Minnesota nurse in Poland helps Ukrainian families find refuge in a shopping mall

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It’s been less than two weeks since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, and already, more than two million people have fled, half of them children.

According to a report by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, most of those fleeing from Ukraine have crossed the border to Poland.

“I can show you how things look here; they look here now like they do 24 hours,” says Alexandra Sakurets, a nurse from Minnesota who is among a group of health care volunteers providing medical assistance. “The refugees are being bused in from being outside for anywhere like ten, twelve, sometimes six hours.”

This mission is personal for Sakurets, who’s lived and worked in Minnesota for the past three years.

Her hometown is Zhytomyr, a Ukrainian city just west of Kyiv, the capital.

Sakurets agreed to give 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS a virtual tour of a shopping mall, now being used as a massive shelter in Poland, just over the border from Ukraine.

“They’re coming in from the outside, [and] then they get checked in,” she explains. “They choose where they want to go, in terms of what country is taking them in, and from here, they get sorted into different rooms. There’s Netherlands, Belgium, Germany for anyone who wants to go to Germany, they can come here.”

Sakurets agreed to show us around, using her phone as a guide.

She walked through several large rooms being used as open sleeping quarters for individuals and families.

“And this is where they sleep, there are cots like army cots, and people are just sleeping like this,” Sakurets notes, pointing into one room. “The Polish are making great accommodations in terms of making sure something like this is out of a mall. They’ve made an area for the kids, so they can come and play, a lounge area.”

She estimates as many as 5000 people are staying at the mall/shelter.

But there are issues.

Sakurets says there are no showers and limited access to restrooms.

“It is warm here, I have to say. It’s heated, but it’s starting to smell bad,” she says. “Because there are people who haven’t showered in a week.”

UNHCR says about 1.3-million people have fled to Poland.

The thousands here are just a small fraction of that number.

But some of the problems aid workers are dealing with are overwhelming.

“A lot of people are getting sick because they’ve been on the border for so long and stand outside and became ill,” Sakurets says.

Inside the mall, there’s shelter, hot food, and medicine.

But not always rest.

In an emotional social media post, Sakurets spoke of how children are feeling the stress of moving to an unknown place.

“The one thing that prevents us from sleeping is children crying. You can probably hear them crying right now,” she posted. “It is the kind of cry that rips your heart out. There are mostly women and children here, no men hardly if any. All the men are staying behind to fight for their motherland.”

Experts are calling this the largest refugee migration since World War Two.

In the midst of it all, Sakurets says she’s gotten a lot of support from family and friends to continue her work here.

Her team of five people arrived over the weekend and plan to stay several more weeks.

Sakurets says she hopes their outreach will make a difference.

The urgency of her mission was made clear by the last few words she said from half a world away.

“We’re here for three weeks, and actually, I’ve got to run,” Sakurets declared. “There’s a line out the door. I have to distribute medication.”