The color and chaos of Medyka, the busiest border crossing in Poland
A lively community of international volunteers — some with Utah ties — aid workers and criminals have settled in to meet the thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war
Editor’s note: Deseret News journalist Kyle Dunphey and photojournalist Kristin Murphy traveled to the border of Ukraine in Poland and surrounding countries to view the impact of the refugee crisis. This is the second of several dispatches from the border.
An odd combination of smells hangs over the Ukraine-Poland border village of Medyka. There’s diesel fumes from the mileslong line of trucks idling at the port of entry, smoke from wood-burning fires, hot food from an aid tent run by United Sikhs, a steady cloud from hundreds of cigarettes and a wafting stench from rows of port-a-potties.
Except for the ones near Christie Nelson’s tent, because she cleans those herself.
On March 2, long before global giants like the United Nations and the Red Cross set up their sprawling, heated tents, Nelson, a California native now based out of London, was sitting in a small hut pushed up against the pedestrian gate at the Ukrainian border. Her mission was simple — offer a safe space for women to nurse babies, change diapers and receive tampons, pads and other hygiene products. And, use clean toilets. The cleanest in Medyka.
“She was there before the big boys got here,” says Hymie Dunn, of London, who teamed up with Nelson in the early days of the war.
Polish officials have consistently referred to Medyka as the busiest border crossing throughout the crisis, due largely in part to the railway that runs through the village. About three times each day, trains evacuating people from war-torn regions of eastern Ukraine cross through Medyka, the first stop just 10 miles west in the historic town of Przemsyl.
Now, as Russia enters the third month of its invasion, which has driven over 2.8 million refugees into Poland, a colorful tent city has risen in Medyka.
It’s drawn volunteers from around the world — and Utah — many of whom keep pushing back their return flights as the fulfillment of humanitarian work and the tightknit community sucks them back in.
It’s a front base for groups launching aid missions into Ukraine, soldiers looking to fight in the Foreign Legion, and “war tourists,” adrenaline-seeking foreigners hoping to get close to the front line.
It’s also attracted “volun-tourists” as some call them, social media influencers who view an afternoon serving food as a way to boost their Instagram clout.
It’s a hub for black market activity, and even human trafficking, with signs plastered around the gates warning refugees to not get into a car with strangers. “Trafficking human beings does not sleep. Be vigilant and careful,” reads one.
It’s the first taste, literally, of Poland for many refugees, who can get a hot cup of soup, pizza, chicken shawarma or sandwiches, and rest in a heated tent before embarking on their next journey.
Nelson has been there to watch it all grow.
“It totally exploded. It’s been cool to be a part of,” she said.
A peculiar sight awaits refugees as they drag their luggage down the long, cobblestone walkway towards the gate marking the Polish border — the Easter Bunny.
“Slava Ukraini,” (“glory to Ukraine,” in English) shouts the volunteer, wearing a bright pink bunny costume, greeting kids, women and old men alike as they officially enter Poland.
Some laugh, some yell back “Heróyam sláva!” or “glory to the heroes.” Others simply flash a weary grin, or keep their head down, as they nervously enter the foreign country that will likely be home for the foreseeable future.
Once through the gate, refugees walk down what many volunteers now call “the boulevard.” It has the feeling of a busy, yet somber, open air market — there’s hot food, people shouting and music blaring. Children sometimes dance while paramedics hurriedly pass by.
Bags hang under the eyes of most volunteers. Tears accompany many interviews.
“It’s a hard day,” said Nelson the morning following a deadly missile strike in Lviv, just 50 miles away. She watched as a volunteer pushed an elderly man, sobbing, in a wheelchair past her tent. “There’s a lot of tears today.”
Tents line the boulevard — the large, Red Cross tent is the first many refugees see, followed immediately by Nelson’s station for mothers and babies.
Then there are international groups like the World Central Kitchen, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and Rescuers Without Borders. There are faith groups like the United Sikhs, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and sometimes Jehovah’s Witnesses. Orange Phones is there, offering free mobile plans, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare has a sprawling blue tent where refugees can bring their pets.
There are lesser known groups, too, that despite having a smaller budget still leave their mark on Medyka.
The refugees wind through the maze of NGOs, passing a food truck before the walkway arcs left, ending at a bus stop. There, a line of Ukrainians stacks up as people look for the bus, call a taxi, or wait for a friend. For many, it marks the end of their escape from Ukraine, and the beginning of the unknown.
A warm smile, cup of soup and a new stroller
Nelson, like most volunteers, wears a neon vest over her green parka as she stands under her tent, seeking refuge from the afternoon rain. She greets everyone that passes — but she has a keen eye for young mothers, like Anastasia Matsura, who pushed her 2-month-old baby across the border in a stroller with a broken wheel, dragging it across the cobblestone as she passed Nelson’s tent.
After some gentle persuasion, Matsura walked over to the tent, perusing the hygiene products before taking some diapers. Nelson ducked away, emerging seconds later with a brand-new stroller. A volunteer picked up Matsura’s broken stroller and tossed it into a dumpster.
“They’re crossing into this unknown land, and greeting them with a smile and a hug goes a long way,” says Nelson, standing beside Matsura as she gawked at her new stroller.
A marriage and family therapist now based out of London, Nelson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was coming home from church in late February when she saw a woman and her children getting on the subway with huge bags of aid for Ukraine. She gave the family a ride to an apartment on the outskirts of the city, where Polish builders were organizing a convoy of vans to deliver donations to refugees fleeing the days-old war.
“Do you need a driver? I’m from a big family, I know how to drive vans,” said Nelson, who grew up in California with nine siblings.
Less than 24 hours later she was off on the 1,200-mile journey through Europe. The coordinator paired her with Dunn, of London.
And when she arrived in Medyka, she knew she had to stay. Small groups of volunteers were trying to stay warm in their cars during the brutally cold Polish winter. The workers even burned a large donation of summer clothes to keep themselves and the refugees warm — “It was just useless aid, somebody’s scrappy old T-shirts. Not very well thought out,” says Dunn, who eventually returned to Medyka to work in Nelson’s tent.
Long lines of refugees trying to get through the Ukrainian side would span four days, as the border crossing at times fielded up to 11,000 people daily. That begged the question — after four days, what is the biggest need for the refugees, of whom 90% are women and children?
“They needed a diaper changed, they needed a pad changed if they’re bleeding, and they needed to nurse their baby,” Nelson said. “So that’s what we do here, it’s immediate services for women and babies.”
Sometimes she runs across the border into Ukraine, delivering art supplies, diapers, female hygiene products — even washing machines — to a school that has been turned into an impromptu orphanage. Still, it’s hard to break Nelson away from her tent, which she refers to, ironically, as “my baby.”
The dark side of Medyka
Despite being flooded by altruistic volunteers, the tent city has an underbelly. Reports of human trafficking have long plagued Medyka, and the surrounding refugee camps — at a grocery store-turned-refugee center just 10 miles away, police stop every vehicle that leaves the parking lot.
“Among all the solidarity, there are some people that don’t have goodwill behind their acts,” said Olga Sarrado, a spokesperson for the UNHCR. “In the midst of this chaos, traffickers and smugglers, they just pop up.”
Some of the volunteers have sinister intentions — reports of a suspected pedophile working for one of the NGOs had many in Medyka on edge. Others return in the morning to find their tents looted, and several ex-Polish special forces soldiers hired as security can be seen strolling the boulevard.
There’s even rumors of an undercover Interpol officer lurking around the camp, according to several volunteers that spoke to the Deseret News.
Organized crime has swooped in, taking advantage of the volunteers’ generosity and reselling the free humanitarian aid, whether it’s food, clothing or supplies. They even have a storage locker in Medyka that’s “well documented,” according to one volunteer.
It’s so pervasive that the volunteers are considering making a “most wanted” poster for the repeat offenders.
‘All I could think about was this place’
The volunteers in Medyka come from around the world, and walking down the boulevard it’s common to hear a mosaic of languages, whether it’s Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, English, Spanish, German, Hebrew and Chinese.
There’s Jim from Australia, a former park ranger who was traveling across Europe and had been in Ukraine several months before the war started. He changed plans, moved to the border to help get his friends out, and has been dishing out pizzas since.
There’s Khrystyna, a Boston-based engineer who was born in Ukraine and is volunteering for the Red Cross.
There’s Olga, a social worker from Kyiv who was on vacation visiting friends in Krakow in late February when the invasion started. “I had no idea this was going to happen,” she said, standing beneath the UNHCR tent where she now volunteers.
And there’s De Tapia, who originally flew out to volunteer with her partner in late March. They stayed a week, then flew back to Salt Lake City.
“All I could think about was this place,” she said. “You just can’t forget what you see here. It’s so emotional ... my heart was still here.”
She returned to her job at Cactus and Tropicals in Millcreek, going through the motions for another week before booking a ticket back to Poland. Now, you can catch her working for the Scottish-based charity Siobhan’s Trust, blowing bubbles at children passing through, or flashing a warm smile as she offers them pizza.
“Giving them soup, it’s like a hug. It’s a warm hug,” she says.
De Tapia, who once had a career in alternative fuel infrastructure, gave up the comforts of her Salt Lake City home to live in a musty camper on the edges of the boulevard.
A shower is a rare luxury. She has yet to do laundry, despite only having a week’s worth of clothes nearly a month into her stay. And on her birthday, she worked a 12-hour night shift, keeping the soup warm and giving hot tea to refugees.
“The most important thing is recognizing people’s humanity,” De Tapia says. Like many volunteers, tears start to well as she talks.
“A lot of people come across and they say they’ve been treated like animals. And I think it’s so important ... that we relate to them as people. And we let them know that they’re safe and people care.”
The community that De Tapia fell in love with is changing. There’s far fewer refugees, for one — at times there are noticeably more volunteers than Ukrainians, an overwhelming reality for some newcomers who are swarmed by well meaning but overeager volunteers the second they cross into Poland.
And the volunteers come and go, many of them now burned out from long days and emotionally grueling work.
“I could stay, but everything is changing here,” she said as she cleaned out her camper van, getting ready to return it to the rental agency before moving into a small, shared-room apartment nearby.
“Now that there’s so few refugees here, it’s almost like our resources need to be elsewhere,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version stated the United Sikhs were cooking chicken. Chicken is not part of the United Sikhs community food program.