The Darkest Hours

The importance of Reception Centres taking in refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine into Poland and how essential the services provided are.

Due to the conflict in Ukraine, millions of people fled their homes. A growing number of people are left without a home, seeking refuge in collective reception centres in Poland before transiting to other destinations. For some families moving forward has been a challenge, as they are hopeful to return home. Ongoing hostilities back in their hometown have made it impossible, as the distress caused by being away from home is preoccupying their thoughts and attachment to objects.   

Since the start of the conflict in February 2022, Medair in Poland has focused on supporting refugees transiting through the Podkarpackie Voivodeship.  At least 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine. Ongoing hostilities and significant damage to infrastructure reported inside Ukraine, have made it impossible for hundreds of thousands of people to return home. Financial support, access to employment, and accommodation remain the most frequently reported immediate needs in Poland, followed by in-kind assistance and medical treatment. With the arrival of winter, access to housing risks becoming even more challenging, as fewer hosting options may be available, coupled with the difficulties caused by raising energy prices. 

Medair is supporting regional authorities through the reception centres, where refugees are temporarily hosted upon arrival in Poland. They are provided with accommodation and necessities before transiting to other destinations. Medair ensures that services are available and humanitarian standards are met since the facilities were not designed to house people overnight or to receive such large numbers of people. Some examples of Medair’s support include the purchase and installation of washing machines, large boilers for hot water, improvements to showers, and the installation of partitions that provide privacy for families. 

A big hallway with dim lighting displaying a series of camp beds and partition booths.

Irina, 56 years old, a refugee that fled the conflict in Ukraine with her husband, displays photos of her destroyed home from her laptop sent from friends and relatives in Ukraine, while sitting at the Full Market Centre in Rzeszów, Poland, Poland on the 9th of November 2022. ©Medair/Abdul Dennaoui

The aim is to ensure that communities are provided with appropriate messages in relevant languages and through relevant media. Anytime, day or night, volunteers ensure that families can access food and drink, a safe, warm place to rest, and medical help. The team can arrange transportation for onward train travel. They are prepared to help with any special needs for disabled people and even for pets and their owners. The Protection Care Management team provides a variety of services at each centre including information on finding appropriate assistance and on gaining access to local services, translation, registration, and mother and child safe spaces. This dramatically increases the protection environment and aids the delivery of all other services in the centres. This protection support complements support of the reception centre activities filling critical gaps. This is done in a manner conveying dignity and agency to individuals who decide how to proceed with the information they are given.  

“For my family, these were the darkest hours” says Volodymyr. 

Irina, 56 years old and her husband Volodymyr, 55 years old, are refugees from Ukraine.  They fled the conflict as a family of three to Poland in search of shelter. I met Irina and Volodymyr through Medair’s Protection Case Workers at the Full Market Reception Centre, where they are currently hosted. The protection caseworkers were conducting their 4th consultation session with Irina and her husband. Irina and Volodymyr were waiting for us in the pantry sitting at a community table. They were seated across from one other. There was a laptop in the middle of the table with the screen open displaying a photo. The laptop was facing the entrance of the pantry as I walked in, and I could see from their faces that they were both emotional. As I got closer, I noticed that the photo was of a house in ruins. Their eyes looked like they had shed some tears.   

As we sat down, we were properly introduced by one of my colleagues. Irina, holding back her tears, started to sob. As the team comforted her, Volodymyr changed the picture on the screen to a funny photo of him holding a duck and says “Look remember that day” with a voice trying to incite some excitement to cheer Irina up. It was a funny moment, and everyone had a hearty laugh, relieving every tension and stress in the room. Shortly after, everyone’s laughs and giggles calmed, and the moment was overshadowed by the reality that Irina and Volodymyr, had lost their home. Irina and her husband told us about the hardships and struggles they faced under these challenging circumstances, and how they had to leave it all behind for the safety of their family.  

A woman cries in front of laptop displaying a photo of her home.

Irina, 56 years old, a refugee that fled the conflict in Ukraine with her husband, displays photos of her destroyed home from her laptop sent from friends and relatives in Ukraine, while sitting at the Full Market Centre in Rzeszów, Poland, Poland on the 9th of November 2022. ©Medair/Abdul Dennaoui

“I honestly do not know where to start”, says Irina, wiping some tears away with a tissue as she took a deep breath. “It all happened too quickly. It was a night at home with the family. We were getting ready to have dinner” she says with a smile on her face as she recalls the early moments before the catastrophe. Medair’s protection case workers quickly highlighted to us that Irina has a 30-year-old son, and that he is deaf. Irina continues, “Yes, my boy is deaf we speak in sign language. He was watching television in the living room. The broadcaster that came on was saying our town was being struck. I looked at my son, and I will never forget the pale shocked look on his face” she says with a shaking voice, putting her head down in disbelief. Irina needed a moment, as Volodymyr continued; “At that moment, I ran towards the kitchen and immediately asked my wife and son to pack away some clothes and essential items we would need for the road” he says with a firm voice. “Quickly we haven’t gotten much time I said, we need to leave now – we packed everything in the car within the minute. I guess there was kind of an adrenaline rush going through all our bodies because it all happened in an instant” he says. He carried on “After experiencing the conflict in 2014, I always made sure to have a bag packed with our legal papers and document in case of emergencies. I’ve been living with this kind of fear that eventually in the future this was going to happen again, but this time it was going to be closer” he says looking down at his hands. A moment later, still in disbelief, he says “I was right – this time it struck our home.”

A photo of a destroyed home is displayed on a laptop screen.

Irina, 56 years old, a refugee that fled the conflict in Ukraine with her husband, displays photos of her destroyed home from her laptop sent from friends and relatives in Ukraine, while sitting at the Full Market Centre in Rzeszów, Poland, Poland on the 9th of November 2022. ©Medair/Abdul Dennaoui

Irina followed, “We were inside the house when it happened. Everything went dark. I don’t know how it was possible that we all ended up in the safest corner of the house together – four beams that kept us safe. It is a miracle. I cannot describe the terrifying sound right before our home came crashing down” she says with teardrops falling down her face. Irina took a deep breath while she wiped away her tears. I looked over at Volodymyr, and his eyes were watery, but it felt like he was trying to hold his own. A moment of silence followed. Irina was too emotional, so Volodymyr continued, “We were all on the floor nestled together. The thickness and amount of concrete that had collapsed down were unbelievable. These pictures were sent by friends that are still living in our town. I don’t know how my family and I survived this” he says humbly.    

Volodymyr needed a minute as he recalled the challenging events that night. As he collected his thoughts, he continued, “When I eventually realized we were all okay, I had to get my family to safety – we may not be as lucky the second time around. It was dark outside. I couldn’t see my hands in front of me. All you could hear in the distance is sounds of the strikes intensifying. We fled our hometown, as strikes continued to come in. I don’t remember what was going through my mind while driving, but I all I knew was that we were not going to stop for anything. All that mattered was my family’s safety. For my family, these were the darkest hours” he says with a faded voice.  

A man stands in front of his booth at a reception centre.

Volodymyr,55-year-old, a refugee from Ukraine that fled the conflict with his family to Poland in search of safety talks with Svetlana, Medair’s caseworker during a consultation at the Full Market Centre in Rzeszów, Poland, on the 9th of November 2022. ©Medair/Abdul Dennaoui

Irina, now able to speak again continued, “The house we lived in, was left to us by Volodymyr’s parents. His father built it with his own hands. Now, since the thirteenth of march, rubble is all that is left. Sometimes I feel like the memory of the house is slipping away from me” she says angry at herself. “On our drive to Dnipro, we contacted some friends that we were going to stay with. It was safe for some time, and it was nice to have experienced some normal again. We stayed for a while before we’ve had to make a move again. Our second destination was Lviv. Volodymyr’s colleague is from Lviv, and he offered to host us for a few months until we could wait this out. Unfortunately, Lviv was not a permanent solution, so we finally fled Ukraine to Poland – there was no other way. We arrived in Poland in July, and we’ve been struggling to make a move since. The struggles we are facing now, are immense. The language barrier is hard, as we don’t speak Polish. Volodymyr cannot get a job because he doesn’t speak the language. But he is taking lessons now. I worry for health. He suffered head trauma and a stroke some time ago, which challenged him. He needs medications and we need to continue monitoring his health. It’s sometimes difficult for him to walk and get around as well. But we continue to hope. All in all, we are comfortable here, but it is not home. All I wanted was to live happily in Luhansk, close to our family. However, there is no one left. I still have hope that it’ll be over soon so we can return home and start anew. It’s been hard on us to acknowledge that we’ve lost our home” she says with a sad look on her face.  

As we concluded our stay, Irina and Volodymyr showed us the booth where they live now in the Full Market Centre. Their family is very thankful for the support they received from Medair. They are currently fixed for a longer term stay at the Full Market Reception Centre. Medair’ protection case workers supported Irina and Volodymyr with cash assistance, linking them to local services and further protection activities that link households with Polish government support mechanisms. Alina and Svitlana call them monthly to follow up on their needs.  

Community tables rest in a center with some daily essential items on them

Pantry at the Full Market Centre in Rzeszów, Poland on the 9th of November 2022. ©Medair/Abdul Dennaoui


Medair services in Przemyśl and Rzeszów are funded by Tearfund New Zealand and Chaine du Bonheur (Swiss Solidarity, CdB) and AWC UK. 

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organization.