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An ad hoc army of volunteers assembles to help Ukrainian refugees

Volunteers from Italy usher refugees from the Ukrainian city of Ivano Frankivsk to a bus for transport to the northern Italian city of Cortina at a refugee center near Przemyśl, Poland.
Eric Westervelt
/
NPR
Volunteers from Italy usher refugees from the Ukrainian city of Ivano Frankivsk to a bus for transport to the northern Italian city of Cortina at a refugee center near Przemyśl, Poland.

MEDYK, Poland — Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sparked the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II as the U.N. refugee agency says more than 1.5 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland in just the first 12 days of fighting.

The bulk of the refugees — more than 1 million — have left Ukraine through one of eight border crossings in Poland. At more than 20 reception centers along the Polish border, NGOs, charities and the U.N. refugee agency are being aided by an ad hoc army of volunteers from Poland and across Europe who are playing a vital support role serving food, directing donations and helping to drive refugees to friends and family across the continent.

"This is not job for me. If I can help, I can help," says Krstaps Naymanes, a deliveryman from Liepaja, Latvia, who hit pause on his day job to aid Ukrainians. With friends and a charity, he helped organize cars, RVs and a large bus to take refugees anywhere in Latvia, where others on the ground there are ready to help.

Latvian deliveryman Krstaps Naymanes hit pause on his day job to aid Ukrainians. With friends and a charity, he helped organize cars, RVs and a large bus to take refugees to Latvia, where others on the ground are ready to help.
Eric Westervelt / NPR
/
NPR
Latvian deliveryman Krstaps Naymanes hit pause on his day job to aid Ukrainians. With friends and a charity, he helped organize cars, RVs and a large bus to take refugees to Latvia, where others on the ground are ready to help.

"We have flats, houses, food, everything," he says. "Don't charge, like, money for this. Peoples want help, and can help. This time need to do! That's it."

Near a stand giving out free SIM cards, slatted steel fire pits crackle with scrap wood and charcoal. The smoke mixes with the smell of a hot stew of cabbage, pork and potatoes offered up by Daniel Wöhlers, a caterer from northern Germany. He and friends drove down here with their mobile kitchen, usually used for festivals and weddings.

"The war is not over at the moment so everyone have [sic] to stay as long as possible and everyone should help," Wöhlers says while serving up his regional stew, breads and coffee to refugees and those supporting them.

Nearby there's a growing mountain of new and gently used children's shoes and clothes in cardboard boxes and spread on tarps on the ground. Unlike Europe's last big war, the piles signal comfort this time.

A network of nongovernmental organizations and the U.N. are coordinating much of the relief and donations. But central, too, are self-organized groups of people, often via social media, who've dropped everything to assist, especially with transport.

"Able or not, [I] closed my business and just send an out-of-office notice to all my clients, saying 'This is the way it is, and if you're not happy, go find another lawyer,' " says attorney Stephane Ober, who abruptly shuttered his law office in Luxembourg to volunteer.

Teenager Anatoli Sarockmon and his 10-year-old brother are looking for a ride to Estonia. They just fled Lviv in western Ukraine with their mother. "I think I and my brother will go to Estonia to my uncle, and my mother will [return to] Ukraine," he says, eating warm soup in the sprawling parking lot of a defunct supermarket not far from the border crossing at Medyka, Poland.

Their mom looks exhausted and on the verge of tears. She'll go back, she says, as soon as her boys have found rides. She explains that she has a job and a husband in Ukraine; she must go back and help.

Across the parking lot, Chiara Montaldo works her walkie-talkie like a logistics veteran. But she's only winging it, arriving after she and friends saw on social media that some of her fellow Italians were organizing refugee transportation.

"We are coming from Cortina, in north Italy, and we are just a group of volunteers, decide to organize some buses to help people who want to leave," she says.

Chris Melzer, spokesman for the U.N.'s refugee agency, says he keeps hearing from people all over Europe who want to pitch in.

"Doctors who said, 'I'm taking my annual leave. I would like to help.' And from people who said, 'Yeah, we had a church group and we collected 10,000 euros or something.' " Or the man from Heidelberg, Germany, who said, " 'I have no relation to Ukraine, but I have a van. We want to help.' So, it's really amazing," Melzer says.

He views the volunteer support network as a bright spot in a horrible conflict. "On the eastern side of the border, it is heartbreaking. And on this side of the border it's heartwarming," Melzer says. "And for us as humanitarians, it keeps us running, actually."

At the Warsaw airport, the overhead announcements these days are in Polish, English and also Ukrainian. They tell people not to leave bags unattended. And they also say that if you're Ukrainian and need assistance, there are special kiosks with volunteers to help.

Standing at one booth on her first day as a volunteer is Elena Szulc, who is originally from Kyiv but came to Poland to study four years ago. Her parents and sister are still in Kyiv.

"This is my first day here and I have already helped, I don't know, maybe 50 people for the last six hours," she said.

Melzer concedes that if Russia's attacks intensify, as most expect, the number of refugees could surely rise fast.

That would certainly strain Poland and the EU and test this refugee solidarity and volunteer ethos, one that will need to last far beyond these first dozen days of war.

"That would definitely be a challenge for the system here in Poland and even in Europe," Melzer says. "That's why we from UNHCR say Poland, as any other country that receives refugees in the world — doesn't matter if its Bangladesh or Ethiopia — this time also Poland needs the solidarity of the partners."

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