The train of the last frontier: the refugees who travel 4,000 kilometers from Ukraine to Portugal | International

The last border of the European continent that a thousand Ukrainians have crossed since the beginning of March is crossed in a diesel car from Comboios de Portugal that usually leaves from track 1 of the Badajoz station around 4:25 p.m. This Sunday awaits the arrival of the delayed train from Madrid with 31 refugees. When they get off at the platform, Red Cross volunteers hurriedly photocopy their passports, hand out plastic bags of sandwiches and give them a green wristband to identify them. The all inclusive from the war. Europe’s trains at the service of the largest demographic movement since the Second World War: more than 3.5 million people displaced by the conflict in Ukraine are distributed throughout a continent that – this time, yes – has opened its arms wide to them .

The Ukrainians suffer from the terrible rail connection between Spain and Portugal, which forces them to take three trains and use 10 hours and a half to travel 624 kilometers. At this point, just a trifle that only adds fatigue to the exhaustion accumulated by refugees like Violetta Khadasevich and Sergei Dzemikhov, who will have traveled through nine countries when they reach their final destination tonight after more than a week of travel.

In their life before February 24 they were sommeliers in kyiv. They are 23 and 26 years old, married and Belarusian. They flee with Elena, Sergei’s mother, and her pet Mike, an abandoned dog they adopted from a shelter in Belarus four years ago and who will not bark once during the five-hour drive to Lisbon. Nor do children make noise, entertained in mobile games, nor do voices rise from conversations between adults. The mothers scold the little ones who are running down the hall, as if they don’t want to disturb them. The lives of those who flee fit into small bags that are crammed into the overhead compartment of the seats.

Violetta and Serguéi have spent the night in a hostel in Badajoz, run by the Red Cross. The sommeliers are hardened in flight. Two years ago they left Belarus, after the police beat Violetta for a whole night. She shows the photo of her bruised torso. She explains that she was stopped for no reason on her way to the subway. They moved to kyiv. “We had a good life. A lot of people helped us to find work and to have documents”, explains Serguéi inside the train. A kyiv that is nothing like the one they left behind, subjected to the rules of war. His last roof there was a subway station to protect himself from bombing. They hope to rebuild their lives for the third time in two years.

Despite the fact that the refugees have to travel more than 4,000 kilometers to Portugal, the country on the continent furthest from Ukraine, 18,400 have already received temporary protection status granted by the Portuguese government to speed up their integration: children enter the system education and the elderly can work without bureaucratic obstacles. Surprisingly, however, there was no reception facility upon arrival in Lisbon and they were directed to a nearby police station for help.

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The solidarity of the Ukrainian colony settled in Portugal for years (more than 27,000 people in 2021) also encourages long displacement. The Belarusian couple have friends in Nazaré, while Irina, who is traveling with her sister-in-law and her six-year-old niece, intends to reach Setúbal, where relatives reside.

The Ukrainian Igor Ryzhykov, on the train that takes him from Badajoz to Lisbon last Sunday, March 20.
The Ukrainian Igor Ryzhykov, on the train that takes him from Badajoz to Lisbon last Sunday, March 20.JOAO HENRIQUES (JOAO HENRIQUES / THE COUNTRY)

Not everyone chooses Portugal because they have a support network. Igor Ryzhykov chose the country for its good image: “Pleasant and where people speak English well.” His family is safe for now in western Ukraine and he hopes he can bring his daughter with him as soon as she settles down. The war entered his life at five in the morning with two explosions that woke him up in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine and one of the most Russophile due to its geographical proximity (40 kilometers from the border). “My mother has brothers who live in Russia. She called them to tell them that Putin had invaded the country and they didn’t believe it, they said it was the Americans. They believe Putin’s propaganda before our words”, says Igor Ryzhykov on the Badajoz platform, shortly before the train left. His journey here has been less strenuous than others, thanks to a flight from Romania to Barcelona.

Asking for the end of the war is absurd, but Igor replies: “I hope someone kills Putin, but I think the Russians are zombies. Perhaps they will protest in a few months, when the sanctions sink their economy. They can win the war with air strikes, but I think our army is stronger on the ground.”

Also the Nigerian William Obiana, a 29-year-old computer programmer who trained and set up his life in kyiv, has chosen Portugal despite not having support networks. His was more analytical. “I did an investigation between different countries to see the aid to refugees and Portugal seemed the best, along with Norway, France and Spain. The worst is Sweden”, he states. The Norse myth cracks. He also perceived it in practice after passing through nine countries, including Sweden, in 14 days.

Leave behind job, friends, money and apartment. Above all, she leaves a life that she now looks at with a painful longing: “The Ukrainians are one of the most pleasant peoples I have ever met. I went to kyiv to study because they have a good educational system, now I was working and had a residence. Ukraine is my home and I want to return when the war is over.”

Refugees from the war in Ukraine, on the train that took them from Badajoz to Lisbon last Sunday, March 20.
Refugees from the war in Ukraine, on the train that took them from Badajoz to Lisbon last Sunday, March 20. JOAO HENRIQUES (JOAO HENRIQUES / THE COUNTRY)

The first refugees to arrive in Badajoz were Asian students fleeing the conflict. The constant flow (they receive daily groups of between 30 and 90 people) forced Comboios de Portugal to reinforce the solitary car with a second car. “They started on March 5 and since then they have arrived daily, although the profile has changed and there are more and more Ukrainians,” explains Sandra Murillo. She and Víctor Domínguez coordinate the Red Cross emergency device in Badajoz, which is responsible for receiving and caring for refugees. “Each story is very sad. There are people who bring suitcases, others who have bought things along the way and others who have nothing, ”she describes Murillo. Among the thousand people who have attended, there were 144 minors and 18 over 65 years. When they arrive from Madrid on trains that do not connect with the only connection that leaves for Lisbon, they spend the night in a hostel. The Red Cross device includes activities to entertain children and psychological and legal assistance for adults.

The train takes three hours to cover the 180 kilometers between Badajoz and Entroncamento, where Portuguese volunteer firefighters receive the refugees and direct them to new lines depending on their destination. This past Sunday there were groups for Fatima, Porto and Lisbon. While the car moved through the Alto Alentejo, Irina answered through the voice translator of her mobile phone, which she has used since she left behind Mikolaiv, in the south of the country, with her sister-in-law and her six-year-old niece. Her husband stays there to care for his disabled mother and her father. He fled with some clothes, documents and some money. She speaks with constant appointments to God and with determination, determined to get ahead. She has the same strength to thank the volunteers as to condemn the Russians: “For us that town no longer exists, neither relatives nor friends nor anyone. This is not our war, we did not hurt anyone and we did not need to be released, but one day it will end and we will rebuild Ukraine and we will be much better.” And she, without further questions, picks up the phone to leave a final sentence: “I mean that now I curse all Russians.”

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