How can volunteers help at the Ukrainian border in Poland? | Opinion

Last week Erica Glenn, Sharlee Glenn, Melissa Dalton-Bradford and I spent time in Poland, in Warsaw, Medyka and Przemyśl. We also traveled to Shehyni in Ukraine, just across the border from Przemyśl, as part of the volunteer army that came to help Ukrainian refugees to safety.

They come slower now, but they come anyway. Walk quickly, walk slowly, push strollers or wheelchairs, drag luggage, carry bags – sometimes shoulder bags hold small dogs, some hands hold leashes for larger dogs. Some have been underground for 40 days or more. Unimaginable.

More than eighty days after the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says there are more 6.2 million refugees who left the country. Another 6.5 million have been displaced in the country, according to the International Organization for Migration. The vast majority are women and children, with a few older men, as compulsory conscription for men between the ages of 18 and 60 keeps most men in Ukraine.

It’s chaotic at the border, but less than a month ago, or the month before. Order emerges from chaos at the border crossing between Przemyśl in Poland and Shehyni in Ukraine. The spirit of camaraderie and cooperation is palpable in Przemyśl and Medyka, two towns nestled close together on the border with Ukraine. Whether the refugees are crossing at Przemyśl or getting off the train at Medyka, volunteers are waiting to welcome them.

The friendly “glove” of tents just inside Poland provides everything: food and drink, candy, Utah nonprofit teddy bears dolls of hope, diapers, wipes and feminine supplies. Organizations range from very large — IOM, UNICEF, UNHCR and MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) — at the smallest — a “Women and Children” tent for one woman — and everything else.

In the station, signs are everywhere, welcoming refugees, offering free SIM cards, places to recharge phones, food, toys for children and help in figuring out next steps. Some refugees arrive with a solid plan of their destination – the UK, Germany or Italy, perhaps. They have family and friends there and just need help getting on the right train. Most, however, just needed to get to safety. This is where volunteers come in.

At a single border crossing, there are hundreds of volunteers from all over the world. Speaking Polish, Ukrainian or Russian is helpful, but not entirely necessary. Between Google Translate and the help of other volunteers, communication is established.

“Do you have a lactose-free formula?” an IOM employee asked almost frantically. A driver heading to Ukraine said there were babies in need. The volunteers at Cubbie Nelson’s women’s and children’s tent had no formula, but left and went looking for her. None at World Central Cuisine tent, none at the medical tent. Finally, a volunteer from another organization said he would get some. He bought a case of infant formula which immediately went to Ukraine, driven there by a fourth organization, CRUSH (Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team) of the United Kingdom. Then this volunteer went back and bought five more crates. This formula will last 18 babies three months.

Volunteers are there to do what they can to help — and there are almost as many ways to help as there are volunteers. Michele from Colorado wants to host Ukrainian refugees in the several Airbnbs she owns, but she can’t find anyone to help connect her with refugee families. She felt she had to do something, something meaningful, so she spent hours on the phone, contacting major international non-governmental organizations to sign up as a volunteer. They weren’t taking volunteers, they told her, unless she had a highly specialized and very specific skill set. Frustrated but not discouraged, she kept looking until she found World Central Kitchen, which welcomes volunteers. Michele came for about a week and said she was going home to “spread the word” about the refugees she had met and their needs.

Some volunteers, like the British SWAT team, go deep into Ukraine and bring supplies to the bunkers. Others provide luggage to refugees carrying their belongings in plastic bags. Some organizations provide food and care for pets, while others help with documentation. Some help with essentials like washing machines in overwhelmed orphanages in western Ukraine. Some refugees need more time before leaving for their next location and in Medyka this often means going to Tesco.

An abandoned grocery store turned into a temporary transit shelter, Tesco houses hundreds of refugees a night. Baby cots line the large open space aft, while Word Central Kitchen has a kitchen/diner set up to provide three hot meals a day, endless snacks, tea and coffee. Volunteers from many countries are there to help you. World Central Kitchen has been everywhere our small group has gone, from large shelters to train stations to border crossings. The organization, launched by professional chef José Andrés after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, claims to have served 25 million meals to Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war.

Inside Tesco, the volunteer coordinator is currently a Norwegian. He started as a volunteer two months ago and will remain there until the end of May. There are 50-100 volunteers at any one time, from all over Eastern and Western Europe, Vietnam, Brazil, Japan, Canada and the United States. Multilingual volunteers help refugees with the next steps: train tickets and information on where to go once they arrive at their destination. A group of volunteers run their resource center around the clock, working 12-hour shifts. One week they are on days and the next they are on cemeteries.

Erica, a PhD in choir conducting and an accomplished musician, played piano and sang for the residents of Tesco for an hour. Children stood by the piano and helped sing songs they knew. When she played and sang the Ukrainian national anthem, an elderly man rose from his wheelchair to put his hand on his heart, while tears rolled down his cheeks. Her cheeks weren’t the only wet ones in the room.

When war broke out on February 24, I wondered what the world would do to show that “Never Again” was more than just a pithy slogan. Last week in Poland and Ukraine, I think I saw part of the answer. Look for helpers. They are everywhere.

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