Welcoming the Stranger

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Apartment-sharing app Airbnb is offering free temporary housing to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees who have scrambled across their neighbors’ borders in cars, buses, trains and on foot to flee Russian bombs and bullets. The Silicon Valley company and hosts were underwriting the short-term stays, the Washington Post reported in a story that featured the Airbnb logo in blue and yellow, the national colors of Ukraine.

That generosity will help only a small portion of the Ukrainians who have quit their country since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to invade the country in a bid to push back Western influence and reassert Russian hegemony over the former Soviet republic, according to Vox.

More than one million people have left Ukraine since the fighting started, the UN says. Women and children, including an increasing amount of unaccompanied children, make up most of the refugees. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 must remain in the country to repel the invaders by decree.

More than half of the refugees have gone to Poland, where a sizeable immigrant Ukrainian community already lives and works. Poles, who have historically opposed Russian influence in Eastern Europe, have welcomed the refugees with open arms. The BBC, for example, toured a school in Przemyśl that was converted into a shelter. Volunteers at the shelter described how they felt a “reflex response” to help as they ladled out soup to Ukrainians sleeping on a gymnasium floor, who are shell-shocked.

“I just don’t understand what is happening and why it’s happening,” Helena Arykul, formerly a sales manager in Odessa on the Black Sea, told Politico after she arrived in Przemyśl in eastern Poland, with her 7-year-old daughter. “They started bombing the city and I had to go. My husband and father are there, fighting.”

Others have sought asylum in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova. United Nations officials said many refugees have also gone to Russia.

Hungarian medics and station workers were similarly helping Ukrainian refugees as they disembarked from a train in the Hungarian village of Záhony. In an interview with Al Jazeera, one woman said she wanted to remain in Ukraine to fight but left after her mother convinced her that she should join the exodus to take care of her 5-year-old daughter.

The war has swept aside enmities that have existed between Romania and Ukraine since the Soviet Union annexed the region of Bessarabia after World War II and allocated it to Ukraine, creating a Romanian-speaking pocket in Western Ukraine, wrote Time. Romanians rushed to the border to help Ukrainians coming across. Many took to Facebook to offer up housing, added Radio Free Europe.

An irony often mentioned these days is that these same countries staunchly rejected accepting refugees who fled the violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Africa in the past decade, noted the New York Times. The intimation was that Eastern European countries were happy to accept other Eastern Europeans but discriminated against others based on their race, ethnicity, creed and culture.

That’s is still happening, according to human rights groups and the African Union, which say that African students in Ukraine attempting to flee are being denied entry to the EU, Al Jazeera reported.

Similar concerns, incidentally, have been raised about how the media has covered the destruction in Ukraine. The Guardian, for example, argued that Western journalists appeared to be more sympathetic to “civilized” victims in Ukraine than those in supposedly uncivilized Middle East countries and elsewhere outside Europe when the US and other Western nations were the aggressors.

Those criticisms may be valid. But they don’t change the fact, however, that for many East Europeans, now is the time to welcome the stranger.

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