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Krakow, Poland's second-largest city, strains to accommodate Ukrainian refugees

KRAKOW, POLAND - APRIL 03: People who fled the war in Ukraine and members of the Ukrainian diaspora pray during mass in Krakow's Orthodox church on April 03, 2022 in Krakow, Poland. More than 4 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion of that country on Feb. 24. Millions more have been internally displaced. (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)
People who fled the war in Ukraine and members of the Ukrainian diaspora pray in an Orthodox church in Krakow on Sunday.

KRAKOW, Poland — Galia Alacheva, an art-loving 17-year-old from the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, sips tea in a pop-up lunchroom tucked into a shuttered mall.

She and her mother, Sara Tarashchanska, have lived in this mall since fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Polish authorities have converted it into a refugee shelter.

"We eat here, we cook here, we sleep here, we do everything here," Alacheva says. "Since we left Ukraine, this is our home."

More than 150,000 displaced Ukrainians now live in Krakow, Poland's second-largest city. That's increased the city's population by 20% in just a few weeks, prompting the United Nations refugee agency to open an office here. More than 2 million Ukrainians have entered Poland in the last weeks, though Polish authorities estimate that less than half have stayed.

Poland enacted a law last monthallowing Ukrainians to legally live and work in the country for at least 18 months, with the option to extend. The Polish state is assisting municipalities financially, as they struggle to find long-term housing, jobs and places in schools for the newcomers.

From her perspective, Alacheva says things are going smoothly.

"I've heard that it's hard to find space for us in Krakow," she says. "But, you know, I don't feel unwelcome at all."

Krakow authorities are trying to help Ukrainians find jobs

Poland's family and social policy minister, Marlena Malag, announced earlier this month that 30,000 Ukrainians had already found jobs in Poland.

Alacheva's mother, a psychologist, is one of them — she's counseling other displaced Ukrainians.

"A third of the Ukrainians I've met here have university degrees, and more than half have technical degrees or training of some kind," Tarashchanska says. "The key is to find work you have been trained to do."

Tarashchanska sees herself as lucky; she's working in her field. There are few jobs available for skilled or specialized workers, says Radoslaw Strzelecki, who helps Ukrainians find work.

"Most of the available work we have is basic, like working in a warehouse or in cleaning services," he says, checking a computer database of available job openings. "The Ukrainians all apply for them, because they want to work."

Strzelecki and two other Poles staff the job center booth that's part of a help center inside a giant sports arena. Near the booth are rows of long tables where volunteers are helping Ukrainians fill out paperwork for 11-digit Polish ID numbers, which help Ukrainians access benefits and health care.

Ukrainian teachers help refugee kids adjust to new schools in Poland

Krakow's longtime Mayor Jacek Majchrowski, whose office is running the refugee relief effort along with humanitarian organizations and volunteers, says the local school system is hiring displaced Ukrainian teachers as aides. This is especially helpful for kids adjusting to their new environment.

"The language is definitely a problem, because most of the [Ukrainian] children do not speak Polish at all, and they feel very lost," he says. "There was talk of opening up a special Ukrainian school, but we didn't want them to feel like we were putting them in a ghetto of sorts. We wanted them in our schools."

At an elementary school named after the 20th-century Polish writer and adventurer Arkady Fiedler, a Ukrainian teacher's aide walks down a hall with a group of Ukrainian students.

One is 11-year-old Linda Voronaya, a slight girl with a pixie haircut and a cautious smile. She says she's from Kyiv, where she loved exploring parks with her friends.

She's got a new friend here, 12-year-old Kristina Vitkovska, also from Kyiv. Kristina tells Linda about her dad, who died two years ago. She brought his sweater with her to Krakow. Leaving Kyiv, where she had so many memories with her dad, felt like he was leaving her life all over again, she says.

The school's principal, Bozena Mikos, embraces the girls. She says the school made space for scores of additional Ukrainian students, and parents chipped in to buy them backpacks with all the essentials — notebooks, pens, markers.

"We want to offer the students security, not just an education," Mikos says.

She says every Ukrainian child in her school wants to go back home. But Majchrowski, the mayor, isn't optimistic that this will happen anytime soon. He says he speaks regularly to the mayor of Lviv, the western Ukrainian city where hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians have sought shelter.

As this war drags on, Majchrowski says, many could end up in Krakow.

"We've found a place for the first wave of refugees," he says, "but we don't really know what's going to happen next."

Dawid Krawczyk contributed to this report in Krakow. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.