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How the busiest border crossing from Ukraine to Poland compares to a quieter one

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The exodus of Ukrainian refugees grows by hundreds of thousands every day. The U.N. now says more than 2.5 million people have left the country fleeing Russian attacks. Most of them have entered Poland, where the scene is very different from one border crossing to another. And our co-host Ari Shapiro has been reporting on this refugee crisis all week from the polling Ukraine border. He's here with us now with a tale of two border crossings. Hey, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So where do you want to take us first?

SHAPIRO: I think if you've seen any images of Ukrainians entering Poland, chances are they are from the place we going to start this story. This is a border crossing called Medyka, and it's near the Polish city of Przemysl. Thousands of feet have trampled the dead winter grass into mud. And we're surrounded by this crush of people. Some are wearing fur coats, carrying pets or babies. And everywhere you turn, someone is offering whatever refugees might need - grilled sausages, COVID tests, veterinary services.

There's this long, orderly line of Ukrainians in winter coats waiting to board buses to take them to big cities west of here. And we're surrounded by tents representing every big international aid organization from the U.N. to the Red Cross. A Polish volunteer named Tom Madry is unloading pallets of water from the back of a truck, and I ask him to just describe the scene.

TOM MADRY: There are tons of people trying to help, but it's very difficult to organize in a very structured way. So, for example, here is like the war central kitchen. Here is the soup and all the stuff that you can find everywhere. Here is just a fireplace for the refugees just to warm up. Here is just a pile of trash. And here is the corridor of - humanitarian corridor when the people are stepping in and coming. It could be better organized, but I have no idea how to organize it better.

SHAPIRO: And, Ailsa, just a little ways up the road from this crossing, there's an even bigger indoor reception center with games and toys for kids, clothes for parents, resources for people to plan the next leg of their journey. It's like this entire ecosystem that just sprung up in two weeks.

CHANG: That's amazing. I mean, but not all of the border crossings are this busy, this built out, right? Like, where else have you been?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, partly because there have been so many resources and so much attention poured into Medyka, today we visited a crossing about an hour's drive south of there, and it was totally different - peaceful, quiet, calm. Let me take you there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking non-English language).

SHAPIRO: This is a small mountain village called Kroscienko. There's still snow on the ground. And at the border crossing, helpers seem to outnumber refugees. One thing this place has in common with Medyka is the dramatic gender imbalance. The refugees are almost all women and children since Ukrainian men are conscripted to fight. I meet a grandmother from Kyiv named Tatiana Szkolna, and she's describing the fear of exiting the city under Russian attacks with my colleague interpreting when her 14-year-old grandson interjects.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

TATIANA SZKOLNA: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: She's scolding him for speaking in Russian.

SZKOLNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Death to Russia.

SZKOLNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: And Putin death, too.

SZKOLNA: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: You are such a sweet grandmother. I'm surprised to hear you say death to anyone.

SZKOLNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: She's saying that Putin is doing a lot of very, very bad things.

SZKOLNA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: And she can't forgive him that he's killing a lot of people.

SZKOLNA: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: And then I meet someone who, to me, encapsulates this place. Dana Biestschasna snuck across the border from Ukraine into Poland two days ago, and now she's back at this border crossing to help others.

DANA BIESTSCHASNA: We do what we can because when we crossed the border, we were shocked and don't understand what to do. A lot of people don't know no Polish, no English. In our way, we can help them.

SHAPIRO: And when she's done volunteering here, she is helping people in another way. She is a high school economics teacher who plans to teach her regular class over Zoom later today. Her students said they wanted it. Some of them are still in Ukraine. Others have evacuated. And so I ask if she's planning to stick to the curriculum or just let the kids process what they're going through. And she says, economics.

BIESTSCHASNA: I try to explain all the situation in Ukraine and all economics laws.

SHAPIRO: I'm amazed that you are continuing to teach economics having just evacuated from a war to students who are in a city that is being bombed. It's unbelievable.

BIESTSCHASNA: We all understand that we want to build our Ukraine, our native country, a future for our country. And all of us make what we can and what we do for our future and for our children students.

SHAPIRO: When I ask her plan for where she'll live and what she'll do next, she says...

BIESTSCHASNA: I hope to return to my home at the nearest time.

SHAPIRO: But a short drive from the border crossing, I see a vivid sign that this might not be over soon. It's a train track built in the 19th century, being rebuilt foot by foot.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKAXES STRIKING)

SHAPIRO: There are these guys, probably about a dozen of them. And they're in these bright orange uniforms using basic hand tools like a pickaxe and a rake to do really heavy work, digging out rocks from under this train track that was built more than a century ago. They are by hand pulling out these huge wooden railroad ties that have just rotted over the decades, and then they're sliding in brand new ties. They come by with this big, heavy machine and put in these industrial-strength screws. They are doing a 30-kilometer stretch of track. This is the clearest indication I've seen that they do not expect the refugee crisis to be a short-term problem. You don't put in this kind of work unless you are expecting this crisis to go on for years.

CHANG: Well, that was our co-host, Ari Shapiro. Ari, as you're wrapping up this week reporting on the border of Poland and Ukraine, I'm just curious, like, what thoughts are you coming away with about this whole refugee crisis and the relief effort?

SHAPIRO: We have seen this astounding and apparently effective emergency relief effort that stood up here on the border practically overnight. All this week, I have witnessed just a remarkable level of generosity, patience and understanding. But this was built to meet an immediate need. It was not built to last. And so now the challenge is to create a refugee infrastructure that can continue supporting millions of people even if the war drags on for years, sort of like those crews digging out rocks in the freezing cold, rebuilding miles of train track one pick axe swing at a time.

CHANG: My co-host Ari Shapiro reporting near the border between Poland and Ukraine. Thank you so much, Ari, for you and your team's reporting this entire week.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.