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This shit is real

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

You only need a few hours driving from place to place here to realise just how real is real. Nothing one sees on TV or reads online can give the true feeling of what is happening on the ground.

The day started with a trip to Chelm. We were sent 90 minutes away from Lublin, “to pick up boxes”. That is all we were told about our first task of the day. We reached a depot, at the back of an industrial estate. We met 3 men who we were told would hand over “the boxes”. We spoke to them and learnt they are from Ukraine.

They have adapted their warehouse to manage the parcels sent from all over Europe by people answering to various calls for help on Facebook. Communication is difficult, our Ukrainian being near inexistent. Smiles, eyes, body language speak for their gratitude that volunteers are out here to help them. There’s also pride. Even though they are not in their country to fight, they are doing their part to prop up the gigantic chain of solidarity that starts and ends in Western Poland to help Ukrainians in any way possible.

We had to rush back. These parcels are part of a bigger shipment that is going to Lviv tonight.

Plans change quickly when you must deal with so many demands, coming from so many places, cater for so many needs of desperate women and children. So rather than driving right to the office to unload the boxes we drove straight to the temporary shelter.

The shelter is in Lillowa, just 4 kilometres out of the city centre, in a residential area. On the 28th of February, 4 days after war broke out, a Polish woman gave away her house to be used as a shelter for 150 people and moved into a rental she found on Air B&B.

Ukrainians crossing the border into Poland are driven here to stay a few days until they manage to make travel arrangements to their next destination.

As we walked in, we were greeted warmly by other volunteers, and we were shown around. Just imagine, for one single moment, after working for years, having to leave your house, your husband, father, brother, uncle and drag your children to end up here.

We met a 14-year-old boy who crossed the border with his mother and his dog. There were a few other mothers with their small or teenage children. In their eyes, you can see the same emotions, sadness, fear, disbelief but also gratitude for the warm food, the clothes, toys for their children, and a mattress, their first in days.

From the temporary shelter, we gave a lift to a Ukrainian woman who had crossed from her country three week ago. We took her to a more permanent shelter the foundation we’re working with has secured for a few families. The house and its garden are quite pretty. But there’s still plenty to do to make its new residents comfortable. It needs a good scrubbing, and its walls repainted. Some things need fixing and some of the stairs need securing particularly for the children who will living here.

Without the need of words, we feel again our passenger’s sadness, fear, and disbelief and gratitude for the chance to settle down if only for a while and give some stability to her family in the hope of going back home one day.

There was one more thing to do. We were dispatched to the border to greet a woman who had just crossed over to pick up supplies to take them back inside Ukraine.

Her husband drove her to the border with Poland, stopping on the Ukrainian side. She walked across to meet us. One look at her told us the box we had for her, the sort that you can stick on the bicycle rack atop a car roof, was too big for her to carry back.

Instead, we drove her back to the border, stopping on the Polish side. That did not solve the problem. It was impossible for her to cross the border on foot carrying the stuff. She was clearly getting tired. She had been waiting for hours to cross to this side and she walked some distance to reach us. Communication was not easy, and we could not get a clear idea of how deep inside Ukraine her husband was before she could reach him.

After much gesturing, we understood she wouldn’t have to walk far after crossing the border. The only solution was to help her hitch a ride on a van or a bus driving across from Poland to Ukraine. It was getting late and cold. Colder. It was never warm. Every car, every van, every bus that passed by us on its way into Ukraine was loaded to the rafters with supplies. It did not seem our plan would go far.

Until an English-speaking stranger, Tony, took pity on us and came to offer help. He would later tell us he was an orphan with no family in his British homeland. He decided to be useful and volunteered with another organisation to help on the border. He had a head start on us and had some experience doing this weird, priceless job.

Brimming with confidence, Tony recruited a Polish border guard to the job. They hailed every passing bus until one drove by with just enough extra space on for our lady and the contents of her big box. The box was too big to drag, so Tony and kind Polish border guard helped us unpack the box in wieldy batches of supplies, fitting everything in a container the bus was dragging.

The woman’s mission was complete. She had crossed one of the most desperate borders of the world to take back home an empty box for the roof of her car, 3 sleeping bags, 3 pillows, 3 camping floor mats, an air pump for tyres, and a first aid kit. Essentials for a family that needs to survive more nights in a war torn country.

As we drove back to town and got to Lublin at about 22:30, we found the foundation’s leaders Marcin and Wojciech waiting for a chartered bus to pick them and their stock of medical and personal safety supplies and take them to Lviv, the nearest city inside Ukraine.

This is to me incredible courage and selflesness. As the bus was about to pull away Marcin said to me, “this shit is real, and some people, too many people do not realise that.”

Up here, looking at the despair and hope in people’s eyes, the reality of it all is a slap in the face.

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