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  • Cody Rheault

A Nation in Limbo

Walking through the sliding glass door of the once-abandoned mall, I felt guilty. The massive structure, formerly a shopping center in northern Krakow, Poland became a refugee center at the outbreak of the Russia and Ukraine war in late February 2022.

A barrier of cardboard and rusted shopping carts directed me down a poorly lit hall. A few flickering bulbs lit the way to a stairwell stinking of cigarettes. I came out on the second floor balcony. Old storefronts were converted into rudimentary dorm rooms. Plywood walls, eight feet high and 50 feet deep, separated the expanse into corridors. A bed placed every six feet, with no privacy. A few people lay on their beds deep in what appeared their own mental wars of attrition with hope. A woman, hands folded behind her head, stared at the ceiling’s florescent lighting.

An elderly man with gray hair and hazy eyes sat alone in a plastic chair, the full length of his left arm bandaged and slung. He gave a wide, warm smile followed by a friendly nod as I walked by. A kind gesture, I thought, for someone who I assume just went through hell. I smiled back, gave a feeble wave and a nod. Down on the main floor a group of kids kicked a ball to each other on the barren linoleum. Their laughter echoed throughout the space. The setting felt dystopian — not a place to call home.

I thought of taking a photo in that moment, but it didn’t feel right. Despite my purpose in Poland, to document the plight of displaced Ukrainians, I imagined my loved ones in their place. Taking an image felt like tapping on the glass of a zoo exhibit — inches away but worlds apart, stealing their dignity with a frame. My heart sank, envisioning my wife and daughter living here. Eventually, a kind receptionist in poor English asked me to leave, and I didn’t argue.

The war between Russia and Ukraine reached 100 days when I was in Krakow in early June. I was on assignment for Open Bible Churches to travel with their Ukraine missionary to document aid work with photos and videos. I’d spent months, like many Americans, reading the headlines and watching stories coming out of Ukraine, and I was full of anticipation to see some of it firsthand.

Poland acted as the first stop for many fleeing Ukraine. A U.N. database states 4 million have crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border since February 24, 2022. Of those, 1.1 million reside in Poland, while the rest dispersed throughout the Europe. In Krakow, an estimated 320,000 refugees now live, swelling their population by 140 percent.

At the onset of the war, Poland was extravagant with their response. People went out of their way to feed and house millions rushing the border. Many refugees had little; most had nothing. We heard stories of Ukrainians fleeing with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Lines at the border were miles long and processing often took days to weeks in frigid winter conditions. The people responded.

Now three months into the war, I saw a nation growing impatient. Andrii, a local pastor in Krakow, told us Poland is growing tired of the struggle. To the Polish people it’s no longer seen as a humanitarian crisis, just another war.

Most Ukrainians have found housing and jobs or have moved their way throughout Europe. The old shopping mall in northern Krakow once held 4,500 refugees in constant rotation. There were only 300 at the time of my visit. The influx had visibly abated, but the problem of meeting the needs remains. Those needs: settlement, a sense of purpose, and long-term solutions.

The documentary process was complicated as we established connections and a schedule. We built rapport with locals and juggled languages. In true documentary fashion, we spent a fraction of our time filming, the rest finding the story and getting ourselves in front of it. I packed light and we moved quickly throughout Krakow filming food distribution centers and housing. I hit record as volunteers loaded a van with food bound for Kyiv. A Polish man volunteered his time to drive the round trip weekly.

We heard stories of narrow escapes — convoys rocketed and emotional goodbyes as women left their men behind to fight the war; homes destroyed. These stories were common and horrific, with the reality reflected in their eyes as they retold their stories. A married couple from a town near Kyiv flinched on camera when airplanes flew overhead, an impulsive reaction to months of living in war. They said not a day goes by without air raid sirens blaring.

Through the viewfinder of my camera were ordinary people with eyes that wrote a different story. It sounds trite, but not all refugees are what you see on the cover of The New York Times. They look like you and I, ordinary families with no place to call home.

The crisis looks different than the view painted in the media, too. Beyond the bombs is their crisis for tomorrow. Refugees are finding themselves in limbo in a no-man’s-land, somewhere between living and a sense of purpose. As I composed my frame on the faces of women and children in refuge, pulling my camera’s focus on their eyes, their expressions read not hopelessness, but a resilience to push on. Everyone told us they must hold on to hope no matter how distant it seems.

My last day in-country was a day off, so I booked a tour to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum an hour from Krakow. Our tour guide led us through brick complexes once housing Nazi SS command and the horrors within. We were led through a gas chamber, crematoria, and exhibits that will leave a lasting impression and perspective on my life. In Birkenau, I stood in the open expanse between two sets of railroad tracks, the spot where an SS officer in 1944 determined the fate of millions offloaded from train cars at the gesture of his right thumb. A flick to the right meant work camps; to the left, death in the gas chamber.

What remained of the camp was a harrowing example of evil uncorked and poured onto 1.1 million men, women, and children, with extreme prejudice on the Jewish people. On January 27, 1945, the Nazi-held Auschwitz was liberated by the allied Russian Red Army on the ground where I stood. Six hundred miles to my east, on the frontlines of a new war, Russia was fighting on the premise of what Putin calls “de-Nazification.”

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