In Warsaw Park, Teenage Refugees from Ukraine have fun and have fun

WARSAW — Every afternoon in a park outside a distinctly Stalinist skyscraper in central Warsaw, dozens of Ukrainian teenagers gather. They are young refugees, trying to deal with this.

Many dropped out of school to wander around Warsaw, rootless, even lost, aged 14 or 15, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap beer. They huddle under the maples, playing ping pong or sprawled out on the benches, heads in each other’s laps, wondering what to do.

“I’ve seen some wild things here,” said Mark, an 18-year-old Ukrainian who was at the park the other day. “Knives. Guns. Drunk kids fighting.”

The teen years are hard enough anywhere. Bodies change. Carefree childhood drifts away. Everything gets more serious so fast.

But for the roughly one million Ukrainian teenage refugees, it’s like the mirror they’ve been looking at, trying to figure out their future, has exploded in their faces.

Just as they were becoming adults, Covid changed the world. And just as the pandemic was finally dissipating, his country was invaded and thrown into war. Their families were separated. Their cities were bombed. They have fled to foreign lands and four months later, with the conflict still ongoing, they have no idea when, or even if, they will return home.

“Every day I have to choose,” said Mark, who fled Ukraine shortly before turning 18 to avoid military service and declined to share his last name for fear of being punished or at the very least banned if he returns. “I could come here and hang out with my 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 the charming smile of a young man. “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 is children on the move. Pasta of them. Scared. Running from something they don’t understand. Going somewhere they don’t know. Think of the Kindertransport of Jewish children before WWII. Or the Lost Boys of Sudan, walking through a hellish landscape of violence and drought to stumble half-dead in Kenyan refugee camps.

Ukraine has also created an exodus of young people. Once Russia invaded, countless parents made the agonizing decision to uproot their children and bring them to safety. Most have crossed into neighboring countries with their mothers but without their fathers because of Ukraine’s restrictions on men of military age, aged 18 to 60, who leave the country.

But some teenagers have taken off without any parents. The New York Times interviewed half a dozen in the space of a few days in Warsaw. They were placed in the hands of friends or family on the run or, in some cases, crossed international borders alone. Scattered across Warsaw in rented apartments, or with Polish families, or some alone in dormitories, these are the refugees who face the greatest risks.

“The little children will integrate. Adults will get jobs,” said Krzysztof Gorniak, a chef in Warsaw who runs several nonprofit organizations that help refugees.

But teenagers, he said, “don’t know whether to build a life here or just spend their time drinking, using drugs and playing.”

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

“It was a question of danger and safety,” he said, of fleeing the war. “But it was something else,” 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 near Warsaw in a small apartment.

The youth hostel that Maxym fled from, the last stage of Ukraine’s orphanage system, was linked to a vocational school. But in Warsaw, he’s not taking any classes – he’s not interested – and avoids eye contact and hunches a little, as if preparing for a coup. His week’s highlight is a boxing class, but he’s been 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 watched TikTok.”

On the other side of town, in the beautiful, quiet neighborhood of Muranow, Katya Sundukova, 13, works on her designs. As she holds a pencil and leans over a black-and-white sketch, her pink Mona Lisa socks showing, she radiates an intensity.

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

“I see war as useless,” she 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, the explosions in Kyiv, where Katya lived, upset her.

“She sat in her room talking to her cat,” said her mother, Olga. “Her interlocutor of hers was the cat.”

Her mother made the difficult decision to get her out of there. But she’s a lawyer with a busy practice. If she left 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 Sofia, 22, said, “I’m not ready to be her mother.”

The whole family, like so many others in Ukraine, became a study of resilience. Katya learned to cook dinner, pasta being her specialty. She started a new school in Warsaw – a Ukrainian one – midway through the semester, but with her sister working and her mother usually away except for the occasional visit, she is also learning to deal with emotions and fears on her own.

As she turned away from her drawing, a precociously deft portrait of three fantastical figures, Katya allowed herself a look of satisfaction.

“The sketch is finished,” she announced. “The only thing left is to hang it in my room in Kyiv.”

A few days after the start of the war in February, Mark fled the city of Kharkiv alone. He was afraid of being stopped at the border because he was 17 years old and traveling alone. But in the chaos he escaped, no questions asked, arriving in Warsaw four days before his 18th birthday, by which time he would be of military age and unable to leave.

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

Mark was given a room in a university dormitory not far from the Vistula River, which runs through Warsaw.

When he’s not studying computer programming online at two universities, he’s in the “Park.”

There are plenty of parks in Warsaw – a verdant city, especially lovely in June – but “the Park” all Ukrainian boys talk about is in the shadow of a Warsaw icon: the Palace of Culture and Science. Completed in 1955 but commissioned during Stalin’s later years, it’s a 42-story monument to Poland’s socialist days, heavy but somehow still elegant.

Before the war in Ukraine, the park opposite had been neglected, becoming a camp for the homeless.

But starting in March, Ukrainian teenagers found out. The volleyball court is always full. There’s a skate park where shirtless Ukrainian kids bang their boards and clatter noisily. Young women sit under the trees and take it all in.

Mark said that in the park people 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 hard to be without parents, he said, and not knowing what’s to come, he also feels a sense of possibility, of having a future that’s yet to be carved out.

“Life isn’t bad,” he said. “Warsaw is a beautiful city. I walk alone, doing tourism.”

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