All day and late into the night, small groups of women and children, and a few men, made their way across the Ukrainian – Polish border. Clustered around their heavy suitcases, which carries the only earthly possessions they packed, and many with blankets wrapped tightly around their shoulders to keep warm, they seemed to hurry towards a finish line.
“I’m not leaving for myself,” Marina a Ukrainian who had just arrived at the border said. “I’m leaving for her.” As she indicates her five-year-old daughter playing next to her. She left her home near the Belarus border at 5am on Saturday March 6, 2022 and travelled the width of the country to cross into Poland around 10pm that night. For many making the trip out of Ukraine, their only thoughts for most of their journey was getting to safety – fleeing the destruction or threat of bombs and missiles behind. “For over a week we lived in terror – mostly in the basement. I had to keep my daughter dressed all the time – so she couldn’t sleep well. I was constantly listening and thinking we have to flee – is a missile coming?” Marina shared. It was after the attack on the nuclear plant that she made the decision to go. At 26 years of age, she left behind her husband, parents and relatives to take her daughter away from the risk of death.
As of March 9, 2022, almost 1.5 million people had left Ukraine for Poland, with several hundred thousand doing the same thing every day.There were many others like Marina making impossible decisions to leave everything behind in the hope of safety. And on the Polish side, they were welcomed by volunteers who helped to escort arriving groups across the border: carrying heavy suitcases and tired children the final steps into safety. The volunteers came to help during this crisis for a variety of reasons. Most were Polish, some from countries further away, but the rallying response seemed to be that this is the time to help.
Addressing the needs
“Some Ukrainians arriving have no place to go once they get to Poland,” Weronika, the country leader in Poland explained. “The government arranges for pick up for these people from the border to a welcome centre where they have volunteers to help them. Others have contacts elsewhere that they are traveling to but have a long journey yet ahead – and these are the people we can help.” After the long, dangerous trips, where all they could think about was getting somewhere safe with their children, the women were exhausted and needed a place to collect themselves before continuing. The OM team in Poland initially set up trailers at two different crossing points of the border, to provide a safe, warm space for mothers and children to sit down, rest and eat something warm. Marina was one of these women who stayed in the OM trailer while she waited for a friend who was still in the immigration line in Ukraine.
From the border though, Ukrainians travelled onward – wherever they had contacts or found a place to be housed for an unknown amount of time. Many of these people travelled through major cities like Warsaw before transiting onwards. The OM team in Warsaw began networking and connecting generous Polish people that wanted to help with the urgent needs of the arriving Ukrainians. The highest need initially was for housing, either temporary or more permanent options. “There are many Polish people that want to help but need to be linked with the needs of the Ukrainians,” Weronika shared. “Part of our job has been to help connect them with where the needs are.” A young volunteer force made calls every day to arrange for housing options as they popped-up; often calls come in late at night of new arrivals needing a place for a family of 5 or 6 to sleep. Already in the first week since fighting broke out, several hundred people had been housed in the homes of Polish people across the country through the network that OM developed. A website was launched by the OM team as well, to help make it easier for volunteers to know how and where help is needed.
'Now is the time to help'
Another city Kutno, which already had a high Ukrainian population, had many of the relatives and contacts swarm into the quiet little town. An OM church plant there, with several Ukrainian members, became an organizing centre for the community’s response to the needs of those arriving. Arek and Donna planted the church 22 years ago and are now seeing their members serving others. The church itself was repurposed as a shelter, where people could also drop off food, clothing and essential needs for women, children and babies. The wider local community opened their homes to welcome Ukrainians to stay: offering a spare apartment or even squeezing their family into one bedroom to free up another room for those in need.
“Now is the time to help,” Donna said as she bustled around the church, coordinating and organizing a system in the midst of some of the chaos. Piles of donated clothing needed to be sorted, food shelves in the donation centre needed to be restocked, and the constant arrival and departure of new Ukrainians needing housing meant there was constantly something to do. Veronika, a woman who spent a night in the church before being placed in her own apartment, left Ukraine with her mother, two-year-old daughter and 16-day-old baby boy. “What do you need in the apartment? Is anything missing?” Donna asked her during a quick home visit. Despite working tirelessly for the previous eight days, and the ebb and flow of new arrivals, Donna took time with the women – offering them words of encouragement and helping them find what they needed in the church.
Everywhere, there was a strong volunteer force, working with the OM teams to house and feed people, providing transport from the border or to a housing option found, and engaging in conversation with those who had just experienced the trauma of leaving so much behind. Those fleeing left pieces of themselves behind with their husbands, loved ones, and homes – and the weight of these choices was visible on their faces. People’s practical needs are easier to meet than the emotional scars they’ve experienced through the war in Ukraine. “They need more than a juice pack and some snacks – anyone can provide those,” Weronika explained. “But what they really need is peace, a conversation with someone, to be seen as a human and listened to.” She and her team worked tirelessly to serve their neighbours from across the border with the respect and love they deserve.
OM teams in the countries around Ukraine have continued to respond to the needs of those fleeing into their countries, as well as sending relief packages and help into Ukraine as well. They have distributed food and essential supplies, coordinated housing options, and networked with a wide array of churches and volunteers to serve the needs of many.