Fleeing Ukraine, women reach Poland to find women offering car rides to get to safety: NPR

Hanna “Anya” Antoniuk, 22, fled her home in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, after the Russian invasion. After crossing Poland, she saw a column of men offering rides. “I definitely wouldn’t have gotten into a strange man’s car,” she says. She was relieved to find a female-only carpool service instead.

Joanna Kakissis / NPR


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Hanna “Anya” Antoniuk, 22, fled her home in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine, after the Russian invasion. After crossing Poland, she saw a column of men offering rides. “I definitely wouldn’t have gotten into a strange man’s car,” she says. She was relieved to find a female-only carpool service instead.

Joanna Kakissis / NPR

PRACE MALE, Poland – When 22-year-old Hanna Antoniuk arrived at the Polish border, one of the first things she noticed was all the men offering rides.

She had fled from Ukraine alone. It was night. And the scene made her nervous.

“It’s an unknown, unknown country, unknown men. You don’t know the language and you don’t know at all what can happen,” she says.

Most of the 5 million Ukrainians who have fled the Russian invasion are women and children. Human rights monitors say they are vulnerable to sex and labor smugglers.

Elzbieta “Ella” Jarmulska, a 39-year-old project manager and board game developer, also felt this when she stood in the crowd at the shelter early last month that evening. She had driven from her home in Prace Male, a town just outside of Warsaw, the capital.

Members of the Polish carpool group Kobiety za Kolko (Women Take the Wheel), from left to right: Monika Pietrzak, Ella Jarmulska, Anna Time and Anna Marianowicz Kurek. The drivers, all women, offer rides to Ukrainian women and children at the Polish border after they have fled the war.

Ella Jarmulska


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Ella Jarmulska

She squeezed in and saw Ukrainian women and children waiting inside. Outside stood the men, all holding handwritten signs with the names of cities.

“Twenty, 30 boys, big boys by the way, standing together in a group,” she recalls. “I mean, I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking up to them and saying, ‘Oh, which one of you gentlemen is taking me through Poland for free?’ †

She says most of the men were probably harmless, adding that “lots of good guys” are driving displaced Ukrainians from the border. But she also imagined seeing them through the eyes of Ukrainian women who had just fled violent Russian forces.

“It’s about anticipating danger,” she says. ‘That you think, ‘What will happen? What’s next? They bombed my city a second ago. They killed people. And now I have to get in a car with a strange man?’ †

Less than an hour later, Jarmulska drove Antoniuk, two other Ukrainian women and a Ukrainian girl to Warsaw. The drive takes over four hours and Antoniuk remembers how they spent the time trying to talk through Google Translate.

“We talked about a lot of things. We even have an inside joke with Ella about a bad translation with a cow,” says Antoniuk. “We started laughing out loud, the whole car.”

Women commute Ukrainian families to their refuge

In the weeks that followed, Jarmulska drove dozens of displaced Ukrainian women through Poland. And after a call on Facebook, she recruited dozens of drivers, all women, to form an organization called Kobiety za Kolko, or Women take the wheel† The drivers regularly drive to the border to transport Ukrainian women and their families to homes or shelters.

A sign for Kobiety za Kolko (Women take the wheel) on a vehicle reserved for giving rides to Ukrainian refugees.

Ella Jarmulska


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Ella Jarmulska

“A war, a crisis can bring out good things in people, but also less beautiful things,” said Joanna Garnier, project coordinator at the Warsaw branch of La Strada, an organization that fights human trafficking in Europe. “It also brings out those who want to exploit those who are looking for some sort of hope or a lifeline.”

Garnier says the La Strada helpline is receiving five times more calls than usual.

“I think this is the most popular phone number in Poland right now,” she says, not quite joking. “The women – they are Ukrainian – are asking about suspicious requests, such as opportunities to go to America or proposals to work in the Emirates or Turkey or Mexico. And offers for housing or transportation. The decisions made can be risky.”

It’s not just men who are exploiting the situation. According to Karolina Wierzbicka of Homo Faber, a Polish human rights organization in the eastern city of Lublin, women have also been at the forefront of human trafficking.

She recalled a case at the beginning of the war, when she worked night shifts at the Lublin bus station, distributing leaflets with tips on how to protect yourself against human trafficking. A woman showed up and tried to convince displaced Ukrainian women at the station to follow her.

“I remember she told” [them] that she has 29 houses, with everything prepared,” she says. “When I called the police, she ran away.”

Refugees from Ukraine wait for a bus in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on April 8 after crossing the border between Ukraine and Poland.

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Refugees from Ukraine wait for a bus in Medyka, southeastern Poland, on April 8 after crossing the border between Ukraine and Poland.

Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Jarmulska says she did double duty to provide safe passage after hearing a horrific story from a psychologist who worked with displaced Ukrainian women.

“The story is literally heartbreaking,” she says, fighting back tears. “There was a mother with two girls aged 10 and 12. And they were raped [in] Ukraine, everyone. Russian soldiers. They got into a car in Poland and the driver tried to do the same.”

Garnier of La Strada and Wierzbicka of Homo Faber say their organizations have not received widespread reports of sexual assault, but warn that many attacks are likely to go unreported.

Meanwhile, authorities are trying to vet organizations working with refugees, including Women Take the Wheel, Jarmulska’s initiative.

Some women restart their careers

One recent evening, NPR met Jarmulska in the artsy cottage she shares with her husband and their 8-year-old daughter. A Ukrainian woman and her three children also live there.

Nadia, a 37-year-old clothing designer, was one of Jarmulska’s passengers from the border. She does not want to give her last name because she is concerned about her family back home, but says she is from Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine that has been badly damaged by occupying Russian troops.

Nadia fled after Russian troops shot neighbors who were queuing for bread. Fourteen died.

“My son and I almost went there to get our own bread,” she says, shaking her head. “My kids and I left right after that.”

Weeks after arriving in Poland, Nadia restarted her clothing design business with a Polish partner scouted by Jarmulska. Her children are in school and her 16-year-old son has a part-time job as a landscape architect and gardener in the city.

“Even if 10,000 men had offered me a ride at the border that night, I would still have chosen Ella,” she says. “I could see she was much more than a woman behind a wheel.”

Jarmulska is now expanding her driving missions. She has brought a wagonload of supplies – “22 helmets, seven or eight vests and 5,000 tampons” to western Ukraine for female soldiers. And Women Take the Wheel is also trying to buy a bus.

“As long as Ukrainian women need us,” she says, “we’ll drive.”

Dawid Krawczyk and Kateryna Korchynska reported.

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