Conflict / Photo Essay

On the border between Poland and Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered what the UN has described as the “fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.”

Ali Arkady gives us a glimpse into the lives of people displaced by the conflict, and the volunteers who’ve gathered at the border to try to help.

Written By Ali Arkady
Photos by Ali Arkady / VII Photo

This is not the first time I’ve witnessed war. For more than thirty years, it was part of my life in Iraq. As a photojournalist, I have documented war and those most harmed by it. 

In 2014, the Islamic State swept through parts of the country, brutally attacking members of the Yazidi community, a minority group in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled their cities and villages, heading to Syria and Turkey. Some walked on foot for more than a week to the safety of the northern mountains of Iraq. It was in this area where I witnessed their journey. As a fellow Iraqi, I felt their pain. While my camera could not capture everything, the photos I took provided a glimpse into the tragedy that had befallen my country.

Today, five years after I fled Iraq to the safety of Europe, I find myself covering another wave of people on the move in search of safety. On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine — attacking everything from government buildings to hospitals and schools, killing hundreds of civilians and leaving thousands wounded. As a result, more than 3.2 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries in what the UN has described as the “fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.”

I went to the Polish border with Ukraine, where a majority of the refugees have fled – Poland currently hosts over 2 million Ukrainian refugees. The busiest border crossing between Poland and Ukraine is at Medyka, which is the closest Polish city to the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Most of the refugees I meet here are women, children, and older men. With temperatures dropping down to -12 degrees Celsius at night, volunteers rush to provide food, clothing and shelter as refugees wait outside in a long line for a bus to take them from Medyka to Przemyśl, a town about 13km away. 

There are several places in the camp, where volunteers bring food prepared in local kitchens. Many people in the town contribute to preparing meals and hosting refugee families. Volunteers also come from all over Europe to offer their help to the people crossing the border.

Rajpal Singh Wilkhu, a volunteer from Khalsa Aid, makes tea for Ukrainian refugees at the Medyka border crossing.

Being here, my memories begin to return. Scenes from the past replay in my head. Except I’m not in Iraq anymore. War chases me like a shadow that never leaves. 

Even though I speak no Ukrainian, I have no problem communicating with people. Most of them are smiling, especially the women and children. While I see the sadness in their eyes, I also see optimism and strength. Even though thousands of people are around, I don’t hear many voices. It feels very calm.  

The only gift I can offer is my photographs and videos. I ask people if they want me to send them their pictures. Some of them say yes, while others do not want these memories. I talk to people to get to know them. I say that I am with you. I was a refugee like you, so do not be sad. Your sadness is my sadness, and your war is my war.

With generous funding and support from the Open Society Foundations.