I am currently located in Warsaw Poland. Warsaw is no stranger to war. During the German occupation (1939-1945), 80-90% of Warsaw was destroyed, including museums, art galleries, theaters, churches, parks, castles, and palaces. During the International Reparations Conference held in Paris in 1946, it is estimated that Poland’s material losses were 16.9 billion US dollars, and two-fifths of the country’s cultural property was destroyed. If this wasn’t bad enough, Poland was forced to hand over 48% of its land to the Soviet Union due to international pressure from world powers.
Even after the 178,000 km² of land (48%) was turned over to the Soviet Union, Poland continued to be under the rule of the communist party following WWII. The fall of the former Soviet Union took place on December 26, 1991, and on October 27, 1991, the first free Polish parliamentary elections since the 1920s took place. This completed Poland’s transition from a communist party rule to a democratic political system, but it wasn’t until September 18, 1993, that the last Soviet troops left the country.
Poland and Ukraine share a border of 529 km (328 mi). Why is this important? On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. On Saturday, February 26, 2022, I attended an anti-war protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. Little did I know at the time, this was just the beginning of what would become the world’s largest migrant crisis since WWII. At the onset, the Polish government said they were prepared to take on up to 1 million refugees. As I sit here typing, we are in the middle of day 24 of the War in Ukraine and nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine with over 1.9 million finding their way across the border into Poland.
What I am witnessing not only here in Warsaw, but all of Poland is a grassroots movement of epic proportion. I never dreamed I would be living in a country and witnessing the effects of war up close and personal. I am hundreds of kilometers away from the actual war, but the devastation can be seen in the eyes of those arriving who have no idea what their future will look like. I also never dreamed this war would become personal to me. My life, my heart, my soul…they have all been touched in uncountable ways through my travels. My hope has always been to show friends, family, and anyone who happens to stumble across my social media what the world looks like through my eyes. I want to tell the stories of the places I go, the things I do, but more importantly, I want to tell the stories of the people I meet. I want you to know what their eyes tell me when I look into them. I have cried a river over the last few weeks. Not just because of the devastation of the war but I have witnessed a coming together of humanity that is close to indescribable. Here is my story…
February 24, 2022, was a holiday in Poland, Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday. In Poland, everyone eats pączki on Fat Thursday. I had spent the day before in a queue for 2.5 hours to get mine, but that’s another story for another time. When I logged on to my classes that Thursday, no one was talking about how many pączki they had eaten, but that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine along with a question no one really wanted to voice, what does this mean to Poland? I received many messages that day, asking, “how far are you from Ukraine?”, “are you safe?”, “do you have a plan to leave Poland?”. I am a little over 300 km (186 miles) to Hrebenne which is a city near one of the border gates between Poland and Ukraine. Yes, I am safe for now and feel very comfortable in Warsaw. No, I don’t have a plan to leave Poland. Other than some conversation about the situation during my classes, Thursday and Friday went along normally. On Saturday, I learned there would be a protest/demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.
I arrived at the Russian Embassy about 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of 18:00. The road was still open to traffic. People lined both sides of the street and cars and buses passing by showed support by sounding their horns. All public transportation in Warsaw is also flying the Ukrainian flag and the flag of Warsaw. As the crowd grew people continued to queue up along the roadside. About 5 minutes before the start time, the police blocked the street to traffic and then told the crowd they could fill the street. At this point, some speakers took to a small stage. I didn’t understand what was being said but could feel the emotion of the crowd. When I found Zaka, my flatmate, in the crowd, he was able to translate a few things. There was a point when the crowd chanted peace in Ukraine and free Russia from Putin. By the time we decided to leave, the crowd had grown exponentially. What I experienced was people from many nations, men, women, and children all coming together in unity waving Polish and Ukrainian flags. As I stood looking at the massive Russian Embassy flanked by Polish police, I realized this war was becoming personal to me.
My flatmate in Changning, China was from Moscow. I enjoyed her Russian hospitality during my visit to Moscow in June of 2017. When I got home from the demonstration, I messaged her and told her I had attended. Her response to me was, “all my friends and most of the people I know want the same thing – peace for Ukraine and freedom for Russia”. Then I thought about my other Russian friend I met when I was living in Qingdao, China.
I read her words later that night, “I want to believe that there are more Russians who realize that we’re all responsible for this. It’s just they’re chickening out because in this country you get jailed, tortured, and you disappear for speaking up. Some have families and cats to feed, some are just greedy and are afraid of losing their businesses and reputation, but I guess that’s also understandable. We’re all just trying to stay safe….Let’s just try not to hate each other personally”. As I thought about my Russian friends, their words, and all the Russian hate right now, it reminded me of how so many were anti-China at the beginning of the pandemic. Even more so now as no one knows if China will align itself with Russia, please remember there are good, kind people in Russia who don’t want this war any more than we do.
Saturday of the demonstration was also the day Tatiana, my cleaning lady, was scheduled. She had returned to Lviv, Ukraine a month earlier to renew her Visa. When the war broke out, she made the decision to remain in Ukraine with her family. I didn’t hear from her again until March 13th. She had returned to Warsaw but because her sons are between 18 & 60, they were obligated to remain in Ukraine. Please keep the safety of her sons in your thoughts.
I usually email lessons to my students on Sunday for the following week, As I was doing this, I thought about a student who although was living in Poland, was from Belarus. It was in Belarus that it was reported that military vehicles had entered Ukraine through Senkivka. This is the point where Ukraine meets Belarus and Russia. I sent them a separate email asking how they were. Their mother is Russian, they have family in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. They told me their life was a living nightmare. Of course, I can’t talk about Belarus without thinking of my former flatmate, “my little one”, from Belarus. This conflict is affecting people in ways that we can’t comprehend. Suddenly, they are concerned about repercussions if they label themselves as “Belarusian” or “Russian” and may even be fearful of returning to their country as they may not be able to return to Poland.
Monday rolls around and this war continues to become personal. Summer 2021 found me on the Black Sea in Kiten, Bulgaria. I was working at a summer camp, and we had two campers from Ukraine. I learned they had both taken refuge, one in a bomb shelter. During the first week of March, I learned that one had made it out of the country safely. The other, as of today, I have had no word.
The war is becoming more real, more personal by the day. I find myself hungry for information on the humanitarian efforts I know are going on in Warsaw and all over Poland. In the first 4 days of the crisis, over 220,000 refugees crossed into Poland, many coming to Warsaw. I discovered Warsaw had 28 collection points in the city. The grassroots movement had begun. Ordinary citizens were organizing these collection points and through the power of social media were able to let people know of immediate needs…blankets, diapers, food, and beverage to give to people as they crossed into Poland, etc. At this point, I couldn’t report on what was going on in Ukraine, but I could share what the people of Poland were doing. The border town of Przemyśl greets refugees with food, beverages, clothes, blankets, books, and stuffed animals for the children. Warsaw has 3 train stations which also have nearby bus stations. There are reception points set up in these areas. They provide the new arrivals with food and beverage and assist them in getting information regarding trains and buses to destinations beyond Warsaw and beyond Poland. They point them to ATM machines, to first aid stations, and just try to provide a smile and a friendly face. It may appear these places are unorganized, but trust me, it is organized chaos. Think about it, Poland, a country of almost 38 million, and as of March 20, 2022, 1.95 million people have entered Poland. This is a 5% increase in population in just 3 weeks. Even more unbelievable is that about 300,000 are currently being sheltered in Warsaw, a city of 1.77 million. If you do the math, that is a 17% increase in the population of my city. I don’t think anyone could explain it better than David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, did when he was interviewed at the Warsaw Central Station. When you see the images of families sleeping on the floor of the stations, please know they are making this choice. They have already lost their homes and most of their personal belongings, not knowing when or if they will ever be able to return to their country, their homes. They are choosing to “camp out” on floors instead of going to a shelter because they don’t want to miss the opportunity to catch the next train to somewhere…somewhere they may have family, somewhere that they may be starting a new future…a future they never thought about.
My first visit to the train station was 15 days ago, 10 days after the invasion. This is what I saw there. The place was full of people just arriving in Warsaw from Ukraine. Many with glazed looks in their eyes, some crying, others looked exhausted, and many had their pets with them. There were volunteers helping direct them to information points, they were walking around passing out sandwiches and drinks, etc. It was a beehive of activity. I was just passing through on this day but made the decision I needed to find out how I could help. I went outside and caught a tram home. As I was arriving home I was in front of my building and a woman came up to me and said Apteka which is a pharmacy. It was easiest for me to just walk her around the corner. I said I only speak English. She said, no English, Ukraine. I managed to discover (thank you Google translate) she just arrived in Warsaw 4 days ago with her family. She said the name of her city and said the word home and motioned that it was flattened. I literally started to cry just as I got her to the pharmacy. She told me “thank you” in Polish and all I could do was take her hands, look her in the eyes and say good luck. Seeing these people, looking deep into their eyes is something I won’t ever forget. When I got into my flat, I started searching and found a Facebook group that was organizing everything at the train stations. I joined the group and continued scrolling Facebook.
As each day passes, this war affects me in many ways. But most of all we are living it in Poland. We are seeing the people arriving with just a simple bag of necessities or some with nothing but the clothes on their back, their children, and many even their pets. I had a student tell me they wouldn’t be attending class one day as they were helping at the border. She lives in a small village in the southeastern part of Poland. She is the mother of 3 young children, I asked if I could share a few of her words.
“My life has changed a lot in the last few days. I had the opportunity to be at the border to help two families from Ukraine. I have been able to see people who want to escape the actions of a madman. I could see the fear, despair, longing. But I also saw love, solidarity, unity. I was able to participate in building a temporary life anew. I was able to observe terror which with time turns into hope despite the constant specter of evil and tragedy.
I cried with people powerless in the face of events that turned many dreams to dust. Enjoyed the kids delighted with the Frozen towel and coloring book, whose fathers and brothers were left fighting for their freedom. In the evening, I cried with relief, looking at my sleeping children, appreciating that such terrible things had not touched my loved ones.
In recent days, I have been observing people whose lives have changed dramatically.
I have no punch line. I only have a solemn request that we continue to be able to show our heart to those who are NOW in a much more difficult situation than we are. WHAT, NOW? These are words that come back to me like a boomerang in recent days. I don’t know my tomorrow. I know my today. And I want to share my good “today” with those whose “yesterday” and “tomorrow” is gloomy.”
During my first year in Poland, I was always searching for interesting things to do. I happened to discover Pinball Station, an interactive museum established in 2016 by 2 hobbyists. That evening, as I was scrolling, I saw a post by Paweł, one of the founders of the museum. It read (translated version), “To everyone who wants to help refugees. Pinball Station has launched a coach bridge between the border and Warsaw. I, Paweł Nowak, have personally been to the border 5 times. We have coaches and drivers available. Today at 5 am we transported another 48 people. In total, it is already about 150 people transported in two days. We ask you to help raise money for the next transport. Out of 150 people transported, there were only a few men, the rest were women and children, even babies. I am determined, I am in constant contact with foreign countries, we are looking for accommodation and further transport for them. Please help.”
Almost simultaneously as I am reading this, I received a private message from a friend asking if they could send me money to help. Next thing I knew I had a couple more friends message me. Since I only worked a half-day that coming Wednesday, I decided I would go to the Pinball Station to get more information. I had turned the monies I received into cash (Polish Zloty). My plan had been to leave a portion of the money to help with another transport. Paweł wasn’t there, but the young lady working immediately got him on the phone to chat with me. After a long (Paweł likes to talk) conversation, I felt that I could trust him, the project seemed to fit the request of my friends which was to help the refugees, and the amount of money they sent was almost the exact amount to sponsor a bus. I made the decision to leave 3000 zł with the girl at the museum and hoped I could trust my gut.
This also left me with a few hundred zloty I could use to purchase things that were needed at the train station. On March 11, 2022, I received photos from Paweł showing a bus full of people we helped bring to Warsaw from the border. I was overcome with emotion knowing we made a difference. Later that evening, I was contacted by my hometown newspaper, The Tribune Chronicle asking about life in Poland during the war. I told them my story up until that point and that I planned to return to the train station the next day to help. I had no idea the tidal wave that was about to hit.
I woke to a beautiful Saturday… blue skies and sunshine and not too cold. I started out heading to the Central Train Station to help wherever I was needed. I stopped for lunch on my way and saw a post that they needed some help and supplies at the West Train Station. I finished my lunch and changed direction. 2 buses later I arrived at a scene that I am at a loss for words to describe. Poland was prepared to accept about 1 million people across their border. By this morning, day 16 of the war, 1.6 million people have crossed into Poland. What I am witnessing here by everyday people in this city is beyond description. There were people everywhere. A tent was set up almost like a small boutique. Those just arriving could go and help themselves to whatever they needed. Next to that was a tent that was distributing sandwiches, snacks, and beverages. Inside the station were makeshift beds and people everywhere. I did what I could there for a couple hours, including keeping beverage supplies stocked. When I decided it was time for me to leave here I caught the bus back to the Central Train Station to see if there were any needs. It was the same, people, everywhere. Women going around offering strollers and baby carriers to mothers with young children. There was a tent city set up outside the train station with a sign that said free food. Tents for clothing, personal hygiene items, T-Mobile, and other phone carriers handing out sim cards with free minutes and data. People leave boxes of snacks, beverages, and sandwiches in the middle of the hall for arrivals to help themselves. Again, normal citizens somehow come together to make this work. I don’t know how Poland can keep accepting people, but they are resilient and are doing whatever they can to make it work. I struggle to find the words and pictures that do not tell the story you see in the eyes of new arrivals. I’m tired, I’m thankful, I’m blessed.
I fell into bed exhausted, physically but most of all, emotionally. I woke up Sunday morning to a plethora of messages. Many who saw my post from the train station wanted to know how they could help, could they send me money? Although a bit overwhelmed, I couldn’t say no. After all, one of my favorite quotes is from Mother Theresa and says, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I was already witnessing the ripple effect across Poland. I ordered my Starbucks (it’s my Sunday treat to myself), opened the Tribune app on my phone, and was shocked to see my story on the front page, “the drive to save lives”. Between my post from the previous day, a zoom chat with friends in Florida, and now the newspaper article, my notification chime kept dinging. It looked as if our ripple was turning into a tidal wave. At this point, I knew I couldn’t handle this all myself. I asked my friend Teri in Warren, Barb in Alabama, Dawn in Tennessee, and Marla in Florida if they would each handle contributions in their areas. By that evening, I was an emotional wreck. People I have never met, casual acquaintances, friends I went to school with, friends of friends, my family, more people than I ever imagined were sending contributions. If this doesn’t give some hope for humanity, nothing will. As I am writing this today, I have received over $13,000 of love and kindness for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. One person said they had been to Ukraine last summer with their child and he wanted to help. I heard, “my family chooses a charity to support each year and when we saw this it is what we want to do.” I discovered that people wanted something they could be a part of and see the results. When I said this war was becoming personal, I had no idea what I was talking about. I think I cried myself to sleep that night with tears of joy.
Monday and Tuesday, I worked. Wednesday, I told Paweł I would be by the Pinball Station to see him. After hitting up 4 ATM machines to withdraw funds for 2 buses (6000 zł), I set off to walk to the museum…purse close by my side. When I arrived there was a school group there so being a nice day, we headed out to the back patio to chat. 4 hours later, I was speechless. What this man has organized by himself is truly amazing. Here is his story…
If you’re like me, I never really gave much thought to bringing people from the border. You send a bus, you pick people up, you bring them back…simple, right? Not…In the early part of the war, there were easily 100 thousand people crossing the border on any given day. There are border gates that everyone must pass through and be counted. Some of these gates lead to cities that have train stations, some just lead to small towns or villages. These people need to be moved to bigger cities because there are no facilities in many of these places to handle large numbers. The other thing is all the regular daily train and bus service around and out of Poland can’t just stop. You can’t send every bus and train to the border and leave the rest of the country in limbo. Where are all these trains and buses going to come from to move this number of people? Paweł started out going to the border in his private vehicle. He decided he needed to find a way to get buses to the border. After he solved the problem of getting buses, the logistics doesn’t stop there. He got to know the police and volunteers in these border cities and for about the first 10 days traveled with the buses. Now, he explained to me, he sends a bus, when the driver is about 30 minutes out from the border, he phones Paweł. Paweł then phones a volunteer in one of the cities. He finds out where the greatest need is and then calls the driver and tells him which city to go to. Because males between 18 and 60 are obligated to remain in Ukraine, most of the passengers are women, children, the elderly, and a few pets. He has a simple notebook he records each day for each bus. For instance, he records each unit on the bus. (1 adult 2 children, etc.)
He also records their final or wished for final destination as this helps him determine if he drops them at the train station or orders Ubers to transport them to a shelter. He also told me that in the beginning there wasn’t a day when he wasn’t brought to tears by something. For example, at the border reception stations, the refugees are met and one of the things they are given is a sim card so they can contact someone that may still be in Ukraine. He told me of a mother and daughter who arrived. The first thing she did was call her husband. A stranger answered…..that is how she, alone, with a small child in a strange country, found out her husband had been killed.
Working at the train station, I noticed that people were arriving with very few personal items. Paweł explained. People started out taking as much as they could, but as the war escalated and evacuation intensified trains, buses and cars were more concerned with moving people, not things. Also, what might have normally been a 4-hour trip was now sometimes taking 4 days. People started abandoning their belongings at the side of the road not being able to carry so much because they were walking or because it was more important to take people versus “things”.
I am going to pause here for a moment in Paweł’s story and ask you to ponder this question. You must flee your home, your country, your life as you knew it because the bombs are closer each day, what are you taking in the one bag you will probably end up with? This was a recurring question in my classes whenever we talked about the current situation in Poland. No one could imagine having to put their life in a simple bag. What are you taking?
Paweł told me of one night that the bus was nearing the border and everywhere he called he heard the same thing, there are no refugees. No one seemed to know why. The bus driver said he could spend the night in the bus. The next morning, refugees started arriving again. Firstly, it had been cold overnight (upper teens, low 20’s) but more tragically, the Russians had been shooting at the trains. They stopped the trains, and everyone took shelter through the night. When they felt it was as safe as it would get, they continued their journey finally arriving at the border the next morning. There was also a rush at the border after humanitarian corridors were opened to evacuate cities. He told me of women in the border towns seeing mothers struggling with small children, would go across into Ukraine and carry their children into Poland for them.
I was stunned by his stories, his firsthand accounts. As we are entering day 25 of the war, almost 2 million people have crossed into Poland. Poland has said they will find a way to take everyone that needs refuge. We are seeing a decrease in people arriving now, but there are many other needs, and this could change at any time. For instance, there may be a need for transportation to the port in Gdynia, Poland as Sweden is transporting people from Poland to Sweden by boat. There is also a need for large quantities of cleaning supplies at these shelters that are housing 1000s of refugees. Toilet paper, soap, shampoo, personal hygiene items, blankets…think about it. Within 3 weeks 2 million additional people need these supplies. Where are they coming from? There is a need for powdered milk which he can buy at cost if he purchases 1000 kilos (about 1 ton). The Ukrainian army is requesting drones and they need medical supplies. So while we will still be using funds for sponsoring buses from the border, because of your generosity we will be able to help fund several projects.
I am going to wrap this up here. The last 3 weeks, but mostly this last week have been an emotional roller coaster. My eyes were opened to things I never thought about. Things I can’t imagine ever going through myself. I have met people who have no idea what their future looks like. I have also witnessed humanity and compassion that I thought didn’t exist anymore.
As Nelson Mandela said, “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.”
Thank you for letting me tell my story. My life, my heart, and my soul are forever changed. Thank you for making a difference.
Teri, Barb, Dawn, Diana, Randy, Danny, Sandy, Michael, Marla, Celeste, Brenda, Wanda, Gail, Jan, Ann, Kay, Dan, Richard, Connie, the Boca Starbucks Group, Amy, Larry, Gloria, Lynn, Guy, Pat, Richard, Cathy, Sandy, Maureen, Henry, Sue, Jane, Dan, Margie, Lori, Nina, Carly, Susan, Janet, Mark, Frank, Andrea, Marilyn, Darlene, Margo, Cathy, Jeff, Judy, Marilyn, Jodi, Julia, Dennis, Ann Marie, Donita, Sean, Traci, Marcella, Linda, Nick, Rhonda, Bob, Kathy, Henry, Deb, Scott, Sharon, Bob, Sally, Lucy, Mary, Kary, John, Becky, Ann, Karen, Shane, Tom, Emily, Debbie, Bill, Bobbie, Clara, Rocky, Jan, Marilyn, Maribeth, Elaine, Wayne, Teri, Janice, Jayne, Joyce, Jan….I’m sure the list will grow. Forgive me if I missed a name. It has all been overwhelming. Thank you for making a difference.