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At Ukraine-Poland border, a backlog of refugees wait in the cold


Let's turn now to Ukraine's border with Poland, where Ukrainians are trying to get out of the country. Poland says it has received tens of thousands of refugees from Ukraine in recent days. NPR's Lauren Frayer is at one of the main border crossings between the two nations, and she's with us now. Lauren, thank you so much for joining us.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you just describe the scene there?

FRAYER: It's an emotional scene - refugees hobbling across, clearly exhausted, some of them holding children in their arms, dragging wheelie suitcases with, you know, whatever possessions they could manage to carry with them, some in tears. Polish firefighters, police and volunteers are handing out blankets and refugees told me that there's a huge backlog behind them, so tens of thousands of people in line. Many of the people I talked to said they spent 48 hours out in the cold, freezing temperatures outdoors, waiting to cross in line with - shoulder to shoulder with crowds and crowds of people.

MARTIN: Lauren, what are some of the stories that you've been hearing?

FRAYER: I spoke to Oksana Koresch (ph). She's a Ukrainian who left her daughter with her parents back home in Ukraine when she went and took a job in France, and she was going back into Ukraine today to collect her daughter and bring her to safety.

OKSANA KORESCH: They were in line all day and all night yesterday, and now they are just near the border awaiting me.

FRAYER: How old is your daughter?

KORESCH: Eight years and a half.

FRAYER: Eight years. So they're going to just hand her to you.


FRAYER: What a moment.

KORESCH: I can't explain this with words.

FRAYER: She said she can't explain with words the emotion she's feeling, partially because her parents don't want to leave Ukraine. So she's going to go get her daughter from them but then have to see her parents for a few minutes and then say goodbye to them again and then get back in that line and wait in that 48-hour line to get back to safety with her daughter. And here's the thing. Oksana wasn't alone. Actually, I saw a fair amount of traffic going back into Ukraine today.

MARTIN: Wow. Why are there so many Ukrainians going back into Ukraine when so many others are trying to get out?

FRAYER: Ukraine now has mandatory military conscription, and this week, President Zelenskyy said all men aged 18 to 60 should stay in Ukraine and fight. And so the lines I saw today, it was mostly women and children coming out of Ukraine and mostly men going in. One of them was a man named Yaroslav (ph), a Ukrainian, been working in Poland. He's 59. He told me he's rushing to get back in there because he's just shy of 60, and he worries he won't be allowed to join the army and defend his country once he turns 60. This is someone who was a conscript in the Soviet army as a young man, and now he's returning to fight against the Russians.

MARTIN: You know, Lauren, I'm reminded, though, that, you know, Poland has been one of the European Union member states that's actually been hostile to immigrants from other parts of the world recently. What's the situation at the border now?

FRAYER: It's a completely different situation from just a few months ago, when Poland blocked Middle Eastern migrants from coming over from Belarus. Now it's pretty much an open border. These aren't people from the Middle East and Africa who are facing discrimination. These are fellow Europeans who are facing attack from a historic foe of Poland, Russia.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Lauren Frayer speaking to us from the Ukraine-Poland border. Lauren, thank you so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.