Written by team member George Young
I want to share some of what I have learned about the Ukraine refugee crisis so far, and how Poland has stepped up in a huge and heroic way. With the sudden influx of refugees from Ukraine flowing into Poland (3-4 million), many humanitarian organizations and the Polish government (and adjoining countries) moved quickly to address the basic needs of millions of refugees as they fled Ukraine. Because they hope to return home, huge numbers wanted to stay in Poland or at least Europe. In Warsaw alone families have taken in hundreds of thousands. At first the Polish government did not want to have refugee “camps,” as we’ve seen from other humanitarian crises. But eventually several refugee centers were established on the Polish border, east of Krakow. These did and are doing a fantastic job of providing train tickets, diapers, water, food and shelter. The criminal syndicates saw the refugee influx as a huge trafficking opportunity. That is where Unbound Now steps in, sending teams to the border and refugee centers, providing education to refugees on what to look for when offered a ride or shelter or food by a lone wolf driver; the Unbound teams also work to interrupt likely trafficking situations.
On Thursday morning our 5 person team drove together to the border. Our interpreter had left for Przemysl (pronounced sort of like “sher-moosh” or “sher-mish”) and Medyka at 3:30 that morning. Our interpreter team is incredible, they speak four languages, which has made them invaluable.
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After just one day together it is clear that this team is cohesive and highly aware. We arrive at the border and make the short walk past Port-a-potties to arrive at the bus stop picking up refugees to transport them further into Poland for free. Towards the border from the rest stop, one walks a quarter mile down what I call NGO alley, or the Medyka Midway. Imagine the State Fair of Texas midway, but instead of rides and tents where they take your money, on both sides of the walkway NGO after NGO has a tent supplying free services, essential items, food, strollers, and a bunch of other things the refugees need as they arrive from Ukraine, or as they return to Ukraine. For example, Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen has a very fresh supply of food, including hot soup and cold cut sandwiches; they have been at every refugee center we have seen, immaculate and well-run. I would include pictures, but we are strongly discouraged from taking any pictures that include refugees’ faces.
Then one walks up to the Polish immigration exit/passport control, then uphill to Ukraine passport control, and just outside from there another almost 1000 yards to the “pick-up” point where Unbound has a tent, along with only a few other NGO’s. Nothing like the large number of tents in NGO Alley. While sometimes part of our team works on the Polish side, we have found that we can be more effective on the Ukraine side, handing out our items and cards to refugees going both ways.
Just beyond the tent is an area with no police or army presence to speak of, and about four NGOs, then a large border-town street where buses, taxis, and individual drivers wait to pick up returning refugees, or drop off refugees (the actual bus station is another quarter-mile walk, and a number of times we have made that trip to carry bags, or escort moms and kids safely to the bus station). And there is no credentialing of individual drivers, so there is no quick way to distinguish traffickers from legitimate transport (except the buses, mostly).
On one day of border service, I carried bags for a mother taking her two young daughters to reunite with her husband on the Ukraine side, for a couple of weeks, until they travel to London, where she now has a job (her specialty is Environmental Law; she attended law school in Oregon). They had left hurriedly, and she wanted to take her kids back to Lviv to “say goodbye.” They had been staying with friends in Poland, a week here, and a couple of weeks there, then moving again to stay with other friends. I’d include a picture of her and the girls below, but since I did not get this refugee’s permission to distribute it I hope this description suffices. I am not up to the task of adequately describing the reunion between her and the two girls and their father/husband, but I can say I will never forget it. Half-mile uphill hike and long waits at border control(s).
A few words here about Unbound’s values-based means and methods. Unbound has two-sided cards printed in Ukrainian that describe how to find safe travel, warn of the presence and risk of human traffickers, and list ways to avoid getting picked up by a trafficker. We hand these out in a non-confrontational manner, empathetic to the fact all of these refugees are already deeply traumatized. We do not try to frighten them (the cards are more informational and not meant to be alarming, just attention-getting), but to approach with an educational attitude. We are very sensitive to the fact these good folks are confused, exhausted, and their decision-making skills impaired. Many times the women come up to us first, since we have goods being handed out.
But mostly it is about Unbound volunteers, in teams of two and three, watching and being visible, alert for potential instances of trafficking. A few times Thursday and Saturday I saw men practically accosting moms with kids or single women, and we approached to hand them a card—I had two instances where the woman read the card and walked off from the man. Trafficker? Who knows, could have been a legitimate taxi driver, though I never saw either’s taxi. We know we have been successful in assisting at this stage of their journey when we see them get on the right bus to Lvyv or Kyiv, often with a card.
I guess I should add that all of this happens in mostly mud and pretty steady rain.
Lest I leave you with an impression the work is totally serious and heavy, I need to say: there is so much joy, laughter and smiling in our little group. The core team of four has known each other for years now, and their teasing is good-natured and right on. When they started to tease yours truly, I felt I had made the grade. Also, I lost a bet last Saturday with one of the Team members. The wager was: whoever lost had to stand up at dinner and sing for the group and entire restaurant. I kept putting off my paying up, until our last night together, when after dinner I taught them the chorus to “The Weight,” (“Take a load off…and put the load on me…”) and I sang standing three verses a cappella, with rousing chorus after each verse from the entire Team, that had the restaurant staff smiling, and the other patrons wryly bewildered. They were doing perfect harmonies on the chorus, and the entire group was into it.
There is more to tell and more to do, but I hope this leaves you with a feeling of being here with us. Of the weight and the glory. Of the need and the hope.