Unity of Nations, Poland

It’s been an intense first three weeks here on the Polish Ukrainian border. The charity I have joined is a real unity of nations, with citizens of over 10 countries working together to provide food, drinks and a warm place to sit and rest for those who have left their lives behind in Ukraine. Working shoulder to shoulder for a common purpose with inspiring and interesting people from across the globe is an amazing experience; a grass-roots example of the old truism that in times of great tragedy great things can happen.

Our camp is a reflection of the international nature of the relief effort as a whole, which includes groups from England, France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, China, India, Israel, Egypt, Poland and of course Ukraine. All provide services and support to the refugees as they emerge from the Polish border crossing and head for the buses which will take them on to refugee centres in nearby towns. Like the charity I work for, these organisations are not exclusive, and anyone that arrives at the border wishing to help will soon find a home somewhere.

After a while you get to know who is who and who has what, and trading and sourcing such essentials as gas bottles, water, tools, storage space and spare high-viz vests goes on at all hours. Donations that turn up which include items more appropriate for other stands soon make their way there, and we receive boxes of food from other agencies through the day. Shopping trolleys, the only effective way to shift goods up and down the single access path that runs through the camp, are at a premium, but are still willingly lent out when the need is there. Refugees are sent in the approriate direction to receive some medical help, a warm jacket, or a free Polish sim card.

There are many here with amazing stories of commitment, told in a matter-of-fact way without any desire for applause or commendation. Two young irish lads, early 20s at most, who showed me where to source water for the camp, told me they sold up what little they had back home and arrived in the first days of the refugee exodus. They knew no-one and had no plan other than to help as best they could. They had been flat out doing jobs all over the camp ever since, and sleeping in tiny tents despite the temperature going well below freezing every night. Two kids willing to give their all for people they had never met, with whom they speak no common language, and who they will never see again.

I met two English blokes who had bought a van, filled it full of food and medical supplies, and drove it non-stop to the Poland Ukraine border. They just wanted to help, and took it upon themselves to find a way to do it. Other owner-drivers from the UK had taken time off work to drive their vehicles to Poland to deliver supplies.

Two men in their fifties told me they had driven their vehicles to Poland, and were entering Ukraine to shuttle refugees from one of the major cities. They had completed several trips, and had witnessed first-hand rocket attacks by Russian forces. Undeterred, these two mild-mannered and softly spoken men were returning to Ukraine once again to bring more vulnerable refugees to safety.

The last three weeks have had it all – warm spring weather, lashing storms and snow. Through all this the Polish Scouts have staffed the tent opposite us, 24 hours a day. With care and cheer they have provided toiletries and basic pharmaceuticals to people who may not have had the chance to brush their teeth in days. Most of the Scouts are in their late teens to early twenties, and have stayed in great spirits despite all challenges (including the storm which blew the roof off their tent and collapsed some of their shelving).

Groups of tireless young Israelis push shopping carts up the rows of tents, gathering food and drinks to take across the border to the lines of refugees queueing to leave Ukraine. Some are still in high school. They stop by to say goodbye and wish us well when their stay is complete, and they are replaced by another group of equally tireless volunteers with big hearts and seemingly endless energy.

Polish soldiers, male and female, volunteer to be posted at the border, and spend their shifts assisting refugees to carry their belongings down the path from the crossing to the buses. Professional and disciplined, they take some convincing to accept a cup of hot coffee, even at 3am.

Refugees are fleeing Ukraine because of the worst of human behaviour, whilst volunteers at the border are showing the best: compassion, care and support for strangers who are suffering.

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