American Family in Poland Hosts Dozens of Ukrainian Refugees: 'Our Job Is to Make Them Feel Safe'

OT and Julie Benson, who moved from Detroit to Krakow days before Russia invaded, say their five children are learning what it means to be of service

Ukraine refugees Poland
Ukraine refugees Poland. Photo: Omar Marques/Getty

An American couple living in Krakow, Poland, with five of their eight children have opened their new home to dozens of refugees forced to leave theirs.

OT and Julie Benson moved from suburban Detroit to Poland in February seeking adventure for their family, ABC News reports. But when Russia launched a war in neighboring Ukraine, instantly sparking a refugee crisis in Europe, the Bensons decided they could help by providing a place to stay for people whose lives had been turned upside down.

"When you're staring [at] refugees who have been traveling for many days, and they have nothing but the clothes on their backs, you don't really make a plan, you just say yes, and I'll figure it out," OT told ABC News.

So far, the Bensons say, they have welcomed at least nine families into their home for as little as a night but up to several weeks, according to the report which aired on Good Morning America on Tuesday.

"Our job is trying to make them feel safe," Julie said. "Make them feel like they're with us, that they are like at their home. So that's what we're trying to do. And every day see them happy, smiling — I think that is the best reward."

More than 4.5 million refugees — 90 percent of them women and children — have left Ukraine since the war began, according to the United Nations. The vast majority have entered Poland. Millions more have been displaced inside the country as Russia's invasion continues.

Ukraine refugees Poland
Omar Marques/Getty

At one point, the Benson's Krakow home was packed with 21 people, per ABC News. OT and Julie's daughter Leo was nervous at first "because our family is really big," she said.

"But then we had our first group of people stay with us, and they were so amazing and so kind and genuine," she continued. "It was really humbling to see them. I don't even know how I can express it into better words. I just love them so much."

The opportunity to be of service and make a difference for people in extremely difficult circumstances was a valuable lesson for the Benson kids, OT believes.

"I would say certainly when living in the U.S., you feel disconnected with this kind of thing," he said. "I think they come quickly to the realization that this is a different place, a different time, and it makes you grow up a lot faster, which for me, as a dad, I'm glad that they can do that, that they can see that and I want them to understand what it means to serve others and help others."

Oksana Tymchenko and her three daughters were some of the refugees staying with the Bensons. She said her girls miss their father, who stayed behind to fight in Ukraine, but they are happy and safe with the Bensons, who she said treat her children like their own.

"This family is great," she said, according to ABC News. "I'd never expected they'd receive us like that."

As the girls play cards, eat ice cream, watch cartoons and walk outdoors with their hosts, life can seem relatively normal — even if they rely on Google Translate at times to communicate.

But as the war rages across the border, those who fled can be reminded of the violence they witnessed and frightened about friends and family who stayed behind.

"We had boys that would be here like in the backyard playing and they would see a plane fly over and react in very scary ways, screaming," OT said. "The other kids would say, 'Rocket, rocket' — it looks like something they saw a few weeks ago."

A child wrapped in a blanket sits on luggage while waiting to be relocated from the temporary shelter for refugees in a former shopping center between the Ukrainian border and the Polish city of Przemysl, in Poland
Ukrainian refugees. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but scores of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children, though the actual number of deaths is difficult to determine.

The invasion, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces amassed in the region, various countries are offering aid or military support to the resistance. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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