TOP STORIES Ukrainian refugee teenagers hang out in a Warsaw park

Ukrainian refugee teenagers hang out in a Warsaw park

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WARSAW. Dozens of Ukrainian teenagers gather in a park near a distinctly Stalinist skyscraper in central Warsaw every day. They are young refugees trying to cope.

Many dropped out of school to wander around Warsaw, rootless, lost even at 14 or 15, smoking cigarettes and sipping cheap beer. They gather under the maple trees, play ping-pong, or stretch out on benches with their heads resting on each other’s laps, thinking about what to do.

“I saw something wild here,” said Mark, an 18-year-old Ukrainian who was walking in the park the other day. “Knives. Weapon. Drunk kids fight.”

The teenage years are hard enough anywhere. Bodies change. A carefree childhood is carried away. Things get serious so fast.

But for the one million or so Ukrainian refugee teenagers, it was like a mirror into which they looked, trying to understand their future, exploded right in front of their faces.

As soon as they became adults, Covid turned the world upside down. And as soon as the pandemic finally ended, their country was invaded and plunged into war. Their families were divided. Their cities were bombed. They have fled to foreign lands and four months later, with the conflict still raging, they have no idea when or even if they will ever return home.

“Every day I have to choose,” said Mark, who fled Ukraine shortly before his 18th birthday to avoid military service and did not want to give his last name for fear of punishment or at least ostracism if he returned. “I could come here, hang out with friends and have a good day. Or I could go back to my room and study and have a good future.”

“Dude,” he said, smiling a charming youthful smile. “I would really like to be a 15-year-old boy again who doesn’t have to think about the future.”

The hallmark of any war is children on the move. Their masses. Frightened. Fleeing from something they don’t understand. Go somewhere they don’t know. Think of the baby transport of Jewish children before World War II. Or the Lost Boys of Sudan, plodding through hellish expanses of violence and drought to stumble half-dead into Kenyan refugee camps.

Ukraine has also caused an exodus of young people. Once Russia invaded, countless parents made the agonizing decision to uproot their children and bring them to safety. Most moved to neighboring countries with their mothers, but without fathers, due to Ukraine’s restrictions on leaving the country for men of military age from 18 to 60 years old.

But some teenagers flew away without their parents. The New York Times interviewed half a dozen over a couple of days in Warsaw. They were handed over to fleeing friends or relatives, and in some cases they crossed international borders alone. Scattered all over Warsaw in rented apartments, or with Polish families, or on their own in hostels, these refugees are most at risk.

“Young children will integrate. Adults will get jobs,” said Krzysztof Gorniak, a Warsaw-based chef who runs several non-profit organizations that help refugees.

But teenagers, he says, “do not know if they should build a life here or just spend time drinking, taking drugs and playing.”

Maxim Kutsyk, a 17-year-old orphan, said he left a youth hostel in central Ukraine without permission.

“It was a matter of danger and safety,” he said of fleeing the war. “But it was different,” he explained. “I wanted to get out. I wanted to see the world.”

Now he lives with his half-sister, her three young children and her boyfriend near Warsaw in a tiny crevice of an apartment.

The youth hostel “Maxim escaped”, the last stage of the Ukrainian system of orphanages, was tied to a vocational school. But in Warsaw, he doesn’t go to class – he’s not interested – he avoids eye contact and stands slightly hunched over, as if preparing for a blow. The highlight of his week is boxing, but he’s holding on to a dream.

“I want to go to the United States,” he said. “It’s very beautiful there.”

How does he know?

“I was watching TikTok.”

On the other side of the city, in the beautiful and quiet area of ​​Muranów, 13-year-old Katya Sundukova is working on her drawings. As she clutches her pencil and leans over the black and white sketch, her pink Mona Lisa socks peeking out, she radiates energy.

She wears big headphones and listens to Tchaikovsky and Japanese hip-hop. People are talking in the room, moving in and out, but her attention is focused solely on the pencil in her hand and the figures that appear.

“I think war is pointless,” she said in a previous conversation. “I kept asking my mom: why did they attack us? I never received an answer.”

At the beginning of the war, she was worried about explosions in Kyiv, where Katya lived.

“She was just sitting in her room talking to her cat,” her mother Olga said. “Her companion was a cat.”

Her mother made the difficult decision to get her out. But she is a lawyer with an active practice. If she leaves Ukraine, she said: “Who will financially support me?”

So she sent Katya to live with her other daughter, Sofia, who worked for a magazine in Warsaw, although Sofia, 22, said: “I’m not ready to be her mom.”

The whole family, like many other residents of Ukraine, has become a model of resilience. Katya learned how to cook dinner, pasta is her signature dish. She started a new school in Warsaw – Ukrainian – in the middle of the semester, but since her sister works and her mother is usually away, except for occasional visits, she is also learning to deal with her emotions and fears on her own.

Pulling away from her drawing, a skillful portrait of three fantastic figures beyond her years, Katya allowed herself a satisfied look.

“Sketch finished,” she announced. “It remains only to hang it in my room in Kyiv.”

A few days after the war broke out in February, Mark fled alone from the ruined Kharkov. He was afraid that he would be stopped at the border because he is 17 years old and travels alone. But he slipped through the chaos without question, arriving in Warsaw four days before his 18th birthday, when he would have reached military age and could not leave.

“I did not want to participate in this war,” he said. “This is a stupid war.”

Mark was given a room in a college dormitory near the Vistula River, which flows through Warsaw.

When he’s not studying computer programming online at two universities, he hangs out at the Park.

There are many parks in Warsaw – a city immersed in greenery, especially beautiful in June – but the “Park”, which all Ukrainian children talk about, is in the shadow of the Warsaw icon: Palace of Culture and Science. Completed in 1955 but commissioned in the last years of Stalin’s life, this 42-story monument to Poland’s socialist times is clunky yet elegant.

Before the war in Ukraine, the park in front of the building was neglected, turning into a campground for the homeless.

But since March, Ukrainian teenagers have discovered this for themselves. The volleyball court is always busy. There is a skate park where naked Ukrainian children bang on their boards and dry themselves noisily. Young women sit under the trees and soak it all up.

Mark said that in the park people don’t talk about the war.

“If you need friends,” he said, “don’t talk about politics. Because everyone has their own view of the situation.

And while it’s hard without his parents, he said, and not knowing what lies ahead, he also senses the possibility that he has a future yet to be carved out.

“Life is not bad,” he said. “Warsaw is a beautiful city. I go alone, I go sightseeing.”

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