‘Scary to leave everything behind’: Ukrainian refugees embark on a 15-hour train journey to safety

Photography and Video by Jacobia Dahm
By Yuliya Talmazan
April 1, 2022

More than 4 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion over a month ago. The war and the resulting refugee crisis not only threaten to reshape Europe’s geopolitical landscape and plunge the world into a new Cold War; they have also upended the lives of millions of Ukrainians who, overnight, have been forced to give up their homes, professions and families to try to find safety. 

Reporter Yuliya Talmazan and photographer Jacobia Dahm traveled with a handful of Ukrainian families after they fled the war and embarked on a 15-hour train journey from the Polish town of Przemyśl to the German capital, Berlin.

PRZEMYŚL, Poland — It was almost all women and children who bundled onto the train here, just 8 miles from the Ukrainian border. Men of fighting age are forbidden to leave Ukraine, meaning many of these families had to leave their husbands, brothers and fathers behind. 

With all the bags and snacks, the crowd at first looked like a group of tourists heading off on an adventure — a holiday, a field trip, or perhaps a trip to see the grandparents. 

But there was no sense of excitement in the air. Instead, the high-ceilinged station and the train cars were filled with a desperate hope for safety, far from everything the refugees knew and loved.

Passengers soon settled into the six-seater compartments, with glass doors and blue curtains; some snacked on free food handed out by volunteers. Others dozed off as the morning sun shone through the windows. 

One refugee, Nataliia Sukhar, was starting a life she never wanted. 

At 7 a.m., with a single suitcase and her son, Gleb, 5, she hoisted herself onto a train headed for Berlin. A beautician specializing in eyelash extensions, Sukhar had packed the tools of her trade safely among clothes and vital documents.

Russian rockets compelled them to leave their home in Kharkiv.

She had had enough after days of hiding with 60 other people in the basement of a store in their hometown near the Russian border, Sukhar said, speaking in Russian. She met up with her husband, Artyom, who was in the capital, Kyiv, and from there the family traveled for three days to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. 

The mother and son had never left Ukraine before. But in 24 hours, they would cross two national borders. First came Poland and then Germany, their final destination — or as final as they could imagine in the chaos. 

With her suitcase tucked under the table, Sukhar, 32, sat quietly, looking out onto the Polish countryside with its neat red-roofed houses, farm fields and rolling hills. Gleb napped in the seat next to her, his feet in his mother’s lap.

Sukhar said she decided to go to Germany after her friend Lyudmila, also from Kharkiv, got to Berlin with her two children and was given temporary accommodation. She told Sukhar there was a room for her and Gleb, too, but she had to act fast.

And that meant having to leave her conscription-age husband behind. 

Sukhar’s voice broke when she talked about having to say goodbye to Artyom. 

“I am just afraid that I may never see him again,” she said softly.

Sukhar did not know how long she would stay in Germany, but she was determined to find a job.  Asked whether she spoke any German, she laughed and said: “Danke? Guten tag?” 

She would go back home in a heartbeat, although she harbored little hope that that would be possible any time soon. 

“This war is too brutal to end quickly,” Sukhar added.

Three hours into the journey, an announcement came on, telling Ukrainian refugees to change trains at the next stop, Krakow, Poland. The announcer did not explain why. 

Sukhar woke Gleb up and hurriedly put on his Sonic the Hedgehog hat as she got off the train with the other families. 

Many people looked confused but boarded the new train anyway. 

As volunteers dropped off packs of bottled water and boxes of chocolate waffles, Sukhar and her son settled into another compartment on the new train.

Wearing a sweatshirt with “kindness makes the world go around” on it in English, Gleb later snacked on some orange juice and Ukrainian cutlets, round croquettes of minced meat covered in breadcrumbs, that Sukhar made before they left — a comforting taste of home.

Just a few carriages away from the Sukhars sat a boisterous family of six or eight — depending upon whether you counted the cats resting in a crate atop a suitcase in the middle of the compartment.

Larisa Afonina, 52, said the sound of whizzing rockets and blaring sirens in her neighborhood in northern Kyiv had become unbearable. She left for the relative safety of western Ukraine with her two oldest grandchildren, Elena, 14, and Viktor, 13. 

Her daughter Anastasiia Efimova and two younger grandchildren, Paulina, 10, and Diana, 9, followed the next day, carrying their cats, Oliver and Charlie.  

Sitting across from her mother, Efimova, 33, was less convinced. She had been very reluctant to leave, and she said the uncertainty of going to a new country with four children was very scary. Her husband, Serhiy, is serving in the Ukrainian army and stayed behind to fight. 

“It was scary to leave everything behind,” Afonina said in Russian. “But it was better to do something than to do nothing.”

Afonina and her family planned to go to Berlin and then the town of Wismar in the north of Germany. All they knew about Wismar was that Elena’s best friend and her family had traveled there 11 days earlier and told them there was temporary accommodation available.

“We should probably Wikipedia it,” Efimova said, laughing. 

Nobody in the family speaks German. 

As the train whizzed by a small Polish town, the whole family got excited by the sight of a green area with tall apartment buildings and a river running by.  

“It looks just like our Obolon!” Efimova exclaimed, referring to the district of Kyiv from which they had escaped. 

As the area that reminded them so much of the home they left behind slowly disappeared from view, the family grew silent.

With hours still to kill before they reached the German border, fellow Ukrainians in compartments next door spread across multiple seats, taking naps. Many pulled the blue curtains across glass doors for privacy. Others walked along the corridors, stretching their legs.

Parents tried to keep their children entertained with coloring books and card games. A strong smell of stale air and sweat permeated the air.

As the train pulled closer to the border with Germany and stopped in the last Polish town, Rzepin, the sun had nearly set, turning the sky pink and purple. 

Many passengers wandered up and down the train with puzzled looks on their faces, asking one another whether the train would go all the way to Berlin.

With the help of Google Translate, a Polish conductor explained to some refugees that everyone would be taken off at Rzepin and put on buses to the German capital. But some people did not hear him and remained on the train, confused.

Sukhar was among those who started taking their luggage off the train and filing toward buses outside the train station. 

After she handed off her suitcase to the driver, she and Gleb climbed aboard. 

Sitting in his mother’s lap, Gleb said he was tired. He also declared that he needed a proper wheelie suitcase instead of his little blue backpack. 

“I will get you one when we go back home,” Sukhar responded. 

On the bus, Ukrainians asked whether anyone knew where they were being taken. Some were not even sure whether they were still in Polish territory. 

After about an hour, the bus pulled into what looked like the outside of a train station. The volunteers told the refugees they were now in the town of Frankfurt an der Oder on the German side of the Polish border and would have to take yet another train out to Berlin.

As they walked through the train station, another group of volunteers stuffed Gleb’s blue backpack with snacks, juice boxes and toys. Once they were on the train, more volunteers filed in, offering free sandwiches and German SIM cards.

As the train started moving toward Berlin, nearly 14 hours after the journey in Przemyśl had begun, Sukhar and Gleb looked out of the window, hoping to catch their first glimpses of Germany. But it was dark outside.

As they got off the train at Berlin’s main train station, Sukhar and Gleb dragged their suitcase onto an escalator, looking around at slick cafes and a sushi bar. They would be picked up by the people who were housing her friend Lyudmila in Berlin, she said, but there had been limited communication with them, and she did not have alternative accommodation if it fell through.   

As Sukhar anxiously waited for their ride and looked out toward the station’s entrance, Gleb climbed their suitcase and started wheeling around his mom — periodically asking when they would be able to go to bed. 

“We will get to our new home, and we will sleep for 24 hours,” Sukhar promised her son. 

Finally, a German man showed up and, speaking no Ukrainian or Russian, showed her a photo of her friend on his phone and the location where they would be staying for the time being, a village of Zühlsdorf — north of Berlin. 

Sukhar nodded, grabbed her son and disappeared into the night.

Photo Director:

Zara Katz

Photo Editor:

Max Butterworth

Art Director:

Chelsea Stahl