Ex Pasco, WA, Mayor Matt Watkins volunteers at Ukrainian border

The former mayor of Pasco’s around-the-world adventure has taken him to Poland, where he helps feed refugees near the Ukrainian border.

“I don’t know exactly what to expect from this experience, but I keep my eyes and heart open,” Matt Watkins said on his Facebook page, where he shares information about the impacts of war in Ukraine.

He volunteers in Przemyśl, a town of the Richland population, about 13 km from the Ukrainian border.

“Imagine John Dam Plaza and downtown Richland full of Ukrainians,” he posted on Facebook Wednesday after his first day in the city.

“People with yellow vests everywhere, tents set up as heated shelters, restaurants open longer and blue lights bathing everything from a few police cars parked around the area directing a perpetual traffic jam from a border town suddenly pushed to the center literal of the busiest border in the world,” he said.

He checked out the food warehouse where he would be volunteering, in preparation for his first official day there.

Watkins served on the Pasco City Council for 16 years, including 10 as mayor, before announcing he was leaving in late 2019 to travel the world.

He was in Budapest, Hungary on Saturday when he received an email from World Central Cuisinean organization he had seen feeding the needy in Haiti, Puerto Rico and the United States.

“Their mission is simple – to use the power of a hot meal to feed people in times of crisis,” Watkins said.

The nonprofit now has warehouses to feed people on the borders of Poland, Hungary and Romania and even inside Ukraine, he said.

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Former Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins sent his best wishes to Vietnam’s Tri-Citians in 2020.

Watkins didn’t hesitate to volunteer and was assigned to a “general helping hand” squad in Poland.

“I’m on the edge of my comfort zone on this one and think I’m finding the balance between reasonable risk and the right thing to do,” he posted before leaving Budapest, assuring his friends that he had no intention of entering Ukraine.

He took a train from Budapest through Slovakia and the Czech Republic to Krakow, Poland.

From Hungary to Poland

“I’m in now!” he posted on Monday. “My train this morning from Budapest was half full of Ukrainians. Through Slovakia 3/4 full, and Czechia there are people standing in the aisles. Many are heading to Poland to reunite with families who exited at another border.

The mood on the train was “dark and muted”, he said, but there were moments of warmth and laughter.

A refugee offered him bread and sausages to snack on as the train headed for Poland.

She was from the south of Kiev, Ukraine, and had traveled south through Moldova, west through Romania and Hungary and was now heading north with her two daughters to meet her husband in Estonia.

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Former Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins volunteers to help refugees just across the border from Ukraine in Przemyśl, Poland. Google Maps

“I think it’s like trying to get from Seattle to San Francisco and not being able to go through Oregon or southern Idaho to get there,” he said.

Watkins said he was stunned by his food offer and told an English speaker in the cabin he didn’t know what to do.

“You are all refugees and you offer me food? he said.

The woman smiled and assured him through her impromptu interpreter that she wanted to share her family’s food with him.

Later, Watkins thought the dining car might be less crowded than his cabin and offered his seat to those sitting on the floor as he left for lunch, lingering while the train was stopped for almost one hour.

This generosity almost left him in the lurch.

His car was gone when he tried to get back to his seat and his backpack. He finally found the car, moved to another track.

“Coming back to the car, my traveling compatriots cheered,” Watkins said. “They looked at me the whole time and said they tried to wave me down and swore they were 30 seconds away from picking me up.”

World Central Cuisine

Poland is the 36th country he has visited, and he switched to a bus in Krakow to reach Przemyśl. He was one of three people on board to travel near the Ukrainian border.

Initially, he stays in an Airbnb rental in Przemyśl.

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The train station in Przemyśl, Poland, the town where former Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins volunteered to help feed refugees from Ukraine. Matt Watkins Courtesy picture

Prior to his arrival, he received a message asking if he was planning to stay in the studio he had booked or if he was one of the thousands of people who had booked rooms in order to transfer money to help cope with the crisis.

If so, the Przemyśl room could be used for people evacuating from war zones, he was told.

Watkins, as a solo traveler, plans to find other accommodations to release the Airbnb rental as soon as possible, he said. He had booked the Airbnb for only three nights.

He arrived in Przemyśl early enough to go to the food bank the day before he was to start volunteering there.

He figured, based on his experience racing seaplanes at Columbia Park in the Tri-Cities, that if he showed up an afternoon early he could offer help.

He spent about four hours there, emptying trash cans, moving and adjusting the height of shelves, wiping down tables and walking around the warehouse.

He saw pallets of fresh apples, a base of chicken stew, rice and potatoes.

Outside the World Central Kitchen warehouse, where former Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins volunteers to help feed Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl, Poland. Matt Watkins Courtesy picture

Industrial-scale ovens relied on pallets. Those pots and three propane-powered soup pots measuring eight feet in diameter were ready for the scale-up of food operations, he said.

His last messages date from his departure for his first day of volunteering.

The “good people” of Poland

He said the refugees were getting off the buses in 25 degree weather.

“TV journalists are enlightened by making remotes in different languages,” he posted. “SIM cards are the currency of the kingdom. The Poles came from distant cities and dropped off spare strollers. The statues of the popes have eternal candles and fresh flowers. They are good people here.

To learn more about his experiences in Przemyśl and those he meets, go to facebook.com/mattcwatkins. Donations to World Central Kitchen can be made at wck.org

This story was originally published March 11, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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Senior Writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She was a journalist for over 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.

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