How the Lviv train station welcomes Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s war | Photo report

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

The Lviv train station welcomes 10,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war Russia unleashed on the country each day. Countless volunteers provide them with assistance. Photo: Alya Shandra 

Russian Aggression

Each day, the Lviv train station welcomes 10,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war Russia unleashed on the country each day. Countless self-organized volunteers provide them with assistance, from food and shelter to medical and psychological aid.

Since the start of Russia’s full-blown war against Ukraine, at least 3.7 million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. In total, at least 10 have left their homes – roughly every fourth Ukrainian. For many of them, the Lviv train station is their first stop in the quest to find a new home and a new life. As the first trains with refugees arrived, a volunteer initiative, one of many thousands in the city, sprung up to cover the needs of Ukrainians fleeing the war. Find out how Ukrainians self-organized to help their compatriots in our photo report.

A tourist magnet turned refugee hub

Once the #1 destination for tourists seeking beautiful architecture and special eats, Lviv has turned into a humanitarian hub. The train station, which just yesterday celebrated its 118th anniversary, earlier served as the gates into this tourist heaven. Now, it is a bastion for refugees fleeing the war.

How the Lviv train station meets refugees from Ukraine fleeing Russia war | Photo report

Photo: Alya Shandra

At the start of the Russian invasion, roughly 60,000 refugees arrived at the train station each day. Now, this number has dropped to approximately 10,000, according to Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi. Many refugees stay in Lviv Oblast, but even more travel abroad.

As of 26 March, Lviv Oblast has offered shelter to 251,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Evacuation trains arrive from the east. They are free of charge to passengers but often overfilled. At the start of the war, up to 20 people were sitting in one train compartment designated for four, and train corridors were lined up with sleeping people during the night.  Now, the flow of people has subsided somewhat.

After the arrival of evacuation trains, volunteers guide the flow of people through the tunnels so there is no congestion.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

Volunteers, in fact, are all around the station. They bring food, provide psychological assistance, help disabled people, provide security, make food, provide information, and accomplish a thousand other tasks that have helped Lviv welcome the surge of Ukrainian refugees. The volunteers have self-organized in a most remarkable fashion, much like those at the Pototsky Palace, who in the space of 10 days have gone from a small group receiving aid to running a four-story humanitarian hub with algorithms to improve effectiveness in place.

The largest line is to the platform from which evacuation trains depart to Poland, Ukraine’s western neighbor that has taken the brunt of the refugee crisis. Ukrainians fleeing the war stand here all day waiting for the next train that will take them to Warsaw, where volunteer initiatives like at the Lviv train station have helped welcome Ukrainian refugees. However, Polish leaders have recently warned that Poland cannot handle the Ukrainian refugee crisis alone.

At the front of the line are Natasha and her daughter, who escaped from Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been under heavy attack since day one of the invasion. Natasha’s apartment building also came under fire.

It is mostly women and children who are heading over the border: Ukraine has prohibited the departure of most men aged 18-60 while war is taking place.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

Evacuation trains carry not only families but also orphans from eastern Ukraine. One such train is set to arrive soon, so volunteers prepare food for the arriving kids at platform #5. The food is brought in by both businesses and private citizens.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

Olha has evacuated from Zaporizhzhia Oblast, a region to which Russian troops attempt to advance from the east, with her two children. They are somewhat comforted by the new toys they could choose; Olha’s life now fits in her suitcase. The plan is to go to Poland, where Olha hopes to find a job as a cook, her trained profession.

Olha asks me if I know how to find missing people: her sister, living in Irpin, a satellite of Kyiv beseiged by Russian troops, is not answering her phone for a week. Unfortunately, there is little hope to locate her sister if there is no mobile connection, which is often the case with besieged cities: Russians destroy the mobile towers.

Olha is worried: after all, Russians have thwarted evacuation efforts from the city and executed civilians attempting to flee. I do not know what to say to comfort her.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

The brain of the volunteer movement is the headquarters, situated in what was once the Lviv restaurant. Now it has become an organizational center for Lvivians and refugees who want to lend a hand in aiding the refugee flow.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

One of these volunteers, Yulia, is my guide. An interior designer by profession, Yulia has left her job after the war started to become a full-time volunteer at the train station. She receives applications of volunteers, distributes them to the area of activities they could be engaged in, assists in monitoring the effectiveness of processes, and in general oversees the functioning of the entire volunteer beehive, which guides, feeds, shelters, heals thousands of people fleeing the war each day.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

However, she says that full-time volunteering like hers is going to subside as the small and medium businesses of western Ukraine gradually get back into working mode. Yulia says one of her clients has called regarding a previous project; if Yulia will make out some time in between volunteering, she will start working part-time again, too.

Usually, volunteering takes place in the free time from work. Here, however, work is something that takes place in between volunteering.

While many refugees need to find shelter for the night, mothers with small children have a change to stay at the train station, where waiting halls have been transformed into sleeping chambers with mattresses on the floor. Yet more volunteers prepare food and drinks for the mothers and children who took refuge here. A special VIP room for mothers with babies aged under 1 has also been set up.

The train station universe also includes a medical center. Doctors of all specializations and from all over Ukraine are on duty: cardiologists, traumatologists, pediatricians, gastroenterologists, etc. Some doctors had ended up trapped in western Ukraine on a business or tourism trip, and could not return after the war began. Some doctors abandoned their usual private practice after the start of the war to lend a hand to the resistance efforts.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

The medical station. Photo: Alya Shandra

Outside the train station, a concert is going on. A man in a monk’s habit sings Christian pop; nearby, a Red Cross volunteer hands out kefir to a girl.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

Various initiatives around the train station have put up tents to address refugee needs. Many tents are from the Red Cross, which offers a place to sleep in the tent for the night, as well as foodstuff and essentials such as diapers.

 

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

Volunteers outside hand out food.

Lviv train station refugees

Photo: Alya Shandra

Many refugees who arrive at the station have only a knapsack and no idea where to go next. Volunteer initiatives and information boards around the station offer advice.

For many refugees, the first challenge will be to find a place to stay. A booth offers assistance: Lviv schools and kindergartens have been transformed into hubs offering shelter and food for refugees. As well, ordinary Lviv residents have opened up their homes to people fleeing war: the coordination hub helps connect those offering help with those seeking it. As well, buses transport refugees from the train station to other communities of the region.

However, these solutions are not for the long run. Lviv mayor Sadovyi has announced the start of the construction of housing for refugees on city grounds. He also said there were problems with feeding the flow of people, since up till now it was all provided by the Lviv community.

Lviv refugees Ukraine Russia

Photo: Alya Shandra

Right now, the train station is full of uncertainty, loss, grievance, worries, but also determination and heroism. Soon it will see the flows of all these refugees heading home, the volunteers running this humanitarian operation hope.

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