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Fleeing Ukraine, women and children find warm welcome in Poland

Marianna and her two young children had finally made it to this Polish frontier town after a grueling trip from neighboring Ukraine.

The three had walked most of the last 20 miles, past queues of vehicles waiting to cross the border. Their family was now split and their future unsure.

“I left my husband and father behind to come here,” she said. “That’s why my children asked me why I was crying all the way here.”

Like others worried about the relatives left behind, Marianna declined to give her last name. Her plan was to eventually reach Italy, where her mother lives.

Her family is among some 500,000 Ukrainians who have left their homeland since Russia invaded last week. Decked out in winter coats, they push baby carriages and hold their children’s hands as they finally reach the border after dangerous journeys that took days.

Ukrainian refugees reunite at the Medyka border crossing in Poland.

(Visar Kryeziu / Associated Press)

The exodus already amounts to one of the largest refugee crises of Europeans since World War II.

The vast majority are women and children. Ukraine is encouraging all men to join in the fight against Russia and has banned most between 18 and 60 from leaving the country.

Poland has taken in by far the most refugees, almost 300,000 — a number that is rising steadily. Ukraine’s other neighbors to the west — Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia — have each taken in tens of thousands, according to the United Nations.

The refugees have received a hearty welcome from nations that have not always been keen to receive new immigrants from countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

In many cases, relatives waited on the Polish side for loved ones trying to flee.

One Ukrainian man said he drove more than 700 miles from Berlin to await the arrival of his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive to the railway station in Przemysl, Poland

Refugees from Ukraine arrive to the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on Sunday.

(Czarek Sokolowski / Associated Press)

They had been stuck for days in a massive traffic jam on the Ukrainian side. His wife told him she was struggling to stay awake, and that each time she dozed off, other cars had passed her in the line.

“I’m talking to my wife on the cellphone, but she is only able to advance a few kilometers every day, there is so much traffic,” said the man, who identified himself only as Bohdan. “I’ve come all this way to meet them. But I’m sleeping in my car, worried to death about what is happening to them.”

An Afghan mother who had just crossed into Poland with her three boys said her husband had gotten lost somewhere before the border. She frantically used a cellphone trying to find him as Polish aid workers held her infant son.

Once at the rough encampment on the Polish side, they gave her a shopping cart in which she placed her 3-year-old.

More common were joyous reunions and tears as waiting relatives embraced arriving wives and children, sister, aunts, mothers and cousins.

It was windy and damp, with temperatures hovering around freezing. Authorities set up several white heated tents for people to warm up. Ambulances were on hand to transport anyone needing medical care to nearby clinics.

The government and volunteers also arranged free lodging, meals and other support.

At the forefront of the relief effort was Poland’s large Ukrainian expatriate population. Igor Nazarkevych, a Ukrainian volunteer in an orange vest, was handing out bags of food to newly arrived compatriots.

He directed one couple toward a Polish woman, who identified herself as Mrs. Pani and had agreed to take in a refugee family. She smiled as she embraced the mother and child who would be her houseguests.

Chip Arslan, a German volunteer, said he drove from his home in Nuremberg to deliver food to the border encampment.

“It’s not enough to say you support Ukrainians,” he said. “You have to show action, do something.”

Baby strollers, paper products and other donations were piling up. Coffee stands and hot soup awaited those arriving in the cold.

From the border, the refugees began to fan out across Europe.

After emotional embraces, those with relatives waiting quickly headed off in cars. Others had to wait for buses that would take them to train stations and other transportation hubs.

Among those delayed at the border were many students who had been studying abroad in Ukraine. Lacking relatives in Poland, they had a harder time getting rides.

“The last five days were like hell, but finally there is some hope,” said Jackie Rana, 28, one of three Indian exchange students who made it across on foot together after abandoning their car. “We are just lucky to be alive.”

The Polish government said it waived visa requirements for everybody arriving from Ukraine.

A woman carries her child as she arrives at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from the Ukraine

A woman carries her child as she arrives at the Medyka border crossing in Poland after fleeing from Ukraine on Monday.

(Visar Kryeziu / Associated Press)

As the students awaited transportation, a police official assured them that more buses would soon be arriving. The sun was setting, and the cold was ever more intense.

“There will be a place for everyone,” the official said. “We will help everyone. I promise.”

As refugees poured into Poland, several young men with luggage were striding in the other direction through the border station and into Ukraine.

They declined to stop and be interviewed. But there have been widespread reports of Ukrainians heeding the call of their government and heading home to join the war.

Krystyna Halak, who was eight months pregnant and had just crossed the border into Poland, where her husband has been living, said he was eager to go back and fight.

She has begged him to stay with her, but he is a former soldier, so she is not sure she can talk him out of it.

“He should wait at least until the baby is born,” she said.

Special correspondents Liliana Nieto del Rio and Wiktor Bruchal in Medyka contributed to this report.