Written by Jessica Sykora, Unbound Now Director of Development
Almost 13 million people are believed to have fled their homes in Ukraine since the conflict began, according to the United Nations, making this situation the fastest and largest mass migration of people since WWII.
This is the fact that motivated me as I flew with my coworker to Europe on May 4th. I could not let this moment in history go by without personal action. Thankfully, Unbound Now is no stranger to engaging with large scale issues, and I was given the opportunity to go assess and explore steps for long-term development of anti-trafficking work in Eastern Europe.
Every day our staff around the globe give their best efforts to address the reality that there are 40 million people being exploited through human trafficking in the world today. This current crisis, and the speed at which it occurred, has created unique strains and vulnerabilities whose ripple effects will be felt for years.
It was with this recognition that I packed and headed out for a multi-country journey to assess the need and meet with government entities and other NGOs who are also working to reduce the suffering of the displaced in Eastern Europe and begin planning for meeting the long term-needs in a collaborative and efficient way. This is what I love about the culture of Unbound Now; we send people quickly into hard places having trained them for frontline service, and adapt our strategies to fill gaps in the unique communities where we work.
After 12 days I am back home sitting in my office with many swirling thoughts. First, it is evident that both those who seek to serve and those who seek to profit from the desperation of others are showing up in large numbers in every country we visited. The transport centers and borders have calmed significantly for now, and it feels like Europe is holding its breath…waiting to see what is next.
Will these displaced people be able to return home in the near future or will they be forced to reestablish life in another country? How will the host countries who so readily made space in their cities and homes shift from temporary shelter to permanent integration if the war drags on? The strain of Poland’s population increase of nearly 10% in a matter of two months will continue to be felt, especially in schools and in the medical system.
As a result of this trip, Unbound Now has formed several strategic collaborations that will allow us to bring our training and survivor services to Europe in a culturally-relevant way. I am so excited to begin sharing with you all in the months to come as our plans take shape. There is no doubt that there is immediate need and work to do.
The questions are many and the vulnerable are waiting on solutions. They are living with real-time trauma and basic needs that must be met today and for many days going forward. Allow me to share about an encounter I had on my way home.
6 a.m. Bucharest Airport
She stood there, eyes wide, her plastic-wrapped suitcase and two carry ons making her already small frame look childlike in size, all her official documentation in a plastic sleeve she carried in her hand. After more than a week in meetings with government agencies and NGOs working to assist displaced Ukrainians, I knew this travel weary woman was living out the exact situation Unbound Now is seeking to intercept and serve.
I smiled and said good morning, and luckily her English was much better than my Ukrainian. We were able to communicate, and she asked for help getting checked in on the right flight. We were both headed to London Heathrow. My new friend had spent the night in the airport after a 12 hour bus ride from southwestern Ukraine.
She had never flown before and now she was nearly done with her daunting journey, escaping the violence in her home country by living with a British family while working in strawberry fields. Just a day before she said goodbye to her husband who will be fighting to keep their country free, and on this night she would be sleeping in the house of a benevolent stranger.
Our conversation was sweet as her nervousness and my concern for her safety gave us a lot to talk about. I was able to tell her about how I work to ensure people in vulnerable situations have the information they need to keep themselves safe, and know who to reach out to if the reality of their situation is not as promised. She gave me permission to check in with her in the days and weeks ahead.
As we deplaned in London we walked together through immigration. Her steps slowed as we neared the point where our paths would separate. I asked her if she was feeling nervous, and she said “Yes, I feel very scared.” I was concerned about her as well, but I knew that my role in that moment was to give her confidence. We had made a plan for how I would check in with her, and she had shared the information I needed to be able to check on her and connect authorities to her if things did turn out as planned. As I hugged her and prepared to say goodbye, I told her being scared is normal. I told herI believed this family cared about her and she would be safe. I also told her to call me as soon as she arrived at their home, and that I would check in with her the next day.
She and I have texted, sending pictures and prayers back and forth nearly every day since then. She is safe. The family is caring for her well.
This is the story of my friend, but it is also the story of millions. This is why Unbound Now has had people on the ground in Poland serving since March 15th, why we’ve spent the last 2 weeks in meetings around the region to build collaborations and initiate shared systems to ensure that as many people as possible get the help they need. Strategic and scalable solutions are in the works, but my airport encounter reminded me that a hug, timely information and knowing how to check up on a vulnerable person is effective at preventing exploitation, and that is an important part of our work. Unbound Now serves survivors and resources communities to fight human trafficking. We want to stop exploitation in its tracks, and keep as many people as possible safe from human trafficking.
Thank you for being of one heart with us. I know you are heartbroken over the Ukrainian Crisis and over exploitation around the world. We can’t all roam the airports and bus centers of Europe looking for those who need a kind word and helping hand, but we can all share this perspective with those in our community, and we can all support Unbound Now as they continue to run into hard places and serve well.