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Samantha Power on meeting with refugees crossing out of Ukraine


Two young girls who left their pet rabbit behind, mothers carrying toddlers and luggage - these are some of the more than half million people who fled their homes in Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. Europe is on the verge of a massive refugee crisis as so many people escape across borders, like Ukraine's border with Poland.

That's where Samantha Power spent much of yesterday. She's administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. We caught up with her today in Brussels, where she's meeting with EU partners of the U.S. Ambassador Power, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


PFEIFFER: When you were at the Polish border yesterday, what did you see?

POWER: Just women and children and fewer men than I have ever seen in a refugee crisis, just, I think, speaking to the extent to which both Ukrainian authorities are, of course, insisting that men stay, but also families' willingness to be split up because the violence is so severe and, of course, escalating. And families also want their loved ones to be part of defending this independent nation.

PFEIFFER: And that splitting of families, that predominance of women and children, what special considerations or challenges does that pose?

POWER: Well, there are so many challenges right now, Sacha. I mean, first, the congestion at the border meant that the women and children that I met with, many of them had been waiting to cross into Poland for close to three days. And so part of the reason for my mission, along with my European counterparts, is to work with the Polish authorities who are scrambling heroically to open more border crossings so that there are more points of entry and we can get the flow going so that it doesn't back up further into Ukraine.

But with the threats to Kyiv and greater and greater flow to the border, this is a huge challenge. So by the time they cross, they're just exhausted. They're freezing. It was so cold. I was bundled up in my Canada Goose, and I went out for maybe two or three hours - just bone cold. And this is individuals, some of whom had been walking for 30 kilometers to cross the border.

So the Poles have opened up their hearts, their homes. There were warm meals and supplies and diapers and strollers for parents and clothing and all of that. But on the Ukrainian side of the border, you know, the entire international community really now is scrambling to see how do we get as much humanitarian assistance into Ukraine as possible.

PFEIFFER: Right. And, you know, there's widespread compassion for these Ukrainian refugees now. But taking in massive numbers of fleeing people requires massive resources. So in general, how receptive would you say other countries are to taking on this challenge right now, especially since it could last so long?

POWER: I am amazed and heartened by just the extent to which this is a no-brainer for the European Union right now and the member states within it. I met today in Brussels with the ambassadors of Romania, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia. They are the frontline states, along with Poland, where the refugees come to first. And, you know, Moldova has its own challenges, with Russia occupying a portion of its territory and its own economic challenges, especially now with the energy market in turmoil and, you know, opening up homes, opening up reception facilities, making resources available.

And the European Union introduced yesterday a proposal that would actually grant any Ukrainian, in a sense, temporary asylum for up to three years. And I think it's quite likely that that proposal is going to go through. It's something that will be adjudicated here in the next day or two.

So right now, the signals in Europe are you're welcome. You are European. You were embarked on a European project, and that is precisely the reason that you are now being attacked. And for as long as it takes, you know, you can come here, and we will care for you. And that that's going to include work permits and social benefits and real support.

PFEIFFER: We read about a Nigerian man being turned back by Polish border guards who reportedly said that they were, quote, "not tending to Africans." Did you witness anything like that, or is it something you aware of and discussing with your Polish counterparts?

POWER: I did see Africans who were part of the flow of people who were there when I was at this one border crossing where thousands of people were coming through. But I have heard allegations of that kind, and the Polish officials I met with have also heard those allegations. And part of the challenge is this happened quickly. Polish border guards have never dealt with anything like this. And so the challenge is making sure that every single border guard, that every single person involved in greeting and registering and escorting someone fleeing from the violence in Ukraine is treated with dignity and respect.

And it wouldn't surprise me if those incidents were happening. I think some of them have even been captured on film. But the official policy is absolutely to welcome people who are coming out of Ukraine because missiles are raining down on their homes.

PFEIFFER: Will the U.S. be taking in refugees fleeing Ukraine?

POWER: You know, in all the conversations I had over the couple of days I was in Poland, I didn't meet any Ukrainians who were saying - you know, and they knew I was American - who were saying, I want to get to America. They were saying, I want to get a warm meal right now. I want to get my kids in a hot bath, and I want to get to Germany, or I'm going to live with the Ukrainian emigre diaspora community in Poland. We did meet some who had family members in the United States who were already in touch with those family members, and they were already requesting visas and so forth.

So, you know, certainly if the flow is big enough, I think every country in the world is going to be asking themselves, you know, how many Ukrainians want to come here rather than staying close to home? But right now, the European Union is prepared to absorb, you know, hundreds of thousands, certainly, and even, I think several million Ukrainians.

PFEIFFER: And I imagine that many of these Ukrainian refugees really would just like to go home if they feel safe enough to do so.

POWER: Well, that's why many are staying close, in the hopes that the Ukrainian army can rebuff Putin's forces or in the hopes that all of this unprecedented international unity, that that can affect Putin's calculus. I mean, that's - they're all praying, they're all hoping, but they're also making backup plans.

PFEIFFER: That's Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ambassador Power, thank you.

POWER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "LIONHEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.