Our Man on the Ukrainian Border
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
Ramsay Bader is a first-year from New York City, studying International Relations. On Monday 21 March he flew from Edinburgh to Krakow to volunteer with refugees, and will be sending The Saint daily updates from the Poland-Ukraine border.
SATURDAY — 26/03/2022
It was another busy day at Medky: the border crossing.
There had been a lull on attacks on Lviv, the Ukrainian city that served as the locus for fleeing internal refugees and the main organizational point for those heading to Poland. We had another order of suitcases - to the tune of around $8000’s worth.
Shawn, a friendly and gung-ho South Dakotian had been organizing fundraisers back in his hometown of Sioux Falls, and had made a appearance on the local news the night before, calling in from his hotel room. His grassroots fundraisers have helped to provide over 700 suitcases to refugees so far, and he also works alongside the World Central Kitchen. We drove early in the morning to a warehouse in central Przemysl to collect the new batch of 50 suitcases. The warehouse, with gray soviet-era walls and dusty shatter windows, stood in stark contrast to the gleaming silver suitcases.
Our transaction with the man was handled with a series of nods, pointing, and a envelope full of Polish złoty.
As we lumbered towards the Medyka checkpoint, the winds were brewing - literally. Gone were the blue skies, only to be replaced by a dust storm whipped up by the dry dirt. Eyes squinting, and the taste of dirt in my mouth, we scaled the barbed wire fence. Today we were helping in one of our satellite tents, about 15 feet from the entrance of the gates manned by a mix of Polish police and border guards.
Volunteers in high-vis vests rushed to and fro, pushing rattling shopping carts around the border checkpoint in what appeared to be a sobering carousel. Word had come through: there was a line of over 1000 people on the other side, waiting to cross from the Ukrainian side of the border and to enter Poland. And yet the Ukrainian border control only had two booths, so only 2 people could be processed at a time.
The same was for the Polish side, and so you ended up with the physical manifestation of a bureaucratic nightmare. To further complicate matters, the border crossing is done in two parts. First one has to go through Ukrainian border control, where men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country, and then one has to go through Polish border control. Its a two part process, and you would receive two different passport stamps.
The interiors of the two different border control offices are in stark contrast. The Polish entrance is identical to any number of border crossings with their dull gray furnishings and disinterested agents. The Ukrainian crossing however has a level of tension to it. At first glance it appears similar in layout to any other border crossing, then you see the rifle leaning up against the glass of the cubicals as the officials stamp your passport, as well as the armed guards, barely in their 20s, patrolling the lines with rifles over their shoulders. Few words are spoken, and disrupts are handled quickly - often with the men trying to leave the country being escorted out of the office by the guards.
After dropping off the suitcase I was assigned to run the food distribution tent in the camp, managing supplies and making sure they got to the people who needed them. I brushed up on my Polish and Ukrainian on the fly, and made sure I knew the important words. Sok - juice. Фрукти (Sounds like ‘fruit-key’) - Fruit. Вода (sounds like ‘voda’) - water. Knowing a combination of Polish and Ukrainian was essential for making sure food and drinks got around.
There is power in language, and that was certainly evident at the food truck next to our tent, which was providing a variety of Pierogi, dumplings, and had made the decision of crossing out ‘Russian’ in ‘Russian pierogi’ and instead replacing it with ‘Ukraine’. The same went for Moscow Mules in the local Polish bars being renamed to’Kyiv Mules.’ Naleśniki ‘ruskie’ z twarogiem (Crepes with Russian filling) became Naleśniki ‘Ukraina’ z twarogiem (Crepes with Ukrainian filling.)
Although it might seem like a tiny gesture, it had significance to many of the refugees fleeing from the chaos Russia was sowing in their country. The war was being fought on all fronts - from aid, to media, to culture.
FRIDAY — 25/03/2022
Today has been another busy day.
I stayed up late last night finishing up work for tutorials and starting my upcoming International Relations essay, which feels especially relevant.
We start early, arriving 8am at the warehouse. What awaited me was about 4 straight hours of making, sealing and packaging about 1100 containers of Apple Sauce. Apple Sauce is a product in shockingly high demand - its easy to make, tastes great, and is easy food for young children.
There is beauty in its simplicity, and it is one of many things I’ve been missing when it comes to understanding humanitarian aid: logistics. Being able to get food to the people who need it, when they need it, is essential. But also making sure it is the right food - nutritious and simple.
Logistics is the name of the game - and being able to adapt on your feet. I’ve learned that the only constant here is that nothing is constant. It took all of 2 minutes for me to go from putting lids on apple sauce, to being on a transport to the border.
Some days we see large waves crossing the border - as trains or buses arrive, but some days it is just a trickle of small families crossing the wrought-iron gates. The shelter behind our tent, run by a woman with a never-ending smile and boundless energy, was packed the previous night.
Almost 200 people share about 80 beds. We make another 2 runs to the border today, both times filling the truck to the brim with suitcases, all are supplied to us by a jolly Polish man outside of a rundown warehouse over Google Translate.
The police presence at the border had begun to increase, and they are more strict than a few days prior. Many volunteers now sport official ID cards, instead of the makeshift high-vis vests that served as designations for volunteers.
As we enter the parking lot, we are stopped by Polish police and asked about our intentions. My knowledge of Polish being limited to a grand total of 2 words, I simply point at the suitcases in the back and the officer lets us through with a nod.
Over the barbed wire fence we go, and back into the open-air market that the border entry appears to be. Colourful stands, people handing out candy, volunteers blowing bubbles and offering kids toys to anyone walking buy, as the scent of freshly cooked food wafts through the air. A scattered assortment of music fills the air - the Frozen song ‘Let It Go’ blasts from the Sikh tent, while the Médecins Sans Frontières tent plays Ukrainian trap music. It is sheer chaos.
Chaos is everywhere. Crossing the barbed wire fence, we hardly make it 10 metres before we have already given away five of our suitcases.
Another ten metres down and a family of seven has descended and start to take the suitcases. We are eager to help the family, who we assume to be Ukrainian refugees, but halfway through unlocking the suitcases we are interrupted by a shout - “Thieves!”
Several of the volunteers from the tents surrounding us start approaching us, grabbing the suitcases out of the hands of the family. A man yells again, telling them to leave and stop stealing. To my shock and dismay, the family aren’t Ukrainian refugees but are instead Romani.
They started coming to the border entrance a few days prior posing as refugees, but they were discovered when they were found to be lacking the white bracelet given to everyone crossing the border, and the fact that they couldn’t speak Ukrainian.
Despite being caught, they return every day, and continue to try to find new volunteers to exploit. It is disheartening to see, that people are willing to exploit a tragedy, and others' generosity, simply for personal gain.
They aren’t the only ones - it is not uncommon for other Polish people to pose as refugees and receive free supplies, only to sell them in local markets later that same day.
Chaos is rife, and it sometime feels as though we are wading upstream. When responding to crises such as this one, it always feels as though you are a few steps behind.
It's a constant game of staying ahead of the curve, predicting, and adapting. Always aiming to do better, and sometimes that is all you can hope for.
THURSDAY — 24/03/2022
We are close to the border again.
Close enough that when I checked my phone, we had slipped into the next time zone and were an hour ahead.
Today we're delivering food and supplies to the center we run outside of the Korczowa-Krakovets border crossing. Inside a massive converted mall lie hundreds and hundreds of beds. Tents and scattered belongings lean on glass walls emblazoned with designer labels and massive ‘sale’ signs. This hastily converted mall serves as a temporary home for Ukrainian refugees, with the majority of people staying for a few days at most.
What is most striking is that this camp was barely half full, very different from its strained capacity just a few days ago. Border crossings have begun to slow to a trickle. This slow doesn’t mean the refugee crisis is alleviating, far from it. Over 6.5 million Ukrainians are still internally displaced. Those on the ground at the border crossing theorise that many of the internally displaced Ukrainians in embattled cities are waiting for ceasefires before making a rush to Lyiv, which has become a hub for transiting refugees.
As aid organizations and border crossings become less overwhelmed, the focus turns to relocation and the care of those most vulnerable. Many of those who crossed brought with them ailing parents and grandparents, and for them especially, housing is a vital issue.
Relocation is the biggest problem to tackle now, as millions make their way into Europe expecting not to be able to return for a long time.
WEDNESDAY — 23/03/2022
Today I am writing from even closer to the border, as we rumble down a dusty road to Przejście drogowe Polska, a border crossing from Ukraine into Poland.
The cargo in our rental van? - Suitcases.
It may not be the first item that comes to mind when one thinks of ‘humanitarian aid’, but for those forced to leave their homes with scarce warning it is an essential. Many of those crossing the border carry their belongings in nothing more than plastic grocery bags. This is richly ironic, as shopping carts are the main vehicle for belongings from the gate of the border checkpoint to the buses and trains into Poland.
A swarm of volunteers from dozens of different organisations, from Jehovah's Witnesses to Sikh Aid International, and from Unicef to SIM card providers, all wearing the uniform of mismatched high-vis jackets and a rainbow of different lanyards, help to cart the belongings of refugees the quarter-mile through the border.
To get to the veritable maze of volunteer tents we have to climb over a barbed wire fence using two plastic lawn chairs and a rug to avoid the barbs.
Two French men from another aid organisation man the hastily-made entrance, and deter some of the scammers who lurk around the parking lot. Many act as Ukranian refugees - only to sell supplies in local marketplaces.
Surreal is a word which simply cannot convey the mix of emotions I feel during the hours I spend working at the border. Families pass, each with a different heart-tugging story.
A man from the suburbs of Kyiv who was crossing the border with his wife and sons, only to cross the border once more only a few hours later to return to his ailing mother; nursing mothers with children born hardly months before the start of the war; an aging grandmother in a wheelchair, nursed by her grandson, descended on by veritable hordes of news cameras like a pack of vultures.
There is almost a sacrilegious nature to the treatment of the volunteer area - refugees crossing the border are overwhelmed with a barrage of signs, people and cameras. Nestled behind the tents are places of temporary reprieve.
The tent behind ours houses a shelter for mothers, holding dozens of beds and crates of baby food.
The woman who runs the shelter, herself a refugee from Nicargua 30 years prior, had reached out to us about providing more suitcases for the women inside. And so we make six more trips over the barbed wire fence, the suitcases bought from a Polish warehouse, with Google Translate as the medium.
Coming to the border to volunteer was one of the toughest decisions of my life, not just because I would be at risk, but because I was more terrified of the phone call with my mum than anything else. Whilst my family might be used to my spontaneous nature, especially with travelling, breaking the news that I was volunteering right next to a active warzone was a daunting task.
I had gone over the conversation a dozen times in my head before I picked up my phone and dialed. I called on a Saturday afternoon - about 48 hours before I would leave - and only 24 hours after I had decided to go. I wasn’t just breaking the news to my mum I was traveling to the border, but that I was just about to leave.
It wasn’t an easy call for both of us but I’m glad it happened. Maybe it's more just American culture, but university feels like the first true taste of adult independence - and I had just taken a sledgehammer to the concept. I wasn’t just traveling, but I was willingly putting myself in a position of some relative risk in a country 7000 km and an ocean away.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but its one I am proud of and a decision I would make again - every time.
TUESDAY — 22/03/2022
I’m writing this from Przemyśl, Poland - about 5 miles west of the Ukraine border.
I have travelled here from St Andrews this week to volunteer for several organisations doing work with refugees across the border.
Currently, I am working with World Central Kitchen, an organisation which provides hot food and supplies to refugees displaced by the conflict. I am also working with UkraineTakesShelter, an organisation started by a friend of mine that provides housing for Ukrainian refugees across the world.
Since the start of the conflict I have wanted to volunteer, and last week one of my Polish friends reached out, as his entire family was going to volunteer at the border. I immediately said yes.
This was just last week, and as of Monday this week I was on a flight to Krakow, Poland. Today (Tuesday) I drove up to Przemyśl and begun my work with World Central Kitchen.
As we drove to Przemyśl, the moving of the wheels of war became more evident the closer we got. Caravans of fuel trucks and 18-wheelers are working their way east, awaiting the 12+ hour wait to cross the border into Ukraine.
The site itself seemed to buzz like a beehive, as volunteers rushed pallets off and onto trucks and vans emblazoned with the lettering "WCK" (World Central Kitchen).
A war is being fought, not just with bombs and guns - but with trucks, crates, and most importantly: logistics.
Over 3.5 million refugees have crossed Ukraine’s border, representing the world's largest refugee crisis since World War II. Food, supplies, and shelter are all absolutely essential and anything you can do to help is invaluable.
This is the first day of work for me here - and there will be many more to follow.
Please consider donating to World Central Kitchen. Every donation means more hot meals and food going to refugees crossing the border, and I will be helping to personally make and distribute it.
You can use the link https://donate.wck.org/Ramsay.