Return to the Polish town which helped more Ukrainian refugees than anywhere else in the world

ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith and team members Tomasz Jarząbek and Tamuka Walker report on the many Ukrainian refugees heading back home to an uncertain future as they leave the Polish border town of Przemysl

Przemysł is a small town in Poland’s south-east, close to the Ukrainian border. It is quiet, usually. That changed overnight on February 24 this year, the day war broke out next door. Przemysl has a population of just 60,000. Suddenly 50,000 Ukrainian refugees started arriving every day. Mothers carrying a suitcase in one hand and a young child in the other - they stepped off the train at Przemysl station or walked across the border, and all of them needed some kind of support. The masses arrived cold, bewildered, uncertain of what would happen next and where they would go; the first thing they needed was a bed, a blanket and some food.

Huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees turned up in the small border town following the outbreak of the war. Credit: ITV News

While the world watched in horror, Przemysl had to act. Local schools were handed over and turned into centres for the refugees. Residents opened their doors and emptied their kitchen cupboards, giving whatever they could afford to. Since then, this tiny border town has helped more than three million Ukrainians. Most stayed a few days then passed through. Some stayed, eager to remain as close to Ukraine and a train home as possible.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

Four months on since ITV News first witnessed Przemysl become the epicentre of Europe’s refugee crisis, we have returned to see where those Ukrainians we met are now.

And to find out how the town and the people who stepped up to help have been changed by the experience. Back in March, we were with the first Ukrainian child refugees to be given a place in a Polish school.

In March, ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reported on the struggle of Poland's education system to find places for the huge numbers of Ukrainian children who had entered their country

Now, we find those same Ukrainian children are learning the Polish language and have made new friends. But home is never far from their thoughts.

“I didn’t want to leave,” Nastia tells me. “My parents said we would just be away for two nights. Now it’s been more than three months.” Valeria remembers the day she crossed the border. “I even wanted to cry. I’m still missing my home very much.”

Valeria says that she has missed home very much. Credit: ITV News

The teacher says the class sizes had to be doubled to accommodate the new intake.

“It put pressure on us but we overcame it by sticking together,” Luba Pryjma tells me. She is head of the English department. “Many of these children had a lot of psychological challenges and when they’re home they hear their mothers on the phone to their fathers in Ukraine, talking about the war. It’s not easy.” At the start of the refugee crisis, ITV News followed psychotherapist Natalia Tymec, offering help to those who arrived in need of extra mental health support. The stories she heard were so horrific, she tells us it has taken a toll on her. “There just weren’t enough specialists and psychologists to help these people,” she says.

Natalia Tymec described the trauma she felt after helping Ukrainian refugees in need of mental health support

“I started to feel like I was drowning. Now I also have PTSD and trauma. I have asked for mental health support for myself.” Coming back it is clear Przemysl is a changed place. And the difference at Przemysl train station is stark. Each day now there are more Ukrainians going back home than coming in. Some people are able to return to Kyiv and the surrounding towns. Some have decided to go as far as Kharkiv and Donetsk. But even going back, it’s not the end - more than seven million are still internally displaced. Boarding the train to Kyiv, few know what they’re going back to. Who will still be there? And who won’t? After four months away from Ukraine, home is a changed place.