Europeans refuse to charge Ukrainian refugees, greet them as heroes

8 March 2022, 04:44 PM

Olga Dukhnich, journalist at NV magazine, left Kyiv on Feb. 25 in order to take her child to Vienna, Austria. As she travelled across three European countries in four days, she saw locals doing everything they can to support Ukrainian refugees.

Russian invasion has already pushed more than 1.5 mln Ukrainian citizens abroad, according to Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Dukhnich family joined this flow of war refugees.

To see how the whole world is supporting Ukraine, one would have to get only a couple kilometers away from the country, using one of the many westward transportation routes. Approximately 150,000 Ukrainians, mostly women and children, are taking these routes to escape the war – an estimate based on UN statistics.

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Some men decide to leave as well. While we were queueing at the border crossing, several “fixers” approached us, offering their services in getting men across the border. Judging by the number of Ukrainian men we later encountered at gas stations in the countries we passed by, it’s clear that many gave in to the temptation – and accepted service from those “fixers”.

Late at night on Feb. 26, we were able to reach Moldova, Ukraine’s South-Western neighbor, through the Mogyliv-Podilsky crossing. We were immediately met by volunteers offering to drive Ukrainian families to Chișinău, Bălți and other Moldovan cities. Border guards also made it clear that anyone can get a room and rest in a town close to their post – in Otach, free of charge.

Crossing the border has been radically simplified. With a valid biometric passport, the whole ordeal takes at most half an hour at each side of the border. As we were going to Vienna, we decided to plan our travel route this way: Moldova – Romania – Hungary – Austria. All the way down this route we felt as if we were driving on a Kyiv highway, surrounded by three to four cars with Ukrainian refugees at all times.

Another feature of a wartime eurotrip is that Europeans right away refuse to take any payment from Ukrainians. Across three countries, we paid only toll road fees as well as buying petrol. While Romanian and Polish road systems are free to use, Austrian and Hungarian ones charge money for driving them.

It’s difficult to think of oneself as a refugee, when only a couple of days ago you had all the confidence you need and was able to take care of yourself. You still have some leftovers of that feeling – but now it’s different. That’s why it was hard for us to constantly see our attempts to pay for food, lodgings and all kinds of services to be met with unwillingness to accept our money.

“Sorry, but this is one little thing we can and want to do for you, let us take care of you. Ukrainians are heroes!” tear-eyed lady, who runs a small restaurant along our route, tells me, as she rebuffs my attempts to pay for lunch. “Glory to Ukraine!” she adds. Her restaurant is one of the very few in this small town we’re driving through, and has a sign in Ukrainian saying that Ukrainian refugees will not be charged.

Same thing happens in all the other towns and cities we are crossing on our way. A café hostess at a mountain pass gives me free coffee, hugs me and apologizes for not having proper treats for children. After we booked a place to sleep on, an international rental service, the owner of a property we wanted to have a rest at - refused to take our money. “Fuck Putin! Ukraine the strongest! Fuck Putin!” – he chanted during our phone conversation.

In the morning, we were greeted by several people who live nearby. After seeing Ukrainian license plates, they invite us to their homes for breakfast and coffee. Moreover, they are offering to help us in any way they can. “Glory to Ukraine!” becomes an ever-present motto.

At a small petrol station near the Hungarian border, we met a large Roma family: women in traditional garb, men and many children standing in a circle around us. “Ukraine?” they asked. I nodded. Suddenly, they dropped to their knees with their hands clasped in a prayer: “We’re praying for Ukraine, for your children. Do you need anything?”

We’re in Vienna now. It’s sunny and quiet here, the skies are full of civilian, not military, aircraft. Public transportation in the city will be free for Ukrainian citizens until March 15. Mobile operators are providing their services for Ukrainians for free so they could call home and talk to their loved ones. Many local volunteers are eager to provide clothing, toys for kids but also - opportunities. And that matters.

As people notice Ukrainian license plates, many wave at us, cheering “Glory to Ukraine!”. And this cheering is voiced with different accents, but what’s important – it goes on and on.

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