27th Mar 2023

Ukraine will prevail, says defiant Kharkiv leader

  • Refugees continue to arrive at the train station in Rzeszow, Poland (Photo: EUobserver)
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Tetiana Yehorova-Lutsenko, a mother-of-two and elected leader of Kharkiv's regional council, momentarily breaks down.

At the train station in the southeastern Polish town of Rzeszow on Wednesday (6 April), she met with child refugees and their mothers from Kharkiv, her own hometown.

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  • Tetiana Yehorova-Lutsenko (seated) is the leader of Kharkiv's regional council, pictured with her interpreter (Photo: EUobserver)

The refugees had just arrived and were being taken care of by volunteers and municipal authorities, among the some 300,000 that have so far passed through the small station since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Yehorova-Lutsenko had herself spent two gruelling weeks in a basement with her small boys as the Russians pummelled the city to ruins. But she remained defiant, telling reporters that Ukraine is independent and will remain so.

"We are strong and we will stay strong," she said.

Earlier in the day she had told a handful of mayors from Poland and senior EU officials that Kharkiv was preparing for another Russian attack. "They have no chance [of victory]," she said to a round of applause.

Rzeszow is only around an hour's drive from the border with Ukraine. Its airport is equipped with a sophisticated missile defence system, set up after Russian bombs fell near the Polish border.

Now some of its hotels are packed with US troops. Its mayor Konrad Fijołek says they feel secure with the American presence.

Some one million Ukrainians have already passed through his region before fanning out to other cities around Poland, he said.

"We've had to leave our day to day affairs aside so that we could commit 24/7 to those fleeing the war," he said. Fijołek sends city officials into Ukraine to assess their needs.

But only 6,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far registered in Rzeszow.

Asked why, Fijołek says they don't have enough housing but expects up to 20,000 people will register, or the equivalent of some 10-percent of the city's entire population.

Rzeszow's refugee reception centre, a former market hall, can only host up to 500 people at time. Entirely financed through private funds and donations, the centre is hoping for some public grants.

Dr Anthony, a volunteer medic from Nigeria, says the vast majority that arrive at the centre are women and children.

"We have had only a few Covid cases, mostly with mild symptoms," he says, noting others need treatment for post traumatic post disorders.

Most will only stay for two or three days before leaving for somewhere else, either in Poland or another EU state like Germany.

Access to EU funds too complex

But crunch issues like education, jobs, housing and health are starting to stretch public finances and services. Poland has around 700,000 children from Ukraine that need schooling, a task that has left administrators scrambling for solutions.

"This issue is going to last, not one day, not one week, one month, we are talking about the long term. We have to talk about voluntary relocations," said Władysław Ortyl, president of the Podkarpackie Region in Poland.

Ortyl says the EU can "no longer hide behind financial procedures" when it comes to funding, highlighting an additional need to reconstruct Ukraine.

"We need fresh [EU] funds that can deliver, that can respond to the needs of local government and NGOs," said Małgorzata Jarosińska Jedynak, Poland's secretary of state in the ministry of development funds and regional policy.

Jedynak said EU cohesion funds have already been 100 percent contracted, rendering a European Commission initiative to provide some flexibility in shuffling around money difficult and insufficient. Those EU finances are sourced from five different EU budget lines totalling around €17bn.

The Committee of the Regions, an EU institution, is pressing the EU to fold all five into a simple access point, allowing local governments to rapidly access and distribute the money.

Its president Apostolos Tzitzikostas said cities across Europe are ready to host refugees, noting that the committee had launched an info support hub linking overburdened local authorities with those that are able to help in terms of employment and housing.

The problem is that quick and simple access to the EU's five separate funds is lacking, he said.

"We call for a Ukrainian refugee local facility to reduce red tape and fast track the deployment of funds by regions and cities," he said, noting it would replace the five different EU funds currently on offer.

But any prospect of fresh money were given short shrift by the European Commission, also on Wednesday.

"We know that getting more funds requires a lot of negotiations but we must answer the basic question. What do you do with the available ones?" said Elisa Ferreira, European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms.

Disclosure. The Committee of the Regions paid for two nights hotel and flights to and from Brussels — Rzeszow.

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