After covering the refugee crisis in Ukraine for a week, I am just about to leave Eastern Europe. Here are some reflections.
While I have witnessed many uplifting moments of love, generosity and compassion, I also saw the fear of what lies ahead.
There were also hints of some troubling aspects to this mad time we are living.
Ukraine war updates: Russia and US relations “on the brink of collapse“
Nervousness In Eastern Europe
I can still hear the words of our local producer over dinner last night.
It was basically this: “I’m going live a fuller and more fulfilling life… because you never know what might happen next.”
One of the most devastating consequences of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine is that Eastern Europeans have been scared.
Eastern Europeans have taken their democracy and freedom for granted since 1989’s fall of the Iron Curtain.
They have made great strides since their liberation from the Soviet Union, from Poland to Romania to Latvia to Estonia.
They were alarmed to see their neighbor lose that freedom so quickly and brutally.
The NATO membership offers protections that are unmatched. Politicians and citizens alike have been focused on the events of the last month.
* Ukrainian refugees who want to return home.
* Ukrainians fleeing Russian Invasion are preyed upon by human traffickers
A raw history
This is Przemysl in eastern Poland, where I am writing it.
The Battle of Przemysl, one of the first attempts to protect freedom from tyranny, was fought in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland.
Three days lang, the townsfolk held off the Nazis. Their defense was eventually broken.
The Jewish population was targeted as a warning sign of the horrors to come. In those early days, Przemysl saw more than 500 Jews murdered.
In the years that followed, many more Przemysl refugees, some from other towns, were taken to Auschwitz and the Janowska concentration camps near Lviv, in modern-day Ukraine.
Eighty-three year later, Przemysl is still showing such generosity to Ukraine’s refugee (many are Jews), as history threatens to repeat itself in eerily similar ways.
Here, the history is still raw. It inspires generosity but also reflection about the fragility of peace.
Who is welcome and who isn’t?
Another thing has been bothering me. It’s controversial, and it’s impossible to ignore.
Ukrainians are being accepted into homes all over Europe by their families.
It’s not 2016 again, when far fewer refugees fled the conflict in Syria to seek refuge in Europe.
As I watched, columns of people moved across Europe, being pushed back by governments at every turn. Only Germany was open to all. Angela Merkel, then-chancellor of Germany, famously stated that “We can do this”.
However, in Eastern Europe back then the same police and border guards who hand out food to Ukrainians today are the same ones who drove Middle Eastern refugees across their borders. They were actually doing it last year at the Belarusian-Polish frontier.
This appears to be the simple truth: while people from Ukraine are welcomed, those from faraway countries like Syria, whose culture or religion is very different, have been far less accepted.
The demographics also play an important role. The majority of Ukrainian refugees are children and women. There were more young men in 2016 (a lot of them fleeing from Syrian conscription, and moving ahead, opening the way for more vulnerable children and women).
Yet, the difference in the reception is remarkable.
Here’s the irony: The Ukrainians and Syrians flee from the same aggressor.
Russia has helped the Syrian regime to subdue cities like Aleppo, Homs, and Mariupol during the 11-year-long conflict in Syria.