In Warsaw Park, Ukraine’s Teen Refugees Hang Out and Hang On

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WARSAW – Every afternoon, dozens of Ukrainian teenagers gather in a park in front of a prominent Stalinist skyscraper in central Warsaw. They are young refugees trying to cope.

Many dropped out of school to roam around Warsaw, rootless, even lost, only 14 or 15, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap beer. They gather under the maples, play table tennis or sprawl on the benches with their heads in each other’s laps, wondering what to do.

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“I’ve seen some wild stuff here,” said Mark, an 18-year-old Ukrainian who was recently hanging out at the park. “Knife. Weapons. Drunk kids fight.”

The teenage years are hard enough everywhere. bodies change. A carefree childhood whirls by. Everything is getting serious so fast.

But for the million or so Ukrainian teenage refugees, it’s as if the mirror they’ve been looking in as they try to figure out their future has exploded in their faces.

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Just as they were growing up, Covid turned the world upside down. And just as the pandemic finally subsided, their country was invaded and plunged into war. Their families were separated. Their cities were bombed. They fled to foreign lands and four months later, with the conflict still raging, they have no idea when or if they will ever return home.

“Every day I have to make a choice,” said Mark, who fled Ukraine to avoid military service shortly before his 18th birthday and declined to give his last name for fear of being punished or at least ostracized if he returned . “I could come here and hang out with my friends and have a nice day. Or I could go back to my room and study and have a good future.”

“Man,” he said, smiling a charming young man’s smile. “I really wish I could be a 15-year-old boy again who didn’t have to think about the future.”

A hallmark of any war are children on the run. masses of them. scared. On the run from something they don’t understand. They’re going somewhere they don’t know. Think of the Kindertransport of Jewish children before World War II. Or the Lost Boys of Sudan, who wander through a hellscape of violence and drought to stumble half-dead into Kenyan refugee camps.

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Ukraine has also sparked an exodus of young people. Immediately after the invasion of Russia, countless parents made the agonizing decision to uproot their children and take them to safety. Most have entered neighboring countries with their mothers but without their fathers, as Ukraine has imposed restrictions on military-age men between the ages of 18 and 60 leaving the country.

But some teenagers have left without parents. The New York Times interviewed half a dozen in just a few days in Warsaw. They were turned over to fleeing friends or family members, or in some cases crossed international borders alone. Scattered all over Warsaw in rented apartments or with Polish families or some alone in dormitories, these are the refugees who are most at risk.

“The little ones will integrate. The adults will get jobs,” said Krzysztof Gorniak, a chef in Warsaw who runs several non-profit organizations that help refugees.

But the teenagers, he said, “don’t know whether to make a living here or just spend time drinking, drugs and gambling.”

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

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

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

The youth hostel that Maxym escaped from, the last tier of the Ukrainian orphanage system, was attached to a vocational school. But in Warsaw he doesn’t take classes – he doesn’t care – and avoids eye contact and stands slightly hunched, as if preparing for a punch. The highlight of his week is a boxing class, but he’s clinging to a dream.

“I want to go to the United States,” he said. “It is very nice there.”

How does he know?

“I watched TikTok.”

Across town, in the pretty, quiet Muranow district, Katya Sundukova, 13, works on her drawings. As she clutches a pencil and bends over a black-and-white sketch, she exudes an intensity that her pink Mona Lisa socks peek out of.

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

“I see the war as pointless,” she had said in an earlier conversation. “I kept asking my mother: why did they attack us? I never got an answer.”

At the beginning of the war, she was troubled by the explosions in Kyiv, where Katja lived.

“She just sat in her room and talked to her cat,” said her mother Olga. “Your interlocutor was the cat.”

Her mother made the difficult decision to get her out. But she’s a lawyer with a busy practice. If she were to leave Ukraine, she said: “Who will support me financially?”

So she sent Katya to live with her other daughter, Sofia, who worked for a magazine in Warsaw, though 22-year-old Sofia said, “I’m not ready to be her mother yet.”

The whole family, like so many others from Ukraine, has become a study in resilience. Katya has learned to cook dinner, her specialty being macaroni. She started a new school in Warsaw mid-semester – a Ukrainian one – but since her sister works and her mother is usually far away, apart from the occasional visit, she is also learning to deal with emotions and fears on her own.

Stepping back from her drawing, a precociously skillful portrait of three fantasy characters, Katya allowed herself a satisfied look.

“The sketch is complete,” she announced. “The only thing left for me is to hang it up in my room in Kyiv.”

A few days after the outbreak of war in February, Mark fled the shattered city of Kharkiv alone. He was afraid of being stopped at the border because he was 17 and traveling alone. But in the chaos he slipped through without asking any questions, arriving in Warsaw four days before his 18th birthday, when he would reach military age and be unable to leave.

“I didn’t want to fight in this war,” he said. “It’s a stupid war.”

Mark got a room in a student dormitory not far from the Vistula, 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 green city, especially beautiful in June – but “the park” that all Ukrainian children talk about is overshadowed by a Warsaw icon: the Palace of Culture and Science. It was completed in 1955 but commissioned in Stalin’s final years. It’s a 42-story memorial to Poland’s socialist days, bulky but somehow still elegant.

Before the Ukraine war, the park in front of the door had been neglected and turned into a camping site for the homeless.

But from March, Ukrainian teenagers discovered it. There is always a lot going on on the volleyball court. There’s a skate park where shirtless Ukrainian kids clatter their boards and rub out noisily. Young women sit under the trees and take it all in.

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

“If you want friends,” he said, “don’t talk about politics. Because everyone has a different view of the situation.”

And while it’s tough being without his parents, he said, and not knowing what lies ahead, he also feels a sense of possibility, with a future yet to be shaped.

“Life is not bad,” he said. “Warsaw is a beautiful city. I go around and see the area by myself.”

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