by Elena Salaks, Guest Writer
I traveled to the Ukrainian border with the intent to help those displaced by the Russian invasion in Ukraine. I will never forget what I saw and heard … the faces, the tears, the kindness, and the horror. I still find it hard to reconcile my thoughts into something cohesive—but here’s a rambling attempt.
I joined an organization called Solid Rock Mission that was coordinating two-week rotations as a way to supply a steady funnel of volunteers to help those escaping war atrocities. I have the privilege of a supportive family and flexible employer. I was on a flight to Poland a week later. The week leading up to the trip was a whirlwind of anxiety and gratitude. Our $7,000 fundraising goal was surpassed within 24 hours, and we ultimately raised over $45,000.
Once we (five volunteers) arrived in Poland, a contact was waiting for us, and we were joined by four more volunteers.
Our first assignment was to help at the Krakow Main, a large train and bus station where many Ukrainian refugees were passing through on their way to their final destinations. I loitered around the temporary shelter at Platform 4, near a booth that gave free tickets to refugees for select regions across Europe. Countless refugees would come, dazed from exhaustion, looking to find out where they should go next. We’d then scramble to find the information ourselves and verify with seasoned volunteers, so we could give refugees useful input.
Our ambition, curiosity, and language skills made us impactful at the train station and later at the border, orphanage, and refugee center.
Volunteers came from all over the world, so I’d leverage my English alongside my rusty Ukrainian and Russian to trans- late, connect individuals, and help moms with their kids and grandparents figure out where to go.
Many of the Ukrainian refugees were predominantly Russian-speaking, and some of the Polish volunteers and staff nearby didn’t speak English, Russian, or Ukrainian. The Ukrainian and Polish languages have enough similarities that I could translate what the refugee said in Russian to Ukrainian for the Polish individual to understand.
The label “refugee” incites feelings of pity in me. But this was different. These were women with their children and grandparents—exhausted, infuriated, scared … yet brave. And I could see remnants of what they were like before the war broke out. I saw myself in them. And it wasn’t pity I felt. It was hurt. My heart physically hurt. Hearing their stories hurt even more.
A mom about my age showed me a picture of what was once her apartment, now showing two gaping holes in the wall after shelling tore through the brick. There was nothing I could do but listen. I tried to give her money, some cash I had on hand. It was my attempt to help ease her journey.
“I don’t need your money. I need my home,” she said. Although we hadn’t initially planned to go inside Ukraine, we ended up crossing into Ukraine as soon as we arrived at the border, as that was where we could be the most help. I had never crossed a border on foot.
The situation on the Ukraine side was starkly different from what we had just left. Along one side of the corridor was a long line of people. Some had been waiting for eight hours. My first act of service at the border was to pass out food to refugees waiting in line.
Each day was different in how we’d help. One day I joined the group that was to bring food for the guards. We got it at the Ukrainian restaurant where we ate at the night before. While waiting for the food, one of the local volunteers shared her perspective on the war and described what middle class life is like in Ukraine (or what it was like before the war).
She was from the same region where I was born, so it was enlightening to hear what my life would have been like had my parents not emigrated to the States.
The Polish guards refused to accept our food, so we gave it to the Ukrainian guards, who got teary-eyed, explaining that they do 24-hour shifts and hadn’t had a chance to eat, given how busy it was.
There’s no doubt the war is leaving emotional scars. When we heard air raid sirens, the kids refused to walk through the walkway that had windows because they worried that they were being bombed. And when we heard an airplane, they got scared, saying it was Putin coming to kill them.
My trauma response is to disassociate, so I spent much of my mental capacity trying to intentionally stay present. It just didn’t feel real. I felt like I was in a movie, listening to these stories. I haven’t experienced it, but these humans in front of me were telling me what they saw, and their eyes were so sad. Even children just six years old had sorrow in their eyes. I will remember their eyes, their hugs, their stories.
I wish we could do more. Coming home and going back to just donating money feels transactional and distant. It robs me of the aura, the smell, the energy of my people. I empathize with the people who want to volunteer but can’t. And at the same time, I cry that such an opportunity has to exist.
[Elena Salaks, a self-described “sleep-deprived marketing/tech professional, mom, wife, friend and human rights activist,” lives in Port Ludlow. She recently returned to her native Ukraine on a mission to help those impacted by the Russian invasion. This is a condensed version of an article she posted online. — Editor.]
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