When war broke out in Ukraine, I knew I could not just sit watching it on TV, soothing my conscience with a donation, feeling I had done my part.
Watching millions of people trying to escape their country and crossing the border into Poland, I recalled the many stories I had heard at long family lunches when I was 14 and my great-grandmother was still alive. She was a Polish Jewess. Together with her family she fled Poland towards France, running for their lives. She carried my grandfather, still a baby at the time, hidden inside a toolbox. Most of the family were forced to journey back East, deported back to Auschwitz. My great-grandmother and her baby son, my grandfather, escaped that fate. Which is why I am here in Poland today.
Watching the news, I remembered the questions I could not articulate in time to ask my great-grandmother. I was too young. I couldn’t even imagine what war was. But when this war of Putin broke out, I asked myself: had there been people waiting for my great grandmother to help her across the border as she escaped death? How did her family settle in? What happened after they arrived? Unfortunately, these questions will remain forever without an answer. My great-grandmother is long dead. My father too.
In the absence of answers about my ancestors, I came here to seek answers about the victims of my time. I needed to do this trip.
I searched for an organisation that focused on receiving refugees that made it out of Ukraine. That is how I found the Zmieniamy Życie Foundation.
I found some incredible individuals that got together to help travel from the Ukrainian border towards safe shelters in Poland. Within weeks, as needs became clearer, the project grew. The foundation is sourcing medicines, first-aid kits, and personal protection equipment to deliver it inside Ukraine. It is buying food and necessities for refugees. And it has just rented a house for a year, to host a few families while helping children with their education until, hopefully, they are able to get back home.
Yesterday, I travelled from Malta to Warsaw and drove three hours to Lublin. Unless you’re watching it on TV you would not perceive the war happening just a few hundred kilometres away. But I am watching it on TV which makes the arrival in Lublin a surreal experience. This is the last major Polish city before the border with Ukraine. There’s beauty here. People seem to be living their normal life.
Marc, a volunteer from the foundation, welcomed us. Our first stop was at a reception centre managed by the foundation just outside the historical centre. A few Ukrainian families had just arrived. I did not take any pictures. It’s all still sinking in, and it won’t sink in if I filter reality through a mobile phone camera.
Here at the reception centre, volunteers welcome refugees and provide them with essentials: sim cards, food, clothes, and directions to where they want to go.
After the refugee centre, we went to the foundation’s office. We met there two of the main drivers of the foundation: Paweł Dziubiński and Wojciech Sielicki. They are two big men, with enormous hearts. Since the beginning of the war, they have given their every waking hour to respond to emergency needs, conjuring small miracles to help as many people as possible with the means at their disposal. They have been sourcing emergency supplies, deploying people to drive to the border and back, looking for accommodation, and raising funds to be able to support as many Ukrainians as possible.
This is where I want to be right now, with all the other volunteers that have taken time off from their jobs, paid for their trips, and rented their own cars to help selfless people like Pawel and Wojciech. This is my bit to give an answer to the questions I never got to ask my great-grandmother, to ensure that one day, the people that crossed the border fleeing Putin’s war, would be able to tell their great-grandchildren they found someone on the other side, waiting for them armed with a smile, food and a word of comfort. A friendly face drove them to safety, and they found shelter in a place that for some months became their home until it was safe again to go back to where they belong.
I am not too sure what to expect from day 2. The situation in Ukraine is volatile. I know now what a privilege it is to be here. I look forward to share that with the other other volunteers.
If you can’t come here, your donation would help the effort. You can send your contribution here.