11 days on the Polish border with Ukraine

Two weeks ago, an American friend posted an appeal saying there was urgent need for volunteers in Medyka, a small village on the Polish border with Ukraine. A few days later, my husband Colin and I were on a plane to Poland. I had decided that I was not going to have expectations. I was going into the unknown. I don’t really know much about the history, politics or culture of the region. I don’t know anything about war beyond what I’ve seen in the media. I have never done relief work. But if someone thought I could be helpful, I really wanted to help.

The following 11 days were an enlightening experience, more regarding the functionings of relief agencies than anything else. By the time we arrived at the camp in Medyka, the movement of refugees out of Ukraine through Poland had slowed. By the time we left 11 days later, there appeared to be more Ukrainians returning home through that specific border (there are others) than there were leaving it.

The first impressions that began to form in my head were about the volunteers. These were people who had left their safe homes, sometimes secure jobs, and families to go somewhere potentially dangerous. Let’s be honest. You have to be a certain kind of crazy, or let’s say eccentric or unique, to do that. One of my first thoughts was that it might be the crazies who do everything they can to destroy the world, but it’s also the crazies, other ones, who do everything they can to save it.

Every single volunteer I met was an inspiration in their own way. Even so, I found myself not getting along with or even liking some of them. Imagine putting a group of crazy people (I include myself in this group), all seeing themselves as having leadership skills (you have to see yourself that way to go to a place like that), and then unleashing them on the world. It can be kind of intense.

This was a motley crew from all over the world. From the stories I heard, it seems that as soon as the war started, individuals from every corner couldn’t just sit on their couch and watch what was happening on TV. With no real plan, they converged onto the border to figure out what they could do to help. They slept in their cars and spent their days figuring out what people needed and how to get it.

Then the aid agencies came. The smaller aid agencies seem to be the ones that can most quickly mobilize. These guys gathered all kinds of donations in a short amount of time, got into their vans, and arrived. They came with tents, set them up as little store fronts and began serving refugees warm clothing, supplies (mainly toiletries, diapers and feminine products), information and food as they arrived into Medyka and before they headed onto their next destination. Medical tents were also set up and eventually an animal rescue organization moved in. In many cases, the people who arrived first, many of them young and inexperienced but with more motivation to help than the world can hold, hooked up with the relief agencies and began to help and then to run their operations in Medyka. In other cases, they remained independent, feeling they could move more easily and help more effectively that way. Eventually, the larger relief and aid organizations arrived. By the time I got to the camp, it was festival city, with many tents large and small lining the street that leaves the border crossing. Volunteers in high vis jackets were everywhere. There were so many that it was initially difficult to see the refugees. The refugees can only ever trickle out of the border crossing. They often had to wait for hours and hours on the Ukrainian side to get processed out of their country and into Poland. So every refugee family that arrived always had one or more volunteers to help them out.

It’s difficult to find a place for yourself in the midst of all that. There are already too many volunteers helping out. But I had arrived, I had committed, and I needed to do something useful. My American friend, who was working with one of the smaller NGOs, asked me to help organize the donated clothes that were laid out in a tent along the road. I eventually made this my mission.

I learned a lot from this exercise.

Most importantly, people donate clothes without thinking about what they are donating. Once I am home, I am going to have a total rethink about how I donate clothes in the future.

The Ukrainians are a very proud people. I suppose most people are. Let me give you an example that made me very emotional. A pregnant Ukrainian mother arrived one day with her two daughters, one about eight years old and the other about 12. Another Ukrainian refugee, Anastasia, was working on the other side of the tent we were in, helping out with the refugees. I trusted her judgment completely. She had told me that this family was in real need and to please find them good shoes and clothes for the girls. So I sorted through what we had with the mother and found things that the girls liked. The two girls were so calm and collected, saying thank you to me in English ever-so-politely. The mother then said something in Ukrainian or Russian that I did not understand. So I took her to Anastasia, who told me that she was asking if it was ok if they left their coats with me to donate to other refugees in need. I held back my tears for as long as I could, but I eventually rushed away to cry on the shoulder of another colleague. We were, at that same point in time, having to pack up tables that the refugees were using in our tent to relax and eat. Our organization had not managed to send the money that was needed to rent them for another month. We had not even been told about this beforehand so that we could have enough time to pull together some money of our own to handle this. This had upset me immensely. The organization did get us new tables the following day. The problem was solved. But that momentary contradiction  – of us, the ones there to help, taking something away, while at the same time being given something by the ones that needed help – it felt too much.

Those coats were going to help someone arriving on a cold day. They were good coats. Not everything that arrived in the bags and boxes that people sent over were good or useful. And there was so much of it. More than we could possibly sift through or find the space to display for people to look for what they actually wanted or needed. There were clothes with stains and holes, dresses more suitable for a nightclub than a refugee crisis and shoes with heels. Because we had limited space, we could only take out a few bags of clothes at a time for display. The rest of the bags had to be stored in a tent that was exposed to damp and mice, so some of the good clothes became unsuitable for use. There were just too many. People’s hearts were in the right place. People had spent effort, time and money to put these donations together and get them to the border with Ukraine. But there was no way to process them all.

Is it ok to guess what people need and to throw them into big bags and send them somewhere in the world? It just seemed like so much waste.

The camp had become so much of a festival city, with so many freebies, that the refugees were not the only ones stopping by. As the days went on, I would notice familiar faces coming day after day to sort through the clothes and see if we had anything new to take. We called them the shoppers, and we guessed they were probably from Poland. We welcomed them. Someone had to take all these clothes. Where else were they going to go? I eventually decided to organize the clothes in two separate places: an obvious one for the shoppers and another more hidden place that the volunteers knew about so they could bring refugees in need.

At a personal level, I’m going to research clothes recycling where I live. This might be a more sustainable way to “get rid of” clothes I don’t wear anymore. And I’ll probably only donate my really good clothes to charities in the future, while also donating the right kinds of clothes to the right kinds of charities.

But at a more general level, I was disappointed in the lack of coordination between the various NGOs. There were many NGOs serving food and many NGOs offering the same supplies and way too many of us volunteers. Why weren’t they all working together so that one NGO offered this and another offered that and they all had only the number of volunteers necessary to run all operations together?

It’s not a straightforward thing. I spoke with a volunteer working with another organization that was there. He explained to me that, between crises, their NGO runs on a very limited budget with a very small number of volunteers. But then, when a crisis hits, they are flooded with different kinds of donations without the human resources to deal with them all. I assume also there might not necessarily be the need for it all. He said there was definitely a large amount of waste. I got the impression that it was simply the way of this sort of work, however unfortunate that is, that for every small amount of aid that actually reaches someone in need and is useful to them, there is also a lot of waste. It’s such a huge shame. But perhaps this is partially the result of our incredibly wasteful lifestyles in our own homes.

During my 11 days in Medyka, I crossed twice to the Ukrainian side of the border with my colleagues to serve warm food to the hundreds of refugees that were standing in eight-hour-long queues, waiting their turn to pass through border control. The fact that I didn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian (a language much more common in Ukraine than I had originally understood it to be), was a real hindrance. I used body language to communicate. My younger colleagues insisted on using Google Translate. Being older, I thought that was just a waste of time. It took so long to speak into the app, get them to listen to the translation, ask them to respond, listen to the translation, only in the end to figure out what they were asking. I found that grunts and elaborate hand gestures did the job just fine. But it was difficult to get their stories that way. I always wondered what part of Ukraine they had come from, how they got here, what they had been through. So many of them looked incredibly tired. But they would stand in line so calmly and patiently. As an Egyptian, I didn’t understand that. Egyptians hate queues (I generalize but it’s true). And if you put enough Egyptians in a queue for a long enough amount of time, people will try to jump the queue and a fist fight WILL break out. It’s sort of how we entertain ourselves when we get incredibly bored. But I never saw that with the Ukrainians. Maybe it was because they had all just been through something horrible together and they knew they had to be patient together to get through this next hardship.

I did get to learn one woman’s story directly from her. We were serving rice and dhal on a very cold afternoon. The old woman came up to us and was obviously thanking us profusely for what we were doing. Being of a certain age, she also did not think it necessary to resort to Google Translate to communicate with me. With both of us communicating via body language and signals, I learned she was 80 years old, had come from one of the cities in eastern Ukraine where missiles were dropping out of the sky while she was there, and that she had to walk a long way to get out and arrive where she was now. This 80-year-old woman was so stoic. She was strong, not fragile in any way. She did not need help. She was standing with her family and not even looking for a chair to rest her back, like I do quite often during the day. She continued to thank us and I gave her a huge hug.

The volunteers had priority at the Ukrainian and Polish border crossings. We didn’t have to wait in the eight hour queue. We could cut the queue and go to the front and wait just a little bit for the border security guards to wave to us to get our passports stamped. It felt wrong in some ways, but we took advantage of it anyway. After those two times, I decided I would only cross to the other side if I was certain there was a real need and there weren’t enough people to fulfill it. I never crossed again.

But others were and are. Many organizations are now considering whether to move their operations into the country in order to help the internally displaced. Some people are wondering if they can play a role in helping to rebuild the country. Yet others, mainly ex-army guys from one country or another, are going in to fight in the east or somehow get ahold of weapons that they smuggle in. And I suspect there is a certain amount of war tourism going on as well.

I met two kinds of ex-military guys in Medyka. Some of these men have incredible organizational skills. They know how to run operations effectively and efficiently. They don’t mind doing the menial labour that is necessary for this sort of thing. And they know exactly how to show leadership, by doing and not by ordering around. They are calm, kind and gentle souls.

But there’s also another kind, mostly quite young. These are the excitable kind, who really need the adventure. They trained to fight and once out of the military seem to have felt that their skillset wasn’t being properly used. The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have hit several chords with these guys. They need to do something. They need to help. They need adventure. They have skills. They may have been feeling aimless but now they have a clear goal. These guys are risk-takers. I worry about them and their safety. I also worry that instead of being helpful, that they will be the opposite. But having spoken with or hearing about a few, I can almost understand why they are there. It is clear that not enough is being done in many (most?) countries to make sure that their veterans are taken care of and feel like they are useful members of their societies.

I leave the Polish border with many thoughts in my head. It will take me a long time to process the experience. But I know I would like to be involved in relief work again, despite the many downsides I saw during this trip. Whatever negative aspects there are, and there are many, some help still does reach the people most in need. I hope to do relief work again, but I will be sure to do it after receiving some training and as part of an organization that knows what it is doing and has somehow calculated where the real need lies.

I’ll end with a story about a young man who I was very impressed with.

Reda El Sayed is a 33-year-old Egyptian with a little business of his own in Italy. When the war broke out, he began hearing the media reports of non-Ukrainians stuck in the country, unable to get out. He was one of the small number of individuals who just got up and went to Medyka, with no precise plan in mind. He was going to find a way to help Egyptians and Arabs living in Ukraine get out. Using social media, developing contacts with the Egyptian Embassy in Poland, and later developing a relationship with the Egyptian Red Crescent, he has managed to help many families get the documentation they need to get across the border, find accommodation in Poland, and then move on to wherever they needed to go. He has paid for so much of the work he has done out of his own pocket. He was one of the first people to get to Medyka to help. He was still there as I left. He will stay as long as there are still people who need his help and as long as he can afford to.

So the help is there where it is needed. There might be too much of it. It might not be well-coordinated. Organizations might not run efficiently. The people running the operations on the ground might not be the most experienced. People there might get on each other’s nerves to the point that they shut each other down. It might appear that there’s little to no real direction. Organizations may be using the situation as an opportunity to do more fundraising and to get some media attention. They might exaggerate or embellish what they are doing and achieving.

But amongst all that, people are being helped. The system can and should be significantly improved for helping refugees here and elsewhere in the world. But at least there’s something.

I hope this experience will help me grow as a person. I have learned that I am not very tolerant of “office politics” or of people I don’t like. I have learned that I need to be more patient with and accepting of other humans. I have been incredibly inspired by some people and immensely frustrated with others.

But we are all human. We are imperfect and so are our systems. And I cannot help but think that as long as the crazies who want to save the world continue to be their crazy selves, no matter what other intentions they have, we’ll be all right, no matter what other shit the world finds itself in from time to time.

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