The refugees found themselves between war and uncertainty
SECOND IN THREE PARTS FROM THE POLISH-UKRAINIAN BORDER
Mark Di Jonah | March 24, 2022
GET OLD, UKRAINE – A long line of Ukrainians is waiting to be taken out of the country, registered and handed a certificate, and then walked a few steps through the red and white gates of “no entry” and became refugees.
By dragging airline luggage, backpacks, suitcases, gym bags or anything else into which they could cram the necessary things, they cross the border from their past to the uncertain present and future.
I have been working for several days with Caritas, an international Catholic aid agency, at a reception point in Dorogusk, on the Polish side of the border near Starovoit. The work involves unloading trucks, minibuses and passenger cars coming from all over Europe.
Some of the huge international organizations, others of churches or public associations, and some just of individuals who felt compelled to help with a humanitarian crisis that Europe had not seen on such a scale since World War II. I flew to Poland on March 9, two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine to volunteer to help.
One man was driving a passenger bus from the Netherlands, filled with donated canned food, bottled water, appliances and clothing, and then filled 44 seats on the bus with refugees who had been staying in Warsaw and Berlin.
Caritas volunteers are mostly young people who stay at a nearby school and enroll for two weeks. Many remain.
“It was supposed to be a year for my break,” said Veronica Eszyk, 23, a recent college graduate who ran a tent for medical and military donations. “But I’m here and I’m exhausted, but I can’t get away.”
Responding to natural disasters is addictive. Work, like the influx of refugees, has no end in sight, and the more you do, the more you feel what needs to be done.
While here, I played a friend of Krzysztof Blazyak, a small, mobile man who is the unelected chief organizer of the Dorogus relief site. He set aside his family and dog breeding to work for a 15-hour day among red tents and hundreds of donation boxes. Long days mean that in addition to overdoing donations and loading trucks, volunteers also chop firewood for campfires where they huddle to keep warm in the morning and evening.
When I started working with Caritas on March 10, Blazyak and I drove several times to the Polish side of the border just three kilometers through Dorohusk, a farm with about 100 houses, a shop and a car repair shop. It is surrounded by the fertile land of the Bug Delta.
After two days of work, Blazyak offered to transfer me to the Ukrainian side, but there is a risk. Volunteers need a special visa, which I don’t have.
“They may not check,” he says in his limited English. “Anyway, we’ll only stay for a minute.”
Before we climbed into his wrecked van, he joked, “Aren’t you a spy? … if you are, then everything is fine. “
Waiting for processing
Buses from the interior of the war-torn country drop people off to form a line to be taken out of Ukraine by the country’s officials. From there, they can either wait for another bus, or cross the Bug River over a bridge much smaller than New Jersey’s pedestrian bridges that cross Delaware in Columbia, Rigelsville, Milford, and Franchtown. The Bug itself between Starovoit and Dorohusk is a little more than a slow, winding stream.
“It’s mostly mothers with crying children and elderly parents who need to be taken to safety, burdened with all the necessary things from home that they could pack in convenient luggage.”
When refugees pass through the processing center on the Polish side and come out with blue certificates giving them official travel, they are greeted by volunteers in red Caritas vests or light blue Polska Akcga Humanitarna or volunteer green and orange oranges of other volunteer groups. These volunteers greet refugees and invite them to tents with clothing, coats, shoes, snacks, sandwiches, grilled meats, water, baby necessities, feminine hygiene products and free 5G tariffs. There are many such tents, flea markets donated goods.
It is here that the despair and real-time urgency behind these massive efforts seem familiar to me on many levels, both in the shock and confusion on the faces of the refugees and in the outpouring of the generosity of the volunteers who help them.
As a columnist for The Star-Ledger, I have extensively covered Sandy’s superstorm and its aftermath. I couldn’t break away more than a year after it happened. It was necessary to tell about the immediate human suffering, heroic efforts to save and help, and, finally, about the disappointment and insurance protection that many felt when trying to return to their homes.
During my stay here I was not only at the border crossing in Starovoit and Dorogusk, in the nearby large city of Chelm, where trains arriving from Kiev, daily release the onslaught of refugees, tired, hungry and confused. Mostly these are mothers, with crying children and elderly parents who need to be brought to a safe place, burdened with everything necessary from home that they could pack in comfortable luggage.
Everywhere I recall scenes of unprecedented disaster in New Jersey. In Helm, the city sports arena (Miejska Hala Sportowa) is used as a shelter, as are many school gymnasiums and urban recreation centers in Ocean County, where Sandy has done great damage. Here cribs are placed along the entire length of the basketball court, and in areas where the stands have been removed, partitions are placed to give the family privacy.
“It shows that there are more good people than bad ones.”
Volunteers register refugees and try to find them more permanent housing in hotels in Warsaw, Krakow and other major cities in Poland or in thousands of Polish families who have offered them rooms in their homes. Warsaw has so far taken in 300,000 people, increasing its population by 17% in less than a week.
At the reception point in Dorogusk, refugees are sorting through packs of donated clothes and counters filled with non-perishable products. There is a tank with bottled water and a mountain of diapers. Baby and feminine hygiene products are leaving quickly because most refugees are women and children. Again, watching people try to replace what they have lost with the donations of others is both painful and heartwarming.
Ukrainian refugees are looking for used clothes at a reception point in Dorohusk (Poland).
“This shows that there are more good people than bad ones,” said Joanna Wozniak, a Caritas volunteer who ran a kiosk for coffee, tea and bakery products. “Of course, one bad person, one monster like Putin, can unfortunately affect the lives of millions of good people.”
Blazyak sees the huge donations as a find and a necessary evil, an echo of many Sandy volunteers.
“People are cleaning their houses in the name of goodwill,” he said. “We get too much rubbish. Too many old clothes, old toys. “
He pointed to boxes of stuffed cloth that lay outside the few tent coverings.
“One rain and that’s all the rubbish we need to get rid of,” he said. “Fortunately, no rain yet.”
“He wanted to stay and fight”
On the border with Poland, many refugees are loaded onto buses to local reception points such as Dorogusk or major cities. But many have relatives or friends all over Poland or the rest of Europe who meet them at the border.
Luba Tsaruk was waiting for her sister at the border. Tsaruk was with three children Sonya, 6 years old, Lera, 4 and Max, 2 years old, and nephew Stas Radchuk, 15 years old. Her sister, who lives in Głowna, a town in central Poland, sent her nephew there to help them. .
“He wanted to stay and fight,” Tsaruk said through a volunteer interpreter, “but my mother insisted that he help me.”
“It’s hard to believe that this is happening to us … Ten days ago everything was fine.”
The family came from Sarny, near the border with Belarus, which is also hostile to Ukraine.
Tsaruk said her husband stayed at home, and although Sarny had not yet been bombed or invaded by Russians, other nearby towns came under fire, and she was no less afraid of being attacked by Belarusian soldiers.
“Where we live, we no longer feel safe,” she said. “I don’t want such a future for my children.”
It is difficult for an American to understand the compact nature of European military action.
From Sarny, four countries have now suffered from a major war in the geographical area, not much larger than the strip of destruction left by Sandy in New Jersey. Russia, the aggressor; Belarus, which allowed Russia to organize an invasion and could deploy troops; Ukraine being destroyed; and Poland, the front line of this humanitarian crisis.
“It’s hard to believe this is happening to us,” Tsaruk said. “Ten days ago everything was fine.”
All photos of Marc Di Ion.
Tomorrow: in the third part, why so many Poles want to help: “We felt abandoned by the rest of the world, and we know how lonely Ukrainians should feel.”