After the war started, Vik Decyk, a Ukrainian-American friend, educated me on Ukrainian history. He said volunteers are needed to greet refugees at the Polish border, so I decided to work in the tongue-twisting town of Przymeśl.
I fly overnight from RDU to Atlanta, Amsterdam, and Krakow. The director of the Association of Ukrainians, Andriy, treats me to a beet burger and orients me to my job: “Carry people’s bags, push baby carriages, pass out ramen, and get diapers for the moms. It’s simple.”
I take a flashy, green train to Przymeśl, a town on the San River that looks ancient, cold, and snowy. I put down my pack and distribute coffee, tea, potato soup, and borscht. I decipher the train schedules and point towards the proper track. Trains arrive from Kyiv or Lviv. Children and women fill the station. I lift bags and grunt.
My new best friend is six-foot-six Anton: “We Ukrainians are tough. We don’t take crap and we are ready to fight. We do what we have to do. I don’t pay attention to the critics.”
Serhii explains how a Russian bullet destroyed his knee so he and his wife will flee to Halifax, Canada (“the prettiest place on Earth”) and is happy his kids will not see more killing.
Hundreds of refugees pass through the station each day. Scuffles occur but soldiers and K-9 police keep the lid on.
School kids walk by a history museum that describes 500 years of changing borders and war. I hope these children grow up in peace. In the museum I learn that Przemyśl was a beautiful city, but, in World War II, buildings were blown up by German and Russian armies and its Jewish community was decimated. There’s a Guernica-inspired painting named “Stop the War Now!”
A woman wearing a shiny jacket says she’s from Chernihiv, a town at the Russian-Belorussian border. A missile hit a building near her, and, to get to the shelter, she had to step on a dead neighbor’s body. I tell her I’m too old to carry a gun, but she assures me that helping out is as important as being a soldier.
Zlata is a Ukrainian ophthalmologist headed to a conference in Rome. She does not want to emigrate from Ukraine but feels hemmed in because airports are closed. She apologizes for her English, but I tell her truthfully that she speaks better than many Americans. She looks stylish in her brown cashmere coat.
Wojtek, the taxi, driver hangs his cell phone from the rear view mirror and we dictate into Google Translate. He says Poland and Ukraine haven’t always been friends but they are now. Neither country can stand the idea of living under Russian control.
Thanks to Laxmi, a student in my Durham Tech ESL class, I can donate Hershey chocolates and other sweets.
A toddler starts screeching and Natalia hands the child a stuffed monkey. Tears morph into a shy smile. Yordana has green ears and is the resident elf.
Some myths get obliterated.
Myth 1. Poland is economically depressed.
Truth: Krakow and Przymeśl are filled with Christmas shoppers and displays.
Myth 2: Poles have donor fatigue.
Truth: Poles fiercely oppose Russia’s invasion and have little hesitation accepting refugees.
Myth 3: Poland is gray and overcast.
Truth: The sun shines, but it’s really cold.
Myth 4: Ukrainian refugees look poverty stricken, like extras in Fiddler on the Roof.
Truth: Ukraine has thrived since the fall of the Soviet Union. One woman says, “I am European. Ukrainian women follow European styles and dress up.”
Myth 5: It is hard to pronounce Przemyśl.
Truth: This is not a myth. Words with few vowels are impossible. Przemesl is: “shuh’-mesh-uhl.”
A woman going to Lviv says, “I’m coming from Luxembourg where I arranged an apartment. If we lose power again, we’re leaving. What else is there to do? I need to care for my kids. I asked God for a girl and here’s Sophie with green eyes. I asked for a boy and look!” A chubby baby with blue eyes stares at me from the stroller.
Despite the missiles, Ukrainians have babies, raise families, go back and forth to Western Europe, and refuse to let the war destroy their culture. Ukrainians are fighting for their land and children. This war is like the wars the U.S. fought in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Despite spending trillions of dollars and sacrificing 60,000 lives, the greatest power on Earth was defeated. Why did the USA fail? Why will Russia fail?
Ukrainians, Vietnamese, and Afghans have pride, knowledge of the land and determination not to submit to foreigners. They’re in this fight for the long haul and can tolerate awful losses. But Russians are getting sick of the cost and mothers cannot stand seeing their sons in coffins.
A Marine named Dan once told me that “the only way to win the war in Vietnam is to kill every Vietnamese.” He’s describing what Russia faces in Ukraine.
The station is like a cathedral. It has a soaring roof and paintings far above the passengers. The interior is shaped like a cross: the nave is for reception; food and tickets. The transept is where mothers and babies sleep. The pastors are volunteers who offer food, a handshake, and a smile. A few loaves feed tens of thousands of refugees.
Marta visits her mother in Lviv whose feet were amputated due to diabetes. Marta writes: “I walk around the dark streets this week because there are no street lights. Forgive and understand correctly that we are in a debilitating situation, there is no strength, depression has already swallowed even the greatest optimists. I try to visit my mother, who is in a nursing home, unfortunately it is difficult for me to watch her constantly cry, because she watches a lot of TV where the news is always disturbing. They often talk about the dead and this gives an understanding of how many people suffered in this war. There are my friends who are now on the front line and we are in constant worry for those who are winning for our generation and we try not to lose optimism and cope with the circumstances that surrounded us… I would like to have better news and a more positive mood, but the war has exhausted everyone. We believe in an independent UKRAINE.”
Steven is ecstatic to discover I support the World Central Kitchen. His buddy gives me whiskery kisses and twice gets down on one knee to thank me for coming all the way from America.
Jeff is a vet from Tennessee on his way to Ukraine. After Russia invaded, he felt the call to serve, and, though he’s disabled due to head wounds in Iraq, he is joining the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine.
Jeff: “This war is David versus Goliath but the Ukrainian David is flexible. He adapts to changing situations. If a man is down, he’s replaced immediately. David is defending his land and, even if Russia won, there’d de snipers shooting at the occupiers. The Russian Goliath is slow, hierarchical, and incompetent.” I like Jeff so much that I shared my secret FB address.
Here are the apt lyrics of the Ukrainian national anthem.
Ukraine’s freedom has not yet perished, nor has her glory,
Upon us, fellow Ukrainians, fate shall smile once more.
Our enemies will vanish like dew in the sun,
And we too shall rule, brothers, in a free land of our own.
We’ll lay down our souls and bodies to attain our freedom,
And we’ll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation.
At the Przemyśl station, I don’t accomplish anything or earn a zloty. Between train departures, there is nothing much for me to do. I cannot communicate with most travelers and I stop carrying luggage when my hip acts up. I cannot defeat Russia. Despite my deficiencies, Igor and Wojtek have tears as they say goodbye.
Wojtek: “make sure to come to Przymeśl with your wife,” and Igor put his hand over his heart as he shook my hand.
War stresses everyone to a breaking point and new friends are like Gorilla Glue. My smiles and bad jokes are quite sufficient, it seems, and those I meet tell me they feel good that someone from America is in town to help.
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