How it all began for me, Russell Bowman
Today was a very interesting a humbling day. We met up with our “guide” Artur at 1300 when he picked us up. He’s an immediately warm and charismatic individual, full of historic knowledge. In the car he told us all about the history of Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Half of which I cannot remember right now as the day has been incredibly full. Maybe I can get Arthur to write it all down for the website another time.
In the car he explained who he was, a tour guide by trade but for the past 3 weeks he has been pure refugee support. Out of his own pocket too. His contacts have grown in those 3 weeks and now it seems like he is constantly busy helping different people. His phone hardly stopped all day.
He then asked for our story, why we are here, what we want to do here? Etc. We said that for the 1st few days we wanted to get a handle on the situation to understand what help is needed and where we can best assist with fundraising. After that we hoped that we can do more hands on helping with one of the many charities that are here. Arthur informed us that actually right now they have many volunteers at the border and we might find ourselves better placed with fundraising. With this in mind he decided the best thing to do was take us around the refugee receptions and other links in the supply chain.
The journey took around 3 hours in total and we passed many vehicles packed with boxes that were clearly taking supplies to the border and beyond. On the way we took a slight diversion to drive past a US military base that is opposite the closest international airport to the border. There were anti-aircraft units stationed all up the runway because Poland fear they could be next and that this airport will be the first hit if they are. Honestly it was like something out of a movie that I never thought I’d see in Europe in my lifetime. It made me uneasy & this wouldn’t be the last time I felt this today.
Our 1st stop was a refugee reception near the Ukrainian border in Korczowa. A big trade centre warehouse that had to be converted to house the stranded. There was a heavy police presence and I wasn’t sure it was OK to be there but Artur seemed to think it was fine. We parked up and had a wander around. It felt surreal being there without a purpose, like being a tourist in a war, it made me feel sort of sick. The things I saw though were heart warming. It was not nearly as busy as I expected but that’s because this war is 3 weeks old now and the organisation of people is clearly working. There were many empty beds piled high but easily at least 1000 people were still sheltering here, waiting to move onwards to major city's of other countries. Outside were food stands manned by charities and all types of people milling around. Some happy, some sad, almost all looking tired. Upon walking into the centre the 1st thing I saw were children playing in a makeshift playground that had been marked out. They were in stark contrast to the tired adults around them. We took a brief walk around, not daring to take any photos out of respect. It was surreal to see so many people sheltering next to a bathroom showroom. Such an unusual situation in an ostensibly normal place. I couldn't make eye contact with the adults, I felt guilty just being there but at least the children seemed happy enough, considering. When we left I did feel quite sick at the helplessness and anxiety mixed up inside me.
The next stop was a reception for animals in Medyka, a few dozen storage containers retrofitted to house animals of different kinds. We didn’t stay long but did see one dog that had to be taken out of the container because he was claustrophobic and were informed that the site was in quarantine for 30 days due to some K9 infection that had gotten in. These were’nt the nicest of conditions for these animals but it was definitely better than where they had come from. I’d never even considered the need for an animal reception until now.
Our next stop was a school that had been converted into a supply warehouse that Artur was very well acquainted with as most of the supplies he has provided came through here. The shear scale of the operation was insane! He took us from room to room all packed full of supplies of all varieties. A young man called Phil had a chat with us and was explaining how they need canned food & medical supplies more than anything. He said peoples generosity has been amazing but sometimes they do not think. One woman brought a cake to go across the border, a sweet thought but not very practical
As we wandered through the ex-school we went through a door and were greeted by a much different sight. A lady in a wheelchair with her foot missed and bandaged. Apparently this place also doubled up as a reception for over night refugees looking to rest before moving on but again it was not busy, only 20 people had turned up this day. Again Arthur puts this down to good organisation to move them on and also most who will leave did so in the previous weeks. That said Phil told us something that chilled my bones. Right now they can manage, they need more food but the flow of people is slowing. I just pray it stays this way or ends, 3 million have fled Ukraine so far but if Kyiv falls that number could easily rise to 15-18 million and then nowhere will be able to cope.
We sat in the reception area for a little while, taking in the sadness of what is happening all over Europe and mostly Ukraine. I couldn’t speak, nothing felt right, things were being put into perspective and it just felt wrong. On our way out a fireman tried to tell Arthur off for bringing in tourists so he had to explain we were volunteers and a general who knew Arthur came and calmed things down. After leaving Arthur fretted that these things happen because everyone is tired. Even those who have chosen to come and help end up fighting because they are just so burnt out. He did also recognise that the man asking us why were there is obviously a good sign too as it meant the place was organised and looked after. It was a very strange experience and one I’m not likely to ever forget.
The next stop was the border itself, still in Medyka. I thought this would be the worst of things but in-fact it was the nicest part of the day. There was more volunteers here than I’d seen anywhere else and everyone seemed to be happy and smiling now they had finally got to safety. There was even a guy dressed as a chicken at the border gate to make people smile as they reached safety. There were so many food trucks smelling great and kind of reminded me of a festival in some ways. Especially when we passed the guy playing an outdoor piano, covered in masking tape I assume to protect it when it rained. There was a genuine sense of relief around the place. I did feel very strange stood next to the boarder though, being so close to the country I’d been watching on the news the past 3 weeks just made me feel helpless all over again. Walking up to the road border felt strange too, in one direction was the biggest conflict Europe has had since WW2 and if I turned around there was the most beautiful sunset, the sky split in a straight line between blue and yellow like their flag. It was surreal, like being stood between heaven and hell, I still cant describe that feeling adequately, even editing this post weeks later.
After the border we went to the largest city nearby Przemsl. We were going to go see another reception, a much larger one but when we got there Artur had to take a phone call on speaker-phone. It was one of his contacts asking for help to find two Ukrainians find an apartment in Warsaw. At first when he knew they had money and remote jobs he was less inclined to help “I help those who are helpless, if they have jobs they can help themselves” he said he’d send them websites with apartments and translate whatever they needed but that’s all he could do with everything else he’s doing at the moment. It felt harsh but I understand, his phone hasn’t stopped all day, he doesn’t have time to find an apartment for them. However his tone soon changed when she informed him that a bomb had blown up their house and killed their mother back in Ukraine. Her body is still lying in-front of the rubble that was their house because they had to flee. No funeral, just leave. I can’t even imagine what its really like for these people. My heart broke. Artur felt so bad he just kept driving past the reception. I don’t think he had the stomach for it at that moment.
Our next stop was Przemsl Train station, one of the main routes to other cities. It was just as chaotic as I imagined and apparently this was a quiet day. People were everywhere, news reporters, refugees, presumably family's collecting people too. We got through the crowd and to the platform side. Artur took us a little way down to show us another refugee resting area, this one packed wall to wall with beds all occupied by clearly exhausted people. Again the feeling of helplessness came over me. Why had I come here if I couldn’t help these people?
That feeling stayed with me for the journey to our hotel an hour away from the boarder, where I write to you from now. Until, that is, about half way here when Arthur phoned a few of his contacts so we could hear the things he does to help people. During one of the calls he was making to a contact in Germany he announced that he has us in the car and if the lady on the other end could give us a rundown of how they help. She wanted to know more about us so Charlie told her our plans to help raise money for them. Her positivity was infectious and the reassurance she gave us in what they were doing was huge. I already knew that Arthur was a Hero on many levels but to hear this lady express her relief that more people wanted to help really made me reconsider how little we could do and strengthened my resolve.
These people here are amazing! Literally saving peoples lives out of their own pockets because they see no other way to be when people are in crisis. I’m getting quite emotional typing this because they really are hero’s in my eyes and whatever I can do to help them I will!
That’s why I’m writing this, I don’t want to forget a single one of them and I want to help in any way I can. Mostly that will be fundraising back home, setting up a website for funds to flow through and a place where people can see the fruits of their donations. These people are as grass routes as they come and they ask for nothing in return. If they can stand this fight every single day I unquestionably need to help them. There is no way I’m letting Arturs time he gave us today to be wasted. Because no-one is helpless when there’s someone you can help. The website will be made and they will get whatever support we can give!