Tamila Melnichenko, 82, has one last wish: to be buried in Ukraine. A year ago, she was uprooted by the Russian invasion and now spends her days in a retirement home in Poland, longing for the life she had to leave behind.
The former nurse reads Ukrainian and Russian classics, memorises poems and walks down the narrow corridors on her crutches to keep herself busy as the days slowly tick by.
Her thoughts constantly drift back to Ukraine, where she lived all her life and raised her family.
“I’m old,” she told the Reuters news agency. “I want to die there [in Kyiv]. Now I don’t know where I will die.”
“The staff here are very helpful. I receive warm meals. What else would an old person need?,” she asked in the sparsely furnished room that she shares with two other refugees in Glogoczow in southern Poland,.
“But I want to go back to Ukraine.”
She knows she could not have stayed in Kyiv. When air raid alerts went off, she was in her apartment on the fourth floor, alone and in a wheelchair. The widow and her only daughter, Oksana, decided to leave with Oksana’s son.
A neighbour drove them to western Ukraine and then they took the train on a gruelling journey to Poland.
“We thought it was only for a month, and we did not take anything with us,” Melnichenko said. “We even left unwashed dishes in the sink.”
She spent the first few months in the house of a Polish family, but because of her difficulties walking, her daughter placed her in the retirement home, paid for by Polish social services. She has no idea how long she will have to stay there and whether she will ever go back to Ukraine.
More than 9 million Ukrainians – mostly women, children and the elderly – made a similar journey to Poland in the weeks and months after the invasion. Many have returned home, but around 1.5 million remain, according to Polish Border Guard estimates.
While social isolation and loneliness are part of the experience of exile, older people can be the worst affected.
Since the beginning of the war, 76,000 Ukrainians over the age of 60 have registered with Polish authorities, which is necessary for refugees to receive healthcare and benefits.
According to a report by the World Health Organization and Poland’s General Statistics Office, nearly two-thirds of respondents over the age of 55 said they would benefit from support in dealing with a mental condition that affected their daily functioning.
Reporting by Reuters’ journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, photos by Reuters’ Kacper Pempel.