Sunday Morning ~ Kroscienko
April 24, 2022
First thing Tuesday morning I set out to find the Caritas office, about a three mile walk from my hotel through the city. It wasn’t the most beautiful walk, but interesting, and I got more confidence learning my way around the city. Thanks to Google maps I found the office without having to ask anyone. The office was part of a complex that looked to be all Caritas but not being able to read the signs, I’m not certain of that. The receptionist didn’t speak English, but she called someone who worked for Caritas International who did. I explained I was here for the next month and wanted to volunteer somehow and asked if she knew of any opportunities with the organization. She was not in charge of volunteers but gave me the number of someone who was. That was disappointing. It took me an hour and a half to walk there and I’m not good on the phone with a language barrier. I considered just walking over to the refugee center and asking if I could work there and just stay in Warsaw, but when I went back to my son’s he offered to call and speak with this person in Polish (a big help). She asked if I was willing to travel? I told her I’d go where they needed help the most, so she had a coordinator for the border sites call me, which he did about an hour later while I was out walking again. His English was iffy, and my Polish non-existent so I was unsure of the precise details. He did say the site was cold and I’d be outside all day and needed to be very strong. I got a little worried the work would be something like unloading trucks or something but then realized by “strong” he meant “hearty” and willing to be in the cold. That was not a problem I told him. He was also glad I could stay for two weeks. When I told him I didn’t have a car he sounded disappointed, saying it was difficult to get to these sites without a car. I asked if I could take a train? He said he would text me the information so I could be sure I understood it correctly; it would be possible but difficult to get there by train and bus. Back at the apartment I used my personal interpreter again to call back to confirm all the information. Tomek, the coordinator, said someone could pick me up at the bus as it did not go all the way to the border town of Kroscienko. I’d need a ride the last ten kilometers, but if I called when I arrived, someone could pick me up at the bus. I was ok with that, so got my travel tickets on line and went back to my hotel to pack a knapsack, leaving most of my things in Warsaw. Tomek said there was a place for us to sleep in the village of Ustrzysi Dolne where the bus would drop me off so I didn’t worry about finding a hotel. I had a bunch more questions but figured I’d learn when I arrived.
While I was packing up my stuff my phone rang showing a Texas number. It was a guy named Arnie, who had just arrived in Warsaw from Florida, via Italy, and was heading to the same site the next day. Tomek had given him my number to coordinate travel as he had a rental car. He asked if I wanted to drive with him. I’d already bought my train ticket and had no idea if this guy was a wacko, but he sounded reasonable and I was leaning toward going with him but told him I’d see if I could get my tickets refunded and call him back. I also wanted to check him out on line. Turns out he’d done the same thing I had: applied on-line with this organization, heard nothing, came anyway, then just showed up at the office. After reading his linked-in profile I decided he was legit so I called him and said I’d take the ride. It ended up being great and so much more convenient. Getting to the border at Kroscienko is a little like getting to Jackman, Maine. There is no way to do it all the way by public transportation. It’s rural and remote, beautiful, and cold.
When I say the Caritas site is at the border I mean the back of the tent is practically touching the fence. When the GPS told us we were 1.8 kilometers away we were stopped by what we thought was traffic, maybe construction or something, but after awhile it was clear this wasn’t just traffic. Arnie pulled around the line of cars and we saw they were in a cue. Then said, “Oh my God, this is the line to get through the border going back to Ukraine.” I’d heard people were going back, but this was incredible. Nose to tail for 1.8 kilometers. The cars were inhabited by only the drivers and they were either older men or women. It seemed very strange. We were stopped by several policemen as we drove past the stopped cars but they let us pass when we said we were volunteering with Caritas. When we could see the border we were stopped again and that policeman directed us to the tent.
At the Caritas tent we were greeted by Ilona, a Polish women who’d been working here for her second stint. The tent is a grey structure about 100 feet long, lit with a few dangling bulbs, dank and cold inside, but out of the wind and rain. She oriented us to all the supplies in the tent available for those in need: diapers, infant formula, female hygiene products, toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap, creams, hats, mittens, stuffed animals, toys, hot water bottles, pet food, information printed in Ukrainian, Polish, and English. There was a big urn for hot water and we could prepare tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or instant soup. There were crackers, biscuits, cereal bars, chocolate bars, and some chips we could give as snacks. There were long wooden tables set up the whole length of the tent, the one closest to the food had paper and crayons for kids to draw. The next one down was covered with toys. After that was a charging station for cell phones with several different sized cables. At the end of the tent were three padded lounge chairs and blankets in case someone needed to lie down.
When we arrived no one was in the tent except Ilona. She said it had been very quiet that day. We asked about all the cars going back to Ukraine and she said she thought maybe it was because of the Easter holiday. Today is Orthodox Easter and a big holiday in Ukraine. I was astonished! People would wait in that line to go home during a war for the Easter Holiday? Are you kidding me? She said she wasn’t sure but she thought that was it (her English is really good).
Our jobs, we learned, would mostly be serving tea and coffee and offering some emotional support. I was a little nervous about that since I wasn’t going to be able to communicate very well. Or at all. Turns out Arnie, with a car, was very useful at transporting people who had come through on foot to the refugee center 10 kilometers away. Once people cross (and it is all women, children, and a few older men) they get taken to a school where they can stay for up to 48 hours. There they have people to help them find a place to stay and arrange transportation. It is magnificently organized. Our tent is only the greeting station and they don’t stay very long. Only to get a warm drink and wait for a ride. There is a mini bus that they use for transport but it takes time for them to go back and forth and Arnie was eager to expedite their process.
It took us six hours to get here from Warsaw so the first day we only worked from 1 in the afternoon until 7:15 pm when the last people left the tent. Ilona did all the talking but she couldn’t understand a lot of the Ukrainian either. Across from the Caritas tent is another tent set up by Polish firemen and it is manned for 24 hours. Initially the Caritas tent was as well but now there are fewer people crossing to Poland and there aren’t enough volunteers to keep it open all night so we closed it up at 7:15 and drove back to Ustrzyki Dolne to the Caritas house where we would sleep. I was dying to get someplace warm. My feet were frozen. I wish I’d brought my Uggs. I can’t believe how cold it is here but realize we are way further north than I imagined (about the same latitude as northern Quebec) and we are in the mountains. It must have been absolute hell two months ago. By the time we drove away from the tent the line of cars was another kilometer long and it was clear they would be in those cars for days. It just didn’t seem possible they were doing this for Easter.
The Caritas house is a convent where they provide the volunteers a place to sleep and eat. It is very basic, but warm (ish), and there is a hot shower. It is in a gorgeous location on a hill in the mountain village. The sisters are on the third floor and we all share two connected rooms and a small bathroom on the ground floor. I think it’s a library and office. The other rooms on this floor are used for a day care center for seniors. Downstairs is a small kitchen and dining room for us to use. I’m not sure if the sisters use it as well; I’ve not seen any of them there. Four of us are sleeping on a pull-out sofa, chair, and mattress on the floor. Two of the four snore but otherwise I have no complaints about the accommodation. It’s way better than sleeping in that tent. Or in the thousands of cars lining the road.
The following morning the line of cars was even longer–––three kilometers. Some of the drivers of those cars came into the tent for coffee and we learned they are not going back for Easter. They are Ukrainian volunteers, women and men over 60, who are going into Poland to buy cars and bring them back to Ukraine for the military to use, replacing ones that the Russians have destroyed. One woman told us they do this repeatedly; this is her third trip. Going through customs takes time and she said they prepare to wait at least fifty hours in line to cross. Another driver, who spoke excellent English asked where we were from. When we told him the US he said he was so grateful for all the people who come to help. He said knowing the world is supporting them gives them encouragement and strength. I was practically in tears as he spoke. I told him the Ukrainians are inspiring us with their bravery and strength and everyone I know wants to do what they can to help.
Ilona (who left on Friday) had explained to us that a woman would be coming to collect two boxes and one bag full of bandages. It was all in a pile in one corner of the tent. Saturday morning in the rain, I was standing at the opening of the tent and saw a young, beautiful woman approach on foot and ask a policeman where the Caritas tent was. He pointed to us and she came in and asked for the boxes. Wioletta, another volunteer who came when Ilona left, pointed to them. The woman’s face seemed to fall when she saw them and went over to try to pick them up. She was speaking Ukrainian and even Wioletta, who speaks Polish, couldn’t understand her. I asked, “English?” She said, “Little bit.” I said I could help carry them to her car and she said, “No car.” and looked about to cry. We tried to pick them up and, though not very big, they weighed a ton. She opened the bottom box and inside was a military vest and my God, how do they wear these? It had to weigh 40 pounds! We packed it back up and put the box in a bag with handles so it would be easier to carry. I carried the second box with her over to the border where she wanted to walk into Ukraine. I don’t know what was said, but the border guard wouldn’t let her walk through. She put her hands over her face crying. I said, “You need a car to pass? No walking?” She nodded. I pointed to the line of cars waiting to go in and said, “Maybe ask if you can go in one of those cars?” She looked pretty fragile. We walked over to the first car and the guy got out and a policeman came over. There was a lot of talking back and forth and the guy in the front car said to me, “These cars not good. Police will get her car.” What I finally learned via Wioletta translating was she needed to find a car not carrying goods they were importing. Those bringing in cars and supplies took a long time to process. She needed to go with just passengers crossing over. I saw a press car pass through rather quickly but she couldn’t go with them. So she stood on the road and waited, wiping her face, and taking deep breaths. I went to get her a coffee and a granola bar, handed them to her, and she smiled and thanked me. About an hour later I looked out of the tent and saw her getting into a car and going through. God bless her.
The people coming over from Ukraine to Poland are mostly walking across having been dropped off on the Ukrainian side by husbands turning around to go back to fight. I don’t know why they wouldn’t let someone walk the other way. It’s very hard to see people coming this way. The women are carrying small children and older children are dragging small suitcases. The women are usually crying. They look healthy physically and so far the children seem to be holding it together for their mothers. On Friday, while waiting in the tent, one of the small boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old, sat down at the table with the paper and crayons and drew a picture of a tank with a Ukrainian flag flying from it. On the side were the words: “We are strong. We will be victorious”. This was written in Ukrainian but someone here translated it. When the car came to transport them to the refugee center, the child got up from the table and left the drawing. It broke my heart. May his words be the truth.
Ok, I’m going to try to post this, but I want to say I do not feel I’m in any danger here. And I’m not doing anything heroic. But I’m happy to be handing out warm drinks if that can be any comfort at all. There are two medics here but they are standing around without much to do.
Love to all,