Reporter’s Notebook: Tales from the Poland-Ukraine Border

Jeff Horenstein has seen his fair share of injury and death as an emergency room physician in Massachusetts — and ironically far more than working as a medical volunteer on the Polish side of the border across from the western Ukraine town of Lviv at a refugee reception camp run by NGOs at Medyka in south-east Poland.

“Most people we see here are dehydrated or their elderly and want us to check them out and need reassurance; they are worried they are running low on their medications,” he says. “Serious cases bypass us. We get kids complaining of belly-ache,” he adds. He’s also treated a couple of foreign fighters, who sustained shrapnel wounds in shelling in eastern Ukraine. “They decided not to go back in,” he says.

What takes the physician aback aren’t the injuries or ailments he gets to see working with the NGO Sauveteurs Sans Frontières, or Rescuers Without Borders, but the stories Ukrainian refugees tell him.

The physician from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston shakes his head as he tells me about an 81-year-old woman from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city which has been besieged since Russia invaded on February 24 and has been pummeled daily with shelling and missiles.

“She decided to get out because she figured she would die, if she stayed,” he said. “And she went up to a Russian soldier and told him she wanted to go to Poland and could give him $20,000 in cash, her life savings. She said she had no idea whether he would shoot her or not. He took the money, and after a while came back and handed her back $2000, took her to the next checkpoint, hugged her and she was passed on checkpoint by checkpoint until she reached Ukrainian-controlled territory,” he added. “She told me that she felt bad that she didn’t take the neighbors’ kids but hadn’t wanted to get them killed, if things had gone wrong,” he says.


As Jeff tells me this, one of his colleagues interrupts saying, “You don’t see that every day,” as he took a quick snap of a man walking by pulling a 12-foot wooden cross aided by a small wheel attached to the bottom with the top of the crucifix resting on his shoulder. Oklahoma-native Keith Wheeler has been carrying his cross across the world for 37 years passing through 185 countries and more than 40 war zones.

“Here’s the thing,” the disarmingly charming 61-year-old Wheeler tells me. “People need food, people need water, people need medicine. But more than anything people need hope. And you can’t put a price tag on hope,” he adds. In recent years the self-styled pilgrim cross-bearer has trudged through lands that are, as he puts it, traditionally hostile toward Christians, including Libya and Syria, where some jihadists considered abducting him, but thought better of it. He shows me a picture of them. He has been beaten in some countries, including the United States. He often ends up roughing it, sleeping under bridges. But strangers are often hospitable and invite him into their homes, including once in a royal palace in the Gulf, where he was befriended by a prince.

“I should be dead,” he says. “Peace starts with forgiveness,” he says as a parting gift to me.

Wars attract all sorts and every sort, from the charitable and kindly to criminals and opportunists; oddballs to philanthropists; pacifists to war junkies. And they can all be encountered in the bedraggled, improvised camp just across from Ukraine that sometimes seems a cross between a chaotic local craft fair and the kind of circus that springs up around rock music festivals. The difference is no one is selling anything but giving things away — from freshly cooked food to steaming cups of tea and coffee, from blankets and clothing to toys and candy for the kids.

“Hold on,” shouts a frustrated British volunteer to his companions after they have trouble persuading kids to take proffered candy. “Wait till I have looked up how to say For Free in Ukrainian.” Already dazed refugees emerge from Ukraine into a winding path of tents and small marquees, and they run a gauntlet of charity and hospitality, which at first adds to their disorientation, but as they relax it prompts smiles. They are offered, too, counsel on how to reach where they want to go.

There is a cacophony of languages. The volunteers and charities come from the four corners of the earth — from across Europe, the United States, Australia, Latin America, Israel; there are Sikhs from India and diaspora Chinese opponents of China’s communist government. The camp is semi-organized anarchy, and some volunteers acknowledge its shortcomings and impracticality, and they say more systemization is needed at every level of the humanitarian effort, but its point, they say, is to show Ukrainians they aren’t alone.

And who are these volunteers? They are from all walks of life and all ages. Some are idealistic; others highly realistic. Most are a mixture of both. Some have reached crossroads in their own lives. One European woman told me she was going through a midlife crisis. “I could brood on a beach somewhere, or come here and be useful,” she said. Some volunteers have connections with Ukraine; many have none at all. All are moved by the plight of those caught up in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

There’s John, a firefighter from New Jersey, who collected $70,000 from relatives, co-workers and neighbors and joined a friend who set up a feeding station for refugees. He can fix most mechanical problems. “Sometimes I just slip a little money in the bags of the elderly when they aren’t looking,” he says.

And there’s Texan mother-of-four Katie Stadler, a 38-year-old, who once tried but was unable to adopt a Ukrainian teenager who subsequently died. “I was already involved with Ukraine— it has a big orphan crisis. And so, I had already fallen in love with the country and the people. I couldn’t watch what was happening and not do something to help,” she says.

Even before flying to Poland from her home town of Fort Worth, Katie was funneling money to a pastor in the Odessa region, who bought a van and drove food kits around to people who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave and took other people who did want to leave to the borders. After two weeks she was “laying in bed one night and I said to my husband Matt, ‘I’m going to go over there’ and he said, ‘I was waiting for you to say that.'”

In Warsaw one ex-Special Forces humanitarian worker questioned why Katie, who had no experience as an aid worker, had come. He growled: “Why are you here?” But Katie has earned plaudits for her energy and enthusiasm from some experienced charity workers, including Heath Donnelly, CEO of the charitable foundation of movie producer and international restaurateur Ciro Orsini and actor Armand Assante. “She has kick started a lot of things done here,” he says.

At Warsaw’s central train station, Katie says she “made friends with the volunteers (who) are running the transportation kiosk and when people can’t pay and there’s no way for them to utilize government funds, I pay with my PayPal,” she says. With donations from friends, relatives and neighbors, she has helped 12 families being sheltered at a church in Warsaw and paid the air fares for 30 families.  On the border, she helps Heath. “These kids and these families that are coming out need to see that humanity is still good and people are still good,” she says.

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