August 25, 2022
‘An eye-opening experience’. Diary of a volunteer helping refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border
Five year-old Ukrainian refugee Danylo (in a blue t-shirt with Superman logo) helped to fly by Jonathan Wong.
When I arrived in Przemysl, a quaint little town on the Polish-Ukrainian border, I did not know what to expect.
I wanted to provide help in any way I could, although I thought my lack of a shared language with the Ukrainians would largely limit my role.
Emerging from the Krakow train, I was immediately struck by how surprisingly beautiful the station building was. With high ceilings and intricate details of art, it felt more like a palace than a train station.
When my head levelled, this thought was contrasted with the grim reality of the Ukrainian refugees. They were sitting all around the station on benches surrounded by suitcases, containing all the belongings they had been able to carry when suddenly forced to leave their homes.
The historic station building was plastered with laminated signs showing the departure and arrival boards in both Ukrainian and Polish. The air buzzed with the disorientation of people unclear about their immediate future.
Over the next few days, I had the privilege of working with refugees and learning about their individual experiences.
Some were stories of strength and perseverance through these horrible times, and others were deeply saddening which depicted how, despite best intentions, the bureaucracy and politics behind war in Ukraine could be truly disheartening.
Due to my understanding of Ukrainian being limited to ‘thank you’ (‘dyakuyu’?) and “good morning” (‘dobry den’?’) my role as a volunteer was confined to mostly manual labour. I moved luggage up and down the train platforms.
Such a role may seem unimportant, but as nearly all refugees were either women, children, or elderly people (men aged 18-60 are generally not allowed to leave Ukraine), many of them required help lifting their suitcases.
I was honestly amazed by the strength of these people, as I could not believe how they had managed to take these bags all that way, sometimes thousands of miles, when I was struggling to manage carrying up just two flights of stairs.
The following stories are just a handful of encounters I had during my time in Przemysl.
I encountered Tanya in the main train station building. She stood out among the crowd of distressed refugees, as she had four large heavy suitcases and only an older woman with her.
She gave me a pleading look, one that read “Please help me!” from across the sea of people, and I immediately went over with another volunteer to move her bags. I helped them take the suitcases down a flight of stairs, so they could reach a restroom – or rather, a “vaterrrr klazet!”, as the old Ukrainian woman had been shouting at me. After Tanya brought her mother into the toilet, she returned to chat, and her perfect English was soon explained.
As it turned out, she was from the land Down Under – Tanya had moved to Australia a few years ago but had returned to Ukraine to extract her mother from the country. She planned to take the train to Krakow, from where she would fly to Dubai, then to Sydney, and drive an hour to the town she lives in.
I was moved by her persistence and thoroughly impressed by her loyalty to her family. I stayed with this woman and her mother until the train to Krakow left, wishing her good luck and safe travels on her journey home. I truly hope they reached their destination safely and are now ‘slipping some shrimp on the barbie’, as the line goes.
I learned that Tanya is not the only one who was willing to rush towards the country on the brink of war to help their loved ones. I encountered Nastya, a Ukrainian living in Germany, at the entrance to the Ukrainian passport control centre. From this large yellow building, trains to Ukraine arrived and departed four times a day.
Nastya was incredibly distressed. She was waiting for her father, who was supposed to arrive on the train from Zaporizhzhia. He had travelled for twenty hours from the city of Dnipro. The father suffered from cancer, and as he was frail, Nastya wanted to greet him on the platform to help him with his luggage.
It was my unpleasant duty to explain that she would not be allowed to pass through passport control, as it was an international border, and furthermore warn her that passengers on arriving trains were frequently kept onboard for around two hours before being allowed out through the building.
Soon, however, I had the pleasure of witnessing a father and daughter reuniting. We had even sourced a Zimmer frame. The elderly gentleman, wishing to walk unaided, initially rejected it; ultimately, he was very grateful for the support it offered.
Help being rejected at first and then accepted with gratitude was another recurring theme throughout my time as a volunteer. It reminded me how important it is for people to maintain sovereignty, dignity, and pride.
With the breakout of the war this small station in Przemysl became a major hub for refugees leaving Ukraine
Crossing the train tracks was only allowed for people with disabilities, though it should have been opened to numerous others, as people carrying incredibly heavy bags were struggling on the stairs when not enough volunteers were present.
I helped Nastya and her father across the train tracks, and then to a café, where they took a break before boarding a train to Warsaw, and later a plane to Dusseldorf.
I took a break with them, and Nastya attempted to buy me some juice to show her gratitude for the help. This was a moment which made me realise how much of the burden my help had reduced. She even tried secretly buying my lunch, though she was unsuccessful as I had paid when I ordered at the counter.
Yet, not all the stories I encountered were uplifting. Petro was an 11 year-old Ukrainian who had already been taken to Spain when Russia invaded in February, but when I met him, this bubbly kid with a big smile was en route back to Ukraine.
His smile covered an incredibly sad story. Prior to the war, due to her addiction history, Petro’s mother had been determined unfit to care for him by the Ukrainian government. Thus, he had been taken into care and was then evacuated alongside the other children in his foster home. Soon after, it was determined that since his parents were still alive and in Ukraine, he had to be brought back to the country by a social worker.
The child had been able to escape the atrocities of the war but was now being sent back due to mindless bureaucracy.
Petro’s story taught me how important it is to see refugees not as numbers but as individuals, people who need all different sorts of help. It also hammered home the fact that, even during wartime, life with all its complexities continues.
Another encounter that really stuck out to me was that of Yuri and his father Dmytro. I met them during the rush hour at platform five.
It was a daily occurrence, when a large number of people arriving from Kyiv at around 9 pm render the station facilities completely overwhelmed, with too many people trying simultaneously to do what was needed to continue the journey.
Yuri was a man in his 60s, incredibly frazzled and quick to raise his voice. As Dmytro was wheelchair-bound, I had been called over by another volunteer to help the two men reach the main building. Again, we would be travelling over the train tracks, rather than down through the underpass which would involve dragging the wheelchairs down and up some stairs, as the underpass is not equipped with an elevator.
Dmytro gave a toothless grin and frequently thanked me in Ukrainian. Once I settled him in a corner of the main building and the other volunteer helped Yuri purchase tickets for their onward journey, I was able to conduct an entire impromptu hand motion conversation with Dmytro.
Yet, it was Yuri who taught me never to forget how stressful it must be when forced to seek refuge from war.
He had never left Ukraine before, and now, in his 60s, with a father in a wheelchair, he was struggling to even use his credit card, needing to call his wife, whom they were travelling to meet, for help. Though we managed to settle them on a train for the next day, this was little comfort for Yuri who remained anxious, checking repeatedly which platform their train would be leaving from.
Though it may be hard to believe, cases like these were already regarded as ‘easier to handle’ -at least they had a plan and knew where they needed to go.
Some families were simply urgently trying to escape Ukraine and had no plan. They would arrive with just one question: ‘What do I do now?’. One such case was Katya, her daughter Alina and her grandson Mykola from Kramatorsk in Eastern Ukraine.
To understand this story, one must know about the train from Przemysl to Hannover, which departed every other evening. This train is incredibly important, as currently it is the only free and unticketed train (although there is a free train to Prague, passengers need to register for the trip about two weeks in advance).
The Hannover train fills up incredibly quickly, so passengers’ line up around two hours before departure to secure a spot on the train – and even then, it is not guaranteed, as priority is given to mothers with young children and elderly passengers.
Ukrainian refugees queuing at the railway station in Przemysl
Ukrainian refugees queuing at the railway station in Przemysl
Katya, Alina, and Mykola had arrived in Przemysl the day before spending the night in the refugee center, nicknamed “Tesco” (as its location is in a former “Tesco” supermarket). They had heard news of the free train and though they had not planned their next destination – they thought maybe of Denmark – they decided to get on the train simply because the young Mykola had wanted to visit Germany and was “tired of Poland”.
Mykola is autistic and was the family’s main priority. He was a curious and chatty kid, though very easily overwhelmed by the stress and noise of the station. He was incredibly fascinated by coins, so the volunteers banded together to locate as many coins of different currencies as possible for him, leaving him with an assortment of random coins from all across the EU and even worldwide!
In the end, though they were provided with a spot on the train, the family decided not to depart to Germany and to plan for a final destination they could settle down in before making any drastic decisions.
This story reminded me of how vulnerable the refugees truly are and how most of them had not planned on leaving their country. They had thought little further than escaping the bombing.
One of the biggest issues with the Hannover evacuation train is the lack of communication between German train operators and the volunteers in Poland. Once the train arrived, we had to form human barricades in order to ensure that the prioritised refugees were allowed onto the train first.
However, the German train operators disrupted this process by opening multiple doors for the same carriage when only one was meant to be opened, shutting the doors at random intervals – separating families and locking volunteers in the carriages, and demonstrating blatant racism towards Roma and Sinti people: we were asked to physically segregate them from the crowd, which of course we refused to do.
Being one of the most marginalised groups in society, Roma and Sinti people unfortunately also faced discrimination at the border. They were often not allowed in the same accommodation as other refugees and were forced to sleep in the hallways of the main train station building.
I mainly served as the brawn of the station, ready to help anyone who needed it by lifting heavy suitcases up and down the stairs. However, my lack of command in either Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian was not always a barrier to communication. I frequently helped refugees struggling to find their train platform or helped locate their carriage and seat number on the ticket.
My ability to communicate non-verbally was particularly important, and I found that this was most effective with the children I met at the station, who would respond to funny faces and silly noises.
One example of this was Danylo, a five year-old boy from Zaporizhzhia. On that day of volunteering, I happened to wear a t-shirt with the logo of the Flash superhero. Danylo was wearing one with a Superman logo. I met him on the platform as he waited to return back to Ukraine with his mother and grandmother. He was an incredibly hyperactive child, with a gappy smile, and was bouncing up and down.
As I stood there at the platform to help those arriving on the inbound train, he and I naturally began making funny faces at each other and being silly. He pretended that the bars of the metal barrier were the bars of a jail cell and conjured imaginary tools to escape the prison.
As the inbound train was delayed, I took part in his game of “Jailbreak” as the warden, preventing him from escaping the queue. He and I naturally bonded despite the lack of a shared language as we were both hyperactive superhero fans, and as his mum put it, we played a game of “Superman vs Flash”.
Later that night, I stood at the front of the queue again, waiting for the late-night train from Kyiv. There, I met Gleb, an 11 year-old boy with a fascination for the Italian language. He was accompanied by his mother and two sisters, who had a long journey through Russia where their mother’s cousin had gotten them out through the Baltic States. They had come to Poland on their final stretch back to Ukraine.
The mother was clearly exhausted, but Gleb and his sisters were chipper than ever. He would keep repeating the same four random phrases in Italian and ran around the side of the barrier to interact with another volunteer and me. Though he was incredibly cheery, his elder sister, despite trying to put on a brave face, had a hint of sadness.
It brought to me the realities of the war, especially the long and difficult journeys many like Gleb had to go through.
The Kharkiv and Przemysl Project
Helping those fleeing war in Ukraine and those who stay behind.
Being at the frontlines of a refugee crisis was an eye-opener for me, as my life beforehand had been quite sheltered – when living in Hong Kong, the war had felt very far away.
The stories here represent just a few of the hundreds of people I had the pleasure of interacting with during my time in Poland.
As I was able to volunteer thanks to the The Kharkiv and Przemyśl Project (KHARPP), a grassroots organisation working both at the border and in Ukraine, I would encourage those who can to go support and donate to this cause.