Two refugees, both on the border with Poland. But apart from the world.
Kuznica, Poland — The day the war broke out in Ukraine, Albagir, a 22-year-old refugee from Sudan, was lying on the frozen forest floor at the entrance to Poland, trying to survive.
Drones sent by the Polish Border Patrol were looking for him. So were helicopters. It was night time, below zero temperature and snow everywhere. Albagir, a pre-med student, and a small group of African refugees trying to break into Poland, with the last few shrunken dates in their pockets.
“We were losing hope,” he said.
That same night in a small town near Odessa, 21-year-old Katya Maslova grabbed a suitcase and her tablet, which she uses for her animation work, and jumped in with her family in a burgundy Toyota Rav. They fled in a four-car convoy with 8 adults and 5 children, part of a frantic exodus of people trying to escape from war-torn Ukraine.
“At the time, we didn’t know where we were going,” she said.
In the next two weeks, what will happen to these two refugees entering the same country at the same time, both about the same age, can’t stand the contrast. Albagir was punched in the face, called racial slurs and left in the hands of a border guard, Albagir said, beaten mercilessly and enjoyed doing so. Katya wakes up every day to a stocked fridge and fresh bread on the table, thanks to a man she calls a saint.
Their differing experiences underscore the inequalities of Europe’s refugee crisis. They are victims of two different geopolitical events, but pursuing the same mission – to escape the ravages of war. As Ukraine presents Europe with its biggest surge of refugees in decades, many conflicts continue to burn in the Middle East and Africa. Depending on which war a person is fleeing from, the reception will be very different.
From the moment they enter Poland, Ukrainian refugees like Ms Maslova are treated to piano music, bottomless bowls of borscht and, often, a warm bed. And this is just the beginning. They can fly all over Europe for free on Hungary’s Wizz Air. In Germany, crowds gather at train stations, waving the Ukrainian flag. All EU countries now allow them to stay for three years.
Watching all this on a TV in a safe house in the Polish countryside, where it is too dangerous for him to step outside, Albagir, who asked that his last name not be used because he had crossed the border illegally, He said that he was almost in a state of shock.
“Why don’t we see this care and this love? Why?” He asked. “Are Ukrainians better than us? I don’t know. Why?”
What the Albagir experienced has been repeated countless times from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel, as European governments made it difficult for migrants from Africa and the Middle East to enter their countries – sometimes to keep them out. using excessive force.
His journey was complicated by the fact that he decided to enter Poland from Belarus, a Russian ally that Western countries said had caused a major refugee crisis last year. After Belarus invited thousands of desperate people from conflict-torn countries such as Sudan, Iraq and Syria and directed them to the border of Poland as a way of wreaking havoc in Europe, Poland responded by taking drastic action on that border.
Ukrainians are the victims of conflict on European soil which is getting closer day by day. The result is a response from Europeans that has largely been filled with compassion. It leaves refugees feeling the brunt of inequality from more distant wars and, some say, racism.
“This is the first time we are seeing such a distinction between the treatment of different groups of refugees,” said Camille Le Coz, a migration analyst in Brussels who said Europeans regard Ukrainians as “like us”. lets see.
“Hello, I’m Janus”
On February 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ms Maslova was sitting in her family’s car with a shotgun, driving through Moldova swallowing Pepsi.
As he looked out the window, he saw people cheering, shaking hands and giving them thumbs up.
she started to cry.
“It wasn’t the bad parts that broke us, but the good parts,” said Ms Maslova. “You’re not preparing yourself emotionally for the fact that the whole world is going to support you.”
Driving west, he argued where to go. Some said Latvia, some said Georgia. But Ms. Maslova had her own plan, albeit a bit random.
She studied animation at a college in Warsaw and her roommate’s parents knew a man whose father had a spare house in the Polish countryside. If it works out, she could go back to animation school and pursue her dream of making children’s cartoons. He reassured his family: to Poland.
On the same day, Albagir was still trapped in the woods on Poland’s border with Belarus. He has been on the run for years. As a boy, Albagir said he saw his homeland Darfur ravaged by war and “saw everything you can imagine.” He then fled to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to study medicine. But Khartoum soon turned into chaos as well.
So last November he said he traveled to Moscow on a student visa to take courses at a private university, but after Russia invaded Ukraine, triggering severe sanctions, Albagir feared that his university would be destroyed. can be deprecated. So he ran away again.
His plan was to travel from Poland to Germany, from Russia to Belarus, but said that he did not know Poland. More recently, it had strengthened its border to expel migrants coming from Belarus.
About 130 miles to the south, Ms Maslowa’s convoy finally reached its destination, a farmhouse in the Polish countryside.
Suddenly, a fat man with thin brown hair emerged from the darkness.
“Hello, I’m Janus,” he said.
Janus Poterek and his wife Anna hugged him and they all started crying. But the tears did not stop on the way.
Ms Maslova’s family walked into the kitchen and saw the three-course meal their hosts had prepared for them, and cried. They walked into the bathroom with new toothbrushes, a line of soap and shampoo, and cried. They saw freshly washed sheets, towels and blankets on their beds and cried.
Mr. Poterek, an apple farmer, had never helped refugees before, but said that when the war broke out, he “could not remain indifferent.”
“We’ll kill you if you come back.”
A few nights later, while Ms. Maslova and her family were admiring the pile of toys their hosts had brought for the children, Albagir and three people traveling with them were arrested. They had made it across the Polish border, but the driver they hired to drive them to Germany forgot to turn on his headlights and was stopped. Albagir said his SIM cards and power banks were stolen by Polish police officers; disabled their phones (so they can’t call for help); and took them back to the place they feared: the forest.
Human rights groups say at least 19 people have died trying to enter Poland in recent months after Polish border guards pushed them back into the wilderness.
Polish officials insisted it was not their fault.
“These are Belarusians,” said Border Guard spokeswoman Katarzina Zhdanovich. “They direct these people”
Human rights defenders say Polish guards are also guilty of abuse. A Polish government spokesman declined to discuss the treatment of the refugees.
“go Go!” Albagir said Polish guards shouted at Albagir’s group, pushing them at gunpoint towards a barbed wire fence in an isolated part of the forest. Albagir said the guards threw a man into the fence so hard that he cut off his hand. On enquiry, he showed a scratch mark between his fingers.
A few hours later, wandering with little food or water and no way to navigate, they arrived at a Belarusian border post and begged the guards to let them in.
“We needed shelter,” said Albagir.
But the Belarusians had other plans.
Albagir said border guards caught him and threw him in a cold garage. A huge Belarusian soldier hurled racial slurs and angrily attacked them.
Russo-Ukraine War: Key things to know
“He punched us, he kicked us, he threw us down, he hit us with sticks,” Albagir said.
He said that a light-skinned Kurd was detained with him in the garage that the soldier had not even touched.
Then the soldier took them to the forest and said: “Go to Poland. If you come back, we will kill you.”
According to human rights groups, tens of thousands of refugees have been driven back and forth between Poland and Belarus, stranded in limbo, unable to enter either country or return home.
On 5 March, Albagir and his group crossed the border into Poland for the second time within a week, unconscious and nearly frostbitten. He called a number he had been given in case he was in trouble, and a Polish worker secretly took him to his house, warning him not to step outside. Their experience would not be completely devoid of acts of kindness.
Albagir plans to apply for asylum in Germany, which has a reputation for being generous to all refugees, and has finished her studies. He speaks Arabic, English and some Russian and wears gold-rimmed glasses and a clean beard. He dreams of becoming a doctor and writes a book about his experience. He said that he still cannot believe that educated people from relatively prosperous countries would treat those in need in this way.
A man with them, named Shaikh, couldn’t speak English, so he typed a message into his phone and hit play.
The phone’s robotic voice said: “All of Europe says there are rights for every human being and we haven’t seen that.”
Asked if he believed racism was how he treated him, Albagir didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, that much,” he said. “Racism only.”
“What shall I cook for them?”
For Ms. Maslova’s family, the treatment keeps getting better and better. Mr Poterek enrolled his brother and sister in primary school – the Polish government providing free education and health care to Ukrainian refugees.
“It looks like the whole country is slightly bending the rules for Ukrainians,” Ms Maslova said, after a doctor refused to accept payment for the visit.
When asked by her hosts whether they would take in African or Middle Eastern refugees, Ms Poterek said, “Yes, but we had no opportunity.”
But Ms Poterek said it would be “easier” to host Ukrainians because they share a culture. As for refugees from Arab countries and Africa, she asked, “What will I cook for them?”
Last Thursday, Mr. Poterek talked to a friend about finding Ms. Maslova a job as a translator.
That afternoon, Albagir and others reached a safe house in Warsaw. Once again he was told not to step outside.
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