WARSAW — Every afternoon, in a park outside a typically Stalinist skyscraper in central Warsaw, dozens of Ukrainian teenagers gather. They are young refugees trying to cope.
Many left school to drift through Warsaw, rootless or even lost, as young as 14 or 15, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap beer. They gather under the maple trees, play ping-pong or spread out on the benches, their heads on their knees, wondering what to do.
“I’ve seen some wild stuff here,” said Mark, an 18-year-old from Ukraine who was hanging out in the park the other day. “Knives. Guns. Drunk kids fighting.
The teenage years are hard enough anywhere. Bodies change. Carefree childhood flies away. Everything becomes more serious so quickly.
But for an estimated one million Ukrainian teenage refugees, it is as if the mirror in which they look at themselves, trying to figure out their future, is exploding in their faces.
As they grew into adults, Covid turned the world upside down. And just as the pandemic finally lifted, 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 conflict still raging, they don’t know when or even if they will ever return home.
“Every day I have to choose,” said Mark, who fled Ukraine just before his 18th birthday to avoid military service and didn’t want to share his last name for fear of being punished or, at the very least, ostracized. if he came back. “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 a charming young man’s smile. “I really wish I could go back to being a 15-year-old boy who doesn’t have to think about the future.”
A hallmark of any war is children on the move. Masses of them. Terrified. Running away from something they don’t understand. Go somewhere they don’t know. Think of the Kindertransport of Jewish children before World War II. Or the Lost Boys of Sudan, traversing a hellish landscape of violence and drought to stumble half dead in Kenyan refugee camps.
Ukraine has also caused an exodus of young people. As soon as Russia invaded, countless parents made the agonizing decision to uproot their children and bring them to safety. Most crossed into neighboring countries with their mothers but without their fathers, due to Ukraine’s restrictions on military-age men, aged 18 to 60, leaving the country.
But some teenagers took off without any parents. The New York Times interviewed half a dozen of them in the space of a few days in Warsaw. They were handed over to fleeing friends or family members or, in some cases, they crossed international borders alone. Spread across Warsaw in rented apartments, or with Polish families, or some alone in dormitories, it is the refugees who run the highest risks.
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“The little kids will fit in. Adults will find jobs,” said Krzysztof Gorniak, a chef in Warsaw who runs several nonprofits helping refugees.
But teenagers, he said, “don’t know whether they should build a life here or just spend time drinking, doing drugs and gambling”.
Maxym Kutsyk, a 17-year-old orphan, said he left without permission from a hostel in central Ukraine.
“It was a matter of danger and safety,” he said of his flight from the war. “But that was something else,” he explained. “I wanted to go out. I wanted to see the world.
Now he lives with his half-sister, three young children and her boyfriend near Warsaw in a small part of an apartment.
The hostel that Maxym ran away from, the final stage of the Ukrainian orphanage system, was tied to a vocational school. But in Warsaw, he’s not taking any classes – he’s not interested – and avoids eye contact and hunches slightly, as if preparing for a blow. The highlight of his week is a boxing lesson, but he clings 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 pretty, quiet neighborhood of Muranow, 13-year-old Katya Sundukova works on her drawings. As she holds a pencil and bends over a black and white sketch, her pink Mona Lisa socks sticking out, she exudes intensity.
She wears big headphones and listens to Tchaikovsky and Japanese hip-hop. People are talking in the room and coming and going, but her attention is focused only on the pencil in her hand and the emerging figures.
“I see war as useless,” she said in a previous conversation. “I kept asking my mother: why did they attack us? I never got an answer.
At the beginning of the war, explosions in Kyiv, where Katya lived, disturbed her.
“She was just sitting in her room talking to her cat,” her mother, Olga, said. “His 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 left Ukraine, she would say, “Who will support me financially?
So she sent Katya to live with her other daughter, Sofia, who worked for a magazine in Warsaw, although 22-year-old Sofia said, “I’m not ready to be her mother.”
The whole family, like so many others from Ukraine, has become a study in resilience. Katya learned to cook dinner, macaroni being her specialty. She started a new school in Warsaw – a Ukrainian one – in the middle of the semester, but with her sister working and her mother usually away except for occasional visits, she is also learning to deal with her emotions and fears on her own.
As she walked away from her drawing, a precociously skillful portrayal of three fantastical figures, Katya allowed herself a look of satisfaction.
“The sketch is complete,” she announced. “The only thing left is to hang it in my bedroom in Kyiv.”
A few days after the start of the war in February, Mark fled the battered 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, no questions asked, arriving in Warsaw four days before his 18th birthday, when he would have reached military age and could not leave.
“I didn’t want to fight in this war,” he said. “It’s a stupid war.”
Mark was given a room in a university dorm not far from the Vistula, which runs through Warsaw.
When he’s not studying computer programming online at two universities, he hangs out at the “Parc”.
There are many parks in Warsaw – a green city, particularly beautiful in June – but “the park” that all Ukrainian children talk about is in the shadow of a Warsaw icon: the Palace of Culture and science. Completed in 1955 but commissioned during Stalin’s last years, it’s a towering yet still elegant 42-story monument to Poland’s socialist era.
Before the Ukrainian war, the park in front had been neglected, becoming a campground for the homeless.
But from March, Ukrainian teenagers found out about it. The volleyball court is always busy. There’s a skate park where shirtless Ukrainian kids slam on their boards and slurp loudly. Young women sit under the trees and enjoy it all.
Mark said that in the park people don’t talk about the war.
“If you want friends,” he said, “you don’t talk about politics. Because everyone has a different view of the situation.
And while it’s hard to be without his parents, he said, and not knowing what awaits him, he also feels a sense of possibility, of having a future yet to be carved.
“Life is not bad,” he said. “Warsaw is a beautiful city. I go around by myself, I go sightseeing.