This is the fifth installment discussing my experiences working with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Go here to see the other entries. More pictures of my particular group can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Lithuania stands with Ukraine

While people respond to recent short-term trauma differently, there are many commonalities in people’s reactions. The United States, thankfully, is not familiar with such atrocities as Ukraine faces currently. During my brief time in Poland working with Ukrainian refugees, I saw how many people were handling their stress and grief: anger, denial, and always fear.

                My second week in Krakow included working in a clothing tent distributing donated clothes. A certain amount of people were allowed in for a short amount of time to control the crowd, and more evenly hand out the clothing. Many mothers with small kids were present, along with elderly grandparents. The mothers often rummaged quickly through the options as they needed to select clothes for all of the kids as well as themselves. One mother, who had two extremely cute kids under five, went through like a whirlwind during her allotted fifteen minutes, trying to get everything that her small family needed. She was obviously stressed with the recent events of her life, and showed a short temper with her children. She found some clothes for each of them, but then returned to the tent about five minutes later as she lost her phone. Given that the clothes were in multiple boxes on crates, there were numerous places where the phone could have ended up, and it would be a long search. Needless to say, no one had seen her phone. She began screaming while repeatedly hitting her head. As she crumpled to the floor crying, she screamed something about being unable to connect with her husband, and then used the word “shot.” I didn’t understand if he had already been shot, leading to her meltdown, or if there was concern that he would be shot and she wouldn’t find out without her one communication lifeline to her home. A volunteer in the tent knelt down with her until we found her phone. She quickly left the tent with her kids, no doubt embarrassed, somewhat relieved to have her phone, but no less worried about what the future held.

                During my first week in the clinic in Warsaw, I saw a woman in her forties who had symptoms of a cold. Given the close proximity of everyone in the center, upper respiratory infections were rampant and most people either were recently or currently sick. During the visit, I asked her about all of the healing cuts on her right forearm. It looked to me like cutting with a razor that people often do to feel a physiologic release from their psychologic stress. She looked at her arm and said nonchalantly “Oh, that’s just from shrapnel.” I didn’t realize that I knew the Russian word for shrapnel, but it is the same as in English. “Is there any left?” I asked as I more closely examined her arm. “I don’t think so.” She didn’t seem concerned at all about her arm, now or then. I don’t know if it was because she had already moved on, if it was a comparatively small concern given her other traumas, or whether it was denial that anything had actually occurred.

                One of the most profound moments I had in Poland was sitting in the shelter in Warsaw, just observing the people from Ukraine. They came and went from breakfast, waited in line for the washers and dryers, or emerged clean from the showers. I saw a mother sitting with her kids at a picnic table, trying to keep the children’s attention on their food instead of running away to play. An old man sat next to me, staring at nothing in particular for a long while. I didn’t want to disturb his reverie. But what I really saw was a combination of regular people going through the motions of normal, everyday activities, and a group of broken people accepting whatever circumstances they had. Many had looks on their face that spoke of focus on survival, without immediate thought of their unusual circumstances. Others showed many proverbial wrinkles of worry, the weight of war all over their countenance and body language, like clothing they were unable to change.

                At one point in Krakow, forty or fifty pleasant Ukrainians waited in line outside of the clothing tent. A small plane flew fairly low and loudly over the area. None of the Polish people even noticed, but every person in line flinched as though it was a war plane portending danger. No matter how each individual or family handled their trauma, even if they could move on for a time, it remained. The flinching doesn’t leave that quickly.

Ukraine and Poland, inextricably linked forevermore.


This is the fourth installment discussing my experiences working with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Go here to see the other entries. More pictures of my particular group can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Refugee families waiting to move on to their next destination.

Not only have Ukrainians shown a remarkable resilience in the face of such terrible atrocities, but they also continue to have a great sense of gratitude during these times. Every single Ukrainian that I spoke with in Poland (dozens, if not hundreds) all expressed sincere thanks for any help they were receiving. Tears of joy and relief came amidst tears of fear, sadness, and anger.

                Many of the people I met had a sense of wonder that anyone would care enough to help. They figured that no one in Western Europe or America would know where Ukraine was, or that it even existed. “We’re here with you,” was all I could muster in such moments.

                One woman told me of leaving Mariupol the day before with her daughter and grandson. The battle was still intensely raging at that time. She cried as she related the death of her husband, who happened to be the only one home when their apartment building was bombed just a week before. Her son-in-law was fighting, and she hadn’t received any word about him for weeks. She motioned to her sleeping grandson, all of nine-years-old, as she expressed horror of what was to come of his life. There was no plan yet as to where they would go, for how long, and if they could ever return to their homeland. And yet, in the same breath, she spoke of how grateful she was that they had a place to stay, someplace warm, with beds and blankets, and food. She marveled at it. She was so thankful, even just to have someone to listen to her.

                Merely minutes after talking with her, I met another woman with a similar story. Her husband had died well before the war. She was in her seventies and confined to a wheelchair. She had arrived a few weeks previously with some family. Given her poor health, she was unable to move on to another place, but was worried about holding her family back. They were working on visas to another country, with the plan that she would likely stay put in the shelter in Warsaw. She was so scared, and had to completely depend on others for everything. And yet, instead of expressing dismay or anger or cursing God or anyone else, she told me how glad she was that she was in the center, that she had a place to get the support she needed.

The center where we were included cots to sleep on (see below), three meals a day, our medical and dental clinics (which included many medications available for free), free glasses, visa applications and help for multiple different countries, laundry, clothing, and play areas with toys, among other things. It certainly wasn’t an ideal location for people to stay, but they all seemed grateful to be there.

                I dare say most people wouldn’t react this way in such circumstances.

Just some of the many things offered to refugees at the center:

Cots available for refugees in a giant expo hall.
People checking into our small clinic.
A cubicle for seeing patients.
Dental pod.
Eating quickly during transition.
Small clothing area for those in need.
Panoramic view of most of the pharmacy.
Our volunteers sanitizing hands before a meal.
People gathering to get their free glasses.


This is the third installment discussing my experiences working with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Go here to see the other entries. More pictures of my particular group can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Extra clothes from a donation tent being sent to refugees elsewhere in Poland.

One of the funnest things about being serving in Poland was giving gifts to kids in the shelter. We had LOTS of stickers to give out, which appeared to be one of the greatest things the kids could ever get. They had so much fun with them, and remarkably, the walls were NOT covered in them. My friend Zac brought some other small toys and candy that we would pass out. I expected fighting or whining over the limited gifts, as all kids are wont to do, but I didn’t see any of that. They were happy to have anything.

              One afternoon, Zac was giving out small sticky, rubbery toys that will stick to the wall when thrown. The kids loved them. (It was my job to hand out the candy, something which the parents loved just as much as the kids.) One girl around eight-years-old walked up to me after all of the toys were gone, and handed me one of the little items. “It’s a gift,” she said in Russian. I told she could keep it, but she really wanted to give it to one of us. She just wanted to be able to help, somehow.

              The next day I was playing catch with a small football that one of the boys had. Pretty soon there were two boys playing with me, who each had a football. After a few minutes, they grew tired of playing and moved on. Leaving me with two footballs, I yelled “Wait, you left your ball.” One of them turned around and just said “Keep it, or give it to some other kid.” The cynical person would just say that they didn’t like the football, and quickly grew tired of it. That’s a possibility. But I choose to think that they were simply kind enough to share what they had, and knew that others may appreciate it even more than they.

              Many of the people in the center who cleaned, or translated, or dished up food, etc. were refugees staying in the center. They wanted to participate and be part of the efforts. They knew they needed help, but they also recognized that others needed it, too. They were all in this together, so they wanted to do their part.

              I met a young woman in the center who was an intern in Ukraine. She had finished medical school, and began her training in anesthesiology last year. However, since she had not completed her first year of post-medical school training, she was unable to practice medicine in any way. She reached out to the clinic where we worked when she first arrived, and was told that she couldn’t help out because her English wasn’t good enough. However, she very desperately wanted to do something medical so that she didn’t lose her knowledge and skills. We were able to find some volunteer work that she could do in the clinic. When I told her, her smile was huge, and she thanked all of us profusely and repeatedly. She was able to offer some meaningful service there, and I’m hoping that she is still able to help even after we left.

              During my week in Krakow, I volunteered at a clothing tent where people could come and get free clothes. There were so many donations, that many of the clothes were sent elsewhere around the country; the large tent simply didn’t have room for all of them. I assume that the clothes were donated from around the world, I’m not even sure all of the places. And while it likely wasn’t the majority of donations, a significant amount of those clothes available for needy families came from other Ukrainians.

              It’s a gift.

Refugee donation tents at the main train station in Krakow.
A crow of refugees gather at the clothing tent (left tent) in Krakow.
Semis full of donated goods waiting at Polish-Ukrainian border.
More semis full of donated goods waiting at Polish-Ukrainian border. The line was at least a mile long, and would take multiple days for all of these trucks to get into Ukraine.