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Belarus-Ukraine: “No one can better understand a refugee than another refugee.”

Two years ago exactly, Artem Beliay was one of many Belarusians who had voted for change and demonstrated peacefully against what they – and many more worldwide – considered a rigged presidential election. After being detained and tortured, the company manager had no choice but to flee Belarus with his young family. His story is that of his tormented region: now a refugee in Poland, the 34-year-old helps Ukrainians who were forced to flee their country when Russia invaded in February.

What happened to you in 2020?

On 9 August, my wife and I joined a peaceful demonstration against fraud during the presidential election. I was arrested and tortured in the Akrestina detention centre in Minsk for the next few days. After being released, together with lawyer friends, we filed a complaint regarding my illegal arrest and inhuman treatment. The reaction was swift: the police and KGB started intimidating my family and me. They even alleged that my wife and I were alcoholics and drug addicts and threatened to take our four-year-old daughter away.

What led you to leave Belarus?

We received a message from an unknown person on (the messaging app) Telegram. He was aware of who we were. He said that a criminal case had been opened against me, that I would be arrested, and urged me to flee. We had an emergency suitcase ready because the situation in the country was very volatile. Early the following morning, my wife, our daughter and I left Belarus.

How were your first days in Poland?

We spent the first few weeks in quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, border guards directed us to a refugee distribution centre. In the beginning, we felt utterly lost, fearing the unknown. Safe for now, but afraid that the authorities could send us back to Belarus anytime. We only breathed when assigned to a centre for asylum seekers close to the border, where we met fellow Belarusians who reassured us. For my daughter, all this was like an adventure. Fortunately, that’s how she viewed our new life in Poland.

How did you adapt to life in Poland?

We were doubly lucky. After six months at the centre, we got on the list for social housing in a small city. Second, the OMCT provided us with financial assistance. These two things helped us dramatically in our integration process because we could afford Polish language courses. Speaking Polish made a huge difference. My daughter started repeating after us while we were studying at home, then went to kindergarten. Now she speaks Polish without an accent.

I got a job at a local car repair station, and my wife works at a pet shop, as she is a professional dog trainer. Our life has stabilised, and we can start planning for the future.

Why did you decide to help other refugees?

No one can better understand a refugee than another refugee. When I saw the bewildered Ukrainians with their children at the refugee centre near my place, I wondered if our family looked the same in 2020. At the time, strangers helped us, both morally and financially. Two years on, with other Belarusians, I volunteered to bring food and medicine to the centre where the Ukrainians were initially welcomed. I helped families find temporary housing, as so many Poles provided free rooms. It’s my turn to give back some of the help we received.

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