An Outpouring of Support for Ukrainian Refugees and Resistance - freetxp

An Outpouring of Support for Ukrainian Refugees and Resistance

On Wednesday, March 2nd, at a transit center on the outskirts of the Polish town of Przemysl, near a crossing into Ukraine, Kostiantyn Stupak, a burly thirty-two-year-old construction worker with a chinstrap beard and a gray wool hat, was looking for fifty refugees to fill his bus. By then, the seventh day of the war in Ukraine, the United Nations estimated that a million people had fled the country. Half a million of them had entered Poland. When new buses arrived from the border, a few miles away, Stupak stood nearby, holding a cardboard sign on which he had scrawled his destinations in northern Poland: Gdańsk, Słupsk, and Bytów. When Stupak’s bus was full, he would leave.

It was a snowy morning. Stupak’s fingers were red with cold. Behind him, a local motorcycle club, in matching leather jackets, had brought a giant, Soviet-era mobile cooker. They were serving bowls of zurek—a traditional Polish soup of sausages, eggs, and potatoes. A few Ukrainians silently ate at a bench next to the soup station. Others took free clothes or free SIM cards from volunteers at other stalls. Those phones whose worked in Poland checked them often, for news from home and for ideas about where to go next.

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Stupak told me that he was Ukrainian, but lived in northern Poland with his wife and one-year-old child. He had considered going back to fight, in Ukraine, like many other expatriate men. “I have a lot of anger,” Stupak said. But he was also responsible for his family. His wife spoke no Polish, he said, and it felt impossible to leave her. And so Stupak had volunteered to contribute in another way, by working with a local charity that would not only relocate refugees from the conflict but try to stabilize them in Poland. On the side of his bus was a sign, in Ukrainian, offering rides, accommodation, legal help, and first aid.

Stupak is part of an army of helpers that the Ukrainian diaspora has rallied. Olha Lukianova, who is twenty-nine and lives near Bremen, Germany, is a product manager for an IT company. On Wednesday, when I spoke to her by video call, she was driving to Denmark to buy body armor for Ukrainian troops. In the past week, she had driven supplies to the Polish border and organized travel for several displaced families. Now she and her German husband were negotiating with hunting-supply companies in Germany for whatever equipment they could legally buy. “These [items] seem fine for hunting Russians as well,” Lukianova noted.

She told me that most citizens are not allowed to cross into Ukraine with military equipment, but that she and her husband knew a Ukrainian servicewoman who could drive the matériel over the border. Colleagues and strangers were sending Lukianova so much money that she worried her frozen bank account would be because of a suspicious-behavior report.

Across Europe, the story repeated itself, with local variations. Alexey Shumilin, a nurse living in Helsinki, was about to travel for two days, by ferry and car, to the Polish border to pick up refugees and bring them back to Finland. His mother and grandmother were in Sumy, a Ukrainian city by the Russian border, but were unable to leave. Because he could not help his family, he decided to help strangers. “It’s just impossible to see [the news] without taking action,” he said.

Julia Valova, a thirty-five-year-old who works in Budapest, was manning the phones and coördinating volunteers through a Ukrainian Catholic foundation. “Mr. Putin didn’t split the country like he wanted. He just made us more united,” she said. “He made us crazy.”

Volodymyr Voyevodin, a twenty-six-year-old architect living in Prague, was gathering medicines and driving supplies to the border. He told me that he felt a certain amount of shame at not having returned to fight. (“I had a moment with my friends: ‘Tomorrow, we’re going to leave!”) At the end, he decided that he would be a better helper than a soldier. He has since thrown himself into his work. When we spoke, it had been a long time since he’d slipped. There were twenty thousand Ukrainians in the Czech Republic when he last looked at the numbers. All of them needed something.

Volunteers across Europe have gathered supplies for Ukrainian refugees.

When the war started, Pavlo Pedenko, a thirty-three-year-old senior product manager at a fintech company, had moved from London to Budapest, to be nearer to Ukraine. He had since helped to ship hundreds of computers to the Ukrainian Army, and also to connect refugees traveling to similar destinations through BlaBlaCar, a ride-sharing app that is popular in Central Europe. “I considered going back to Ukraine, but there’s no way I could do this volunteering work,” he said. “There’s no normal Internet connection there. And being less distracted by a bomb going off over your head is helpful when you’re actually trying to accomplish something.”

By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the flow of buses from the border to the Przemysl transit center was thickening, and there were hundreds of refugees attempting to find a ride to their next destination. Volunteers stood at the doors of the newly arrived buses and shouted the desired destinations to a gaggle of willing drivers gathered around. “Warsaw!” one would shout, and somebody in the crowd would wave. A family was connected to a driver.

Alongside many Ukrainians and Poles offering rides and accommodation were those who had no direct connection to the crisis. One Belgian man, Bernard Bousson, wore an expensive-looking overcoat. He had not told his wife and kids that he was coming. He was fifty-three, and remembered feeling helpless at the time of the Balkan wars, in the nineteen-nineties. Now he had money, time, and a car. He had driven for two days to get to the Polish border, and would drive a family anywhere they wanted to go in Belgium or Germany. Michael Wilspang, a fifty-four-year-old Danish electrical engineer who lives on the remote island of Ærø, had seen a report on the news that he had found affecting. Wilspang could not bear the thought of children suffering needlessly, and he was now offering a ride and accommodation.

But, for all of this outpouring of help, many refugees were ratted by uncertainty. Anastasiia Svietlova, who is thirty-three, told me that she lived in the first building in Kyiv that was hit by a bomb. She was unharmed in the explosion, but it was obvious that she needed to flee, along with her five-year-old daughter, Ksenia. It took them six days from the time they left Kyiv to cross the border. By Wednesday, Ksenia had found some other children to play with, and toys were strewn around her. But Svietlova could not stop crying. She had a sister in Wroclaw, in Poland, and would try to reach her. But the sister’s apartment had only one bedroom; the situation was temporary. Svietlova wondered where she would go next, or whether she could return to Ukraine to see her husband. I asked her what she had told Ksenia about what had happened to their country, and to their family.

“I told her the truth,” Svietlova said. “There is war.”

Volunteers distribute food, SIM cards, and other aid to refugees at a transit center on the outskirts of Przemysl, Poland.

Kostiantyn Stupak now had about thirty people for his bus to northern Poland. Sitting inside was Lidia Matvienko, a sixty-eight-year-old grandmother who was traveling with her daughter and her dog. Matvienko’s granddaughter was studying at a university near Gdańsk, and had the two women begged to come. Now, Matvienko told me, she had only the clothes that she was wearing, and a small bag on the seat beside her. She had wanted to stay in Ukraine. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

The temperature outside had dropped well below freezing, but the bus was warm, for which Matvienko was grateful. Somebody was changing a baby’s diaper, while another passenger tried to keep a lapdog under control. Stupak was still outside the bus, waiting for more people to board. He hoped to leave in the next hour or two, because he had to work the next day. “Although they can fire me if they want,” he said. “I’m not leaving here until the bus is full.”

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