From the Poland/Ukraine Border, April 24, 2022
April 24, 2022
April 24, 2022
Please allow me to start with a bit of history. As you know, I was very inspired by President Zelensky’s heroic words: “I don’t need transportation, I need ammunition.” And he was not leaving, this Churchill of Ukraine.
I’ve been re-reading Polish history some evenings, and was reminded of the tragic and heroic Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Polish people always had the strongest resistance during WWII, and they came together in August 1944 to try to finish the German occupation of Warsaw, against very stiff odds and though starving. The prior year the Jewish Ghetto Uprising had ended badly, with the surviving Jews transported by the Germans to the Majdanek and Treblinka death camps. For months prior to the 1944 Uprising, Russia had chased the German army out of Russia and across Poland. But instead of quickly liberating Warsaw, the Russians paused at the Vistula River, and basically became macabre observers of the Uprising, calculating that the Poles and Germans would decimate each other, and then the Russians could stroll into Warsaw, conquer the Poles, and continue to chase a further weakened German army into Germany. And that is what happened. Late in the 1944 Uprising, a now-famous-in-Poland poem “Warsaw Appeal” was read over the Home Army resistance broadcasting station; the poem’s alternate title: “We demand ammunition!” President Zelensky knew whereof he spoke, and invoked historical echoes, echoes of prior Russian duplicity and cravenness.
I drove to Krakow last Tuesday. Before leaving Warsaw, I stopped at the Polish equivalent of CVS, Rossmann’s, to load up on supplies Unbound will be handing out on the border as it passes out its warning cards on human trafficking. Imagine the sight of a 64-year-old man buying—by the gross—small packages of toothbrushes, kids’ toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, wipes, hand lotion, hard candies, etc. We will be handing out these supplies at the border, filling gaps in the great job that the NGOs and other faith-based orgs are doing. I believe I successfully blew out the Google/American Express/internet consumer algorithm with my purchases—cannot wait to see the ads I get the next few weeks. I made two more trips to a Krakow Rossmann’s near my hotel, and made similar purchases, along with a new light suitcase on rollers to carry this stuff. I also bought a large number of small plush toys, from a flabbergasted street vendor in Krakow Old Town’s largest square, but these went so fast on Thursday and Saturday I will be going back to her next weekend to buy a bunch more when I return to Krakow for a weekend.
Upon arrival in Krakow, I met with a wonderful and spiritually powerful couple, Alex and Sam, and their five-month-old angel of a daughter, Talia. Alex and Sam met at Texas A&M, where she worked with the Bryan office of Unbound. They had traveled to Krakow in March to help with the Unbound efforts, and those of a more traditional faith-based humanitarian group we are often side-by-side with on the border, Acts of Mercy. They quickly picked up Polish and Ukrainian. Alex and Sam have been conducting rotating teams to the border since March for Unbound and AOM. They would be our guides and counselors on the border starting Thursday—with the ever-calm Talia in tow. Meeting these three bright lights has been one of the highlights of my trip so far, up there with the Good Friday Stations of the Cross procession and meeting the team that is here for about 12 to 14 days.
On Thursday morning I met the four-person Unbound Team that arrived the preceding midnight, so we could drive together to the border. Our translator, Erika, had left for Przemysl (pronounced sort of like “sher-moosh”) and Medyka at 3:30 that morning; I ended up delaying my departure to the Krakow airport to meet the team just a bit, until her twin sister, Lisa, could bring her passport, forgotten in the early morning departure. More about the translators’ story and how they became connected to Unbound below. But know that they speak four languages, which has made them invaluable. Once I had the passport, I found the team at the Krakow airport, and we proceeded in two cars to Medyka.
I hardly know where to begin in describing this team of three male Baylor students/recent grads and graduate student Olivia, both as a strong group and as powerful individuals filled with the Spirit of God, and more mature and wiser than their years by decades. But I will now try, stipulating I will fall short in capturing their devotion and Godly purpose. Description is also difficult because I am so humbled by these good folks.
Austin is the team leader, a recent Baylor graduate. He has done other mission trips, so is well-equipped for this endeavor. He is deliberate and careful in his decisions as team leader. He has also been a dynamic leader of the worship services for the group. Austin’s brother Jeff is ending year four of a 4-1 accounting program at Baylor, engaged to be married late this summer to another Baylor grad, and after a ten-day “break” upon his return from Poland/Ukraine (when he makes up missed finals and attends two weddings), he goes to Bangalore, India on a mission trip until his return just in time for his nuptials. He has done several prior mission trips, including Dubai last summer. Since Jeff was the navigator on three-hour drive to Medyka, on the border, and also yesterday on our four-hour trip to refugee centers North of Medyka, I have had more time with him. Jeff is one of those intellectuals with whom one has deep philosophical, political and religious discussions—within the first hour of meeting; I have found our time together a total delight. Jeff asks great questions that make the time fly in discussion. He repairs old jeeps from scratch to sell, is buying a house near Baylor for after his marriage, and traveled the world. He speaks several languages, and I wager he will have learned more-than-serviceable Polish and Ukrainian by the time they leave at the end of next week. Austin and Jeff are both Eagle Scouts, another bond we share.
Cade is also a recent grad, and was my first contact with Unbound a few short weeks ago, when he was in contact with Congressman Sessions’ Waco office to expedite his passport. The first evening here over a late dinner, I discovered Cade is quite the musician, playing multiple musical instruments expertly and writing music. He is playful and upbeat in the face of everything, but has a serious side that has come out at just the right time.
Olivia is a quiet friend of Austin’s and Jeff’s, knowing each other when they were growing up, also home-schooled, and they met at a once-a-week coop for home-schooled kids. Olivia has done mission work in Israel. She went to a small college in downtown Dallas, and now is doing graduate work online with a university in Pittsburgh—Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Oh my. As I say, she is the quietest of the group, with an upbeat attitude at all times; she was pretty quiet, that is, until an issue came up in her wheelhouse, consent—specifically refugee consent to be photographed, when she became a strong voice of conscience for me, articulating along with Cade the team consensus on how we should deal with the consent issue I describe below.
Grasping for a way to describe them as a group, I can tell you this: today is a rest day for us due to today (Sunday), being Orthodox Easter. Very little border traffic yesterday and almost none expected today. So the Team decided to go to Auschwitz. Makes sense for Olivia, given her passion for her graduate program, but this team is cohesive and aware, and the other three are accompanying her today. I begged off, since I had already scheduled a trip to Auschwitz on my off day a week from tomorrow, but a big part of me wishes I had gone with them.
So after a three hour drive to Medyka from Krakow, we missed our main exit, which takes us in a little longer back way to the border, but that meant that we missed the huge traffic jam on the main road into Medyka that slowed Alex/Sam/Talia’s arrival. We parked in a mud lot next to the train tracks, and waited until they arrived. Another “happy accident,” missing that turn. A short walk past port-a-potties, and we arrive at the bus stop picking up refugees to transport them to Krakow, or Przemysl about sixteen miles away (where there is a big refugee center that can accommodate them overnight and where they can be picked up by bus to be taken for free to destinations further inside Poland, and then perhaps to other European countries). Towards the border from the rest stop, one walks a quarter mile down what I call NGO alley, or the Medyka midway. Imagine the State Fair of Texas midway, but instead of rides and tents where they take your money, on both sides of the walkway NGO after NGO has a tent supplying free services, essential items, food, strollers, and a bunch of other things the refugees need as they arrive from Ukraine, or as they return to Ukraine. For example, Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen has a very fresh supply of food, including hot soup and cold-cut sandwiches; they have been at every refugee center we have seen, immaculate and well-run. I would include pictures, but we are strongly discouraged from taking any pictures that include refugees’ faces. I had no problem with that as a first-day lesson. But that issue would return with greater ramifications.
Then one walks up to the Polish immigration exit/passport control, then uphill to Ukraine passport control, and just outside from there another almost a thousand yards to the “pick-up” point where AOM and Unbound share a tent, along with only a couple of other NGO’s. Nothing like the large number of tents in NGO alley. While sometimes part of our team works the Polish side, we have found that we can be more effective on the Ukraine side, handing out our items and cards to refugees going both ways.
The flow on Thursday was substantial going both ways, but not as heavy as it was a week or so ago. In talking with other NGOs, there is a consensus that even if the military and political situation in Ukraine improves, we will see a ton of rebound migration back to Poland, when these good folks discover their homes and towns are devastated, and/or the economic abyss forces them to return to Poland.
So as we go through NGO alley, and encounter a steady stream of refugees, Alex directs us to help those with bags and suitcases through border control. I ended up carrying bags for a mother taking her two your daughters to reunite with her husband on the Ukraine side, for a couple of weeks, until they travel to London, where she now has a job (her specialty is environmental law). They left hurriedly, and she wanted to take her kids back to Lviv to “say goodbye” for a while. They had been staying with friends in Poland, a week here, and couple of weeks there, then moving again to stay with other friends. Her English was excellent, since she learned it in Ukraine and attended law school in Eugene, Oregon. Since it took 45 minutes to get through grossly under-staffed Polish order control, and an equal time to get through worse-understaffed Ukraine border control, we had a long visit. I’d include a picture of her and the girls below, but since I did not get this refugee’s permission to distribute it I hope this description suffices. I am not up to the task of adequately describing the reunion between her and the two girls and their father/husband, but I can say I will never forget it. Half-mile uphill hike and long waits at border control(s), what half-mile uphill hike and bureaucratic delays?
Immediately outside the Ukraine border control, on the Ukraine side, the UN has set up large tents to protect the refugees from the elements as they await processing out of Ukraine. And that is about the only presence of the UN one perceives anywhere in Poland or on the border. A week ago the line of refugees to leave Ukraine was back past the third huge tent, double lines, but now the line is only an hour or so to enter the first Ukraine-side border control building. Just beyond the tent is an area with no police or army presence to speak of, and about four NGOs, then a border-town street where buses, taxis, and individual drivers wait to pick up returning refugees, or drop off refugees (the actual bus station is another quarter-mile walk, and a number of times we have made that trip to carry bags, or escort moms and kids safely to the bus station). And there is no credentialling of individual drivers, so there is no quick way to distinguish traffickers from legitimate transport (except the buses, mostly). Exacerbating the trafficking problem, there is a long custom and practice in Ukraine, Russia and even Poland of what we used to call hitchhiking, simply holding out a hand and accepting a ride from total strangers, perhaps paying for some gas, usually not. We have a tent set up with AOM, and from that vantage point we can see a lot at the pick-up/drop-off points.
The first day half of us worked just outside the entry to Ukraine border control, the rest of us the tent, seeing a steady flow of refugees traveling both ways. The huge majority of refugees are women and children, going both ways. They may be carrying a bag or two (excepting the random refugee with an unmanageable number of sacks, torn plastic bags and paper bags, which we end up carrying for her). Most are also pulling or carrying a bag with a few of their children’s clothes. So many children forced to leave family and home. We hand out toys and candy to most of those, and after two or three offers, also hand out candies to the moms and grandmothers, who almost always decline the first offer! Spread out on our table are toys, candies (choop-choop being the overwhelming favorite, a lollipop on a stick), toiletries (including the items I described acquiring at my now-largest stock holding, Rossmann’s).
A few words here about Unbound’s values-based means and methods. Unbound has two-sided cards printed in Ukrainian that describe how to find safe travel means, warn of the presence and risk of human traffickers, and list ways to avoid getting picked up by a trafficker. We hand these out in a non-confrontational manner, empathetic to the fact all of these refugees are already deeply traumatized. We do not try to frighten them (the cards are more informational and not meant to be alarming, just attention-getting), but to approach with an educational attitude. We are very sensitive to the fact these good folks are confused, exhausted, and their decision-making skills impaired. Many times the women come up to us first, since we have these goods being handed out, or because we all wear bright yellow or orange vests (ours with Unbound printed on them) (all NGO volunteers have yellow or orange vests, along with credentials available). But mostly it is about Unbound volunteers watching and being visible, alert for potential instances of trafficking, almost always working in teams of two or three. A few times Thursday and Saturday I saw sketchy-looking men practically accosting moms with kids or single women, and we approached to hand them a card—I had two instances where the woman read the card and walked off from the man. Trafficker? Who knows, could have been a legitimate taxi driver, though I never saw either’s taxi. Since we almost never see the concrete, certain result of these efforts, it requires faith that we are doing enough (although when we see them get on the right bus to Lviv or Kiev, often with a card anyway, there is a feeling of relief).
So with the vests, many times we are approached by refugees, asking in a language we don’t speak for information. That is where the translators become a huge asset, and we have the best. We wave them over, and quickly a connection is formed and questions answered. Erika has been with us the last three days, and her twin sister Lisa comes in tomorrow after Erika has returned to Krakow. Their story is mostly a heartwarming one. They both were born in Ukraine and grew up until the age of eight in an orphanage, when they and their two siblings were adopted by a Polish couple, so they grew up after that in Poland. More recently they spent two years together in Iceland, and while there they started viewing Antioch Community worship services on You Tube. Through that and Instagram they became aware of Unbound’s decision in March to come to Poland to work the refugee/trafficking problem, and connected on Instagram with Unbound. Another of a passel of “happy accidents” I keep bumping in to on this trip.
I guess I should add that all of this happens in mostly mud and pretty steady rain.
Friday we split up to survey other refugee centers. Jeff and I went North, to a crossing point near Hrebenne, but it was mainly a crossing point for cars and trucks, without the foot traffic set-up we saw at Medyka. However, we learned of a school nearby that rotated through more than 400 refugees a night—those that were able to make it across on foot anyway. Local fire trucks would transport them from the Polish side of the border to the school, then buses would transport them further into Poland. The Polish government has largely avoided having “refugee camps,” in-migrating refugees as quickly as possible. Since this school was in a different governing district than Medyka, and seeing less foot traffic, they were much stricter about enforcing the no-individual-drivers rule. We met the director of this center and left a bunch of cards, and our translator there was a Polish government official delegated from Warsaw to inspect and assist the center. Jeff broke down her initial defenses in his usual manner, and next thing we know she is drawing a map for him of all of the refugee centers on the border, supplementing a barely adequate one we already had from another NGO. Agata was quite a find. But touring the facility was heart-breaking and encouraging at the same time. Jeff and I then returned to meet the team at the Przemysl train station, where we worked the rest of the day.
Yesterday we returned to the border and Ukraine, to find much lighter refugee traffic, again due to the Orthodox Easter holiday. But the flow from Poland was steady with many stirring reunions), and still refugees leaving for Poland in orderly fashion.
But we did have one experience that solidified the team and impressed me with their values and maturity. I had been scheduled to give an interview with Good Morning Britain. By the time we briefed with the associate producer, it was agreed Jeff and I would do a taped interview. The associate producer seemed aligned with telling the refugee crisis story by focusing on the human trafficking dangers. Then while I was already on the Ukraine side, a different person, an assistant producer, called and said they were fifteen minutes from Medyka, and could they tape part of the team, and interview Jeff, since getting us both on camera was a problem for them (not an unusual producer-request in my experience, but alarms should have started to sound). I emphasized that they should not be taping refugees. They not only interviewed Jeff, in a cursory fashion, but proceeded to tape refugees in the World Central Kitchen and around Jeff with no permission—no consent—whatsoever. Before I had de-briefed Jeff, the assistant producer called me and asked to film the team handing out cards to refugees on Sunday, before my scheduled one-on-one interview, and I told her I would need to get back to her. When Jeff later de-briefed with the entire team, the consensus reaction was clear and strong and principled: say “no” to any taping that could possibly result in filming of refugees’ faces. Olivia and Cade both were very articulate and passionate about this consent issue, backed up completely by Jeff and Austin and Erika.
Unbound’s executive director in Waco completely backed us up when I informed her of the situation and team consensus that afternoon. They brought perspective to my initial lawyer’s instinct to try to compromise and find common ground, and I was so glad the team was there to speak to my conscience. So when I later communicated with the assistant producer, I told her that consistent with Unbound’s values about protecting victims and not making their trauma worse (while also mentioning the consent issue and my request earlier in the day they NOT tape refugees), I told her we must say “no” to taping the team interacting with refugees on Sunday. But I would show up at her designated time to do the one-on-one interview. A few minutes later I received a text from said assistant producer: interview cancelled due to “time constraints.” No one with Unbound regrets losing the interview, or a chance to tell our story again to a national British audience, since our complete focus is on the refugees and other victims we serve; and I learned more impressive things about our Team and top leadership.
Tomorrow, we head back to Medyka, where we expect the refugee outflow from Ukraine to pick up significantly. In my next update I will report on some of the interesting accommodations and food we have “enjoyed,” and share some general items about this area of Poland, and driving in Poland.