukrainian child in her school wants to go back home. But Majchrowski, the mayor, is not optimistic that this will happen any time soon. He says he regularly talks to the mayor of Lviv, a city in western Ukraine where hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians have sought refuge.
When this war drags on, Majchrowski says, many could end up in Krakow.
“We have found a place for the first wave of refugees,” he says, “but we do not know exactly what will happen next.”
Dawid Krawczyk contributed to this report in Krakow.