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Opinion: Miracle workers at the border of Ukraine and Poland

Ukrainian refugees are fleeing, often with nowhere to go. Stories from the border give us hope in the volunteers waiting with arms outstretched to receive them

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Two polish soldiers stand outside amid tents and other people. One holds a bundled up baby and the other holds supplies like baby wipes, blankets, etc.

A Polish soldier holds a baby as refugees fleeing war in neighboring Ukraine arrive at the Medyka crossing border, Poland, Thursday, March 10, 2022. Volunteers at the borders of Ukraine are providing essential help to victims escaping the war.

Daniel Cole, Associated Press

Last week, Erica Glenn, Sharlee Glenn, Melissa Dalton-Bradford and I spent time in Poland, in Warsaw, Medyka, and Przemyśl. We also made our way to Shehyni in Ukraine, just across the border from Przemyśl, as part of the army of volunteers who came to help as Ukrainian refugees make their way to safety.

They come more slowly now, but still they come. Walking briskly, plodding slowly, pushing strollers or wheelchairs, dragging luggage, carrying bags — sometimes shoulder bags hold small dogs, some hands hold leashes for larger dogs. Some have been underground for 40 days or more. Unimaginable.

Eighty-plus days into the war between Russia and Ukraine and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says there are over 6.2 million refugees who have left the country. Another 6.5 million have been displaced within the country, according to the International Organisation for Migration. The vast majority are women and children, with some older men, as the mandatory draft for men ages 18-60 keeps most men in Ukraine.

It’s chaotic at the border, but less so than a month ago, or the month before that. Order is emerging out of 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 against each other on the border of Ukraine. Whether refugees walk across in Przemyśl or get off the train in Medyka, there are volunteers waiting to greet them.

The friendly “gauntlet” of tents just inside Poland provides everything: food and drink, candy, stuffed bears from the Utah nonprofit Dolls of Hope, diapers, wipes and feminine supplies. The organizations range from the very large — IOMUNICEFUNHCR and MSF  (Doctors Without Borders) — to the small — a one-woman “Women and Children” tent — and everything in between.

In the train station, signs are everywhere, welcoming refugees, offering free SIM cards, places to charge phones, food, toys for kids and help with figuring out the next steps. Some refugees come with a solid plan of where they are going — the United Kingdom, or Germany, or Italy, maybe. They have family and friends there and just need some help to get on the right train. Most, though, just needed to get to safety. That’s where the volunteers step in.

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

“Do you have any lactose-free formula?,” one IOM worker asked almost frantically. A driver headed into Ukraine said there were babies in need. The volunteers at Cubbie Nelson’s Women and Children’s tent did not have formula, but left and went in search of it. None at the World Central Kitchen tent, none at the medical tent. Finally, a volunteer with another organization said he would go and get some. He purchased a case of formula that went immediately into Ukraine, driven there by a fourth organization, SWAT (Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team) from the United Kingdom. Then, that volunteer went back and purchased five more cases. That formula will last 18 babies three months.

The 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 house Ukrainian refugees in the several Airbnb’s she owns, but she can’t get anyone to help match her with refugee families. She felt she had to do something, something meaningful, so she spent hours on the phone, contacting large international nongovernmental organizations to sign up as a volunteer. They were not taking volunteers, they told her, unless she had a highly specialized, very specific set of skills. Frustrated but undeterred, she kept looking until she found World Central Kitchen that 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 UK SWAT team, drive deep into Ukraine and take supplies to bunkers. Others provide luggage for refugees carrying their belongings in plastic bags. Some organizations provide food and care for pets, while others help with documents. Some help with essentials like washing machines in the overflowing orphanages in the western part of Ukraine. Some refugees need additional time before heading off to their next location and in Medyka, that often means going to Tesco. 

An abandoned grocery store turned temporary transit shelter, Tesco houses hundreds of refugees a night. Cots line the large open space in the back, while Word Central Kitchen has a kitchen/dining area set up to provide three hot meals per day, endless snacks, tea and coffee. Volunteers from many countries are there to help. World Central Kitchen has been everywhere our little group has gone, from large shelters, to train stations, to border crossings. The organization, started by professional chef José Andrés after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, says they have served 25 million meals to Ukrainian refugees since the war began.

Inside Tesco, the volunteer coordinator is currently a man from Norway. He started as a volunteer two months ago and will be there until the end of May. There are 50-100 volunteers at any given time, from all over eastern and western Europe, Vietnam, Brazil, Japan, Canada and the United States. Multilingual volunteers help refugees with next steps: train tickets and information on where to go once they reach their destinations. One group of volunteers staffs their resource center around the clock, working in 12-hour shifts. One week, they’re on days and the next, they’re on graveyards.

Erica, who has a doctorate in choral conducting and is an accomplished musician, played the 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, one elderly man rose from his wheelchair to put his hand over his heart, while tears streamed down his cheeks. His were not the only wet cheeks in the room.

When the war started on Feb. 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 one part of the answer. Look for the helpers. They’re everywhere.