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In Warsaw Park, Ukraine’s Teen Refugees Hang Out and Hang On

In Warsaw Park, Ukraine’s Teen Refugees Hang Out and Hang On

WARSAW — Every afternoon at a park outside a distinctively Stalinesque skyscraper in central Warsaw, scores of Ukrainian teenagers come together. They are young refugees, trying to cope.

Many have quit school to drift around Warsaw, rootless, lost even, as young as 14 or 15, smoking cigarettes and swigging cheap beer. They gather under the maple trees, playing Ping-Pong or sprawling out on the benches, heads in each other’s laps, wondering what to do.

“I’ve seen some wild stuff here,” said Mark, an 18-year-old Ukrainian who was hanging out the other day in the park. “Knives. Guns. Drunk kids fighting.”

The teen years are hard enough anywhere. Bodies change. Carefree childhood swirls away. Everything gets more serious so fast.

But for the one million or so Ukrainian teen refugees, it’s like the mirror they were peering into, trying to figure out their futures, exploded in their faces.

Just as they were becoming adults, Covid upended the world. And just as the pandemic was finally lifting, their country was invaded and flung into war. Their families were split up. Their towns were bombed. They fled to foreign lands and four months later, with the conflict still raging, they have no idea when, or even if, they will ever go home.

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“Every day I must choose,” said Mark, who escaped Ukraine right before his 18th birthday to avoid military service and didn’t want to share his last name for fear of being punished or, at a minimum, ostracized if he returns. “I could come here and hang out with my friends and have a good day. Or I could go back to my room and study and have a good future.”

“Man,” he said, smiling a charming young man’s smile. “I really wish I could be a 15-year-old boy again who didn’t have to think about the future.”

A hallmark of…

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