I’m Volunteering on the Ukraine-Poland Border. Here’s What I’ve Seen.
- Anna Kaminski, 40, found out she was losing her job the day before Russia invaded Ukraine.
- She decided to volunteer in Poland for a nonprofit providing fresh meals to Ukrainian refugees.
- This is what she’s seen over two weeks of volunteering, as told to writer Nick Dauk.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Anna Kaminski, a 40-year-old writer based in Cómpeta, Andalucía, who is volunteering in Przemyśl, Poland. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m the granddaughter of Ukrainian Jews on both sides of my family. My grandparents fled from the Nazis to Moscow during WWII, which is where my parents were born and met and where my sister and I were later born.
In 1990, when I was 8, my family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US — and then to Cambridge, UK, a year later.
Putin attacked Ukraine the day after I was told that I’d be losing my full-time job as a commissioning editor for Culture Trip
I felt depressed and blindsided by the company-wide redundancy announcement, and a mixture of disbelief and utter horror at the invasion — part of me thought Putin was bluffing. When the bombs fell on Ukraine, my first thought was for the safety of my friends in Odessa.
I spent the first few hours of February 24 crying, then pulled myself together and decided that the best thing I could do was go volunteer in Poland with World Central Kitchen, an international food and disaster relief organization that I’ve long admired.
I signed up as a general volunteer on the World Central Kitchen website
WCK emailed me that they were actively recruiting volunteers in Przemyśl, a city in southeastern Poland that’s been a landing spot for refugees, as it’s just nine miles from the border with Ukraine and near the city of Lviv. To volunteer, I had to sort out my own transportation to Przemyśl as well as my own accommodation there.
I flew from Malaga, Spain to Geneva, Switzerland, on March 15, took a train to a nearby city where my Polish friend Magda lives, and that evening we set off for Poland in her car.
The drive took us around 22 hours (including stops for coffee and catnaps in the car at service station parking lots), and we reached Przemyśl the following afternoon on March 16. When I arrived in Przemyśl, I signed up for volunteer slots and had a briefing before my first shift.
World Central Kitchen turned a vacant warehouse near the Przemyśl train station into a large work kitchen
It’s complete with a walk-in fridge area, giant vats for cooking, and a large prep area. The meals we produce are sent to various WCK outposts along the border as well as the WCK kitchen in Lviv, which assists other WCK partners across Ukraine.
I rented a studio apartment near Przemyśl’s Old Town for about $230 a week
I’m paying my own living expenses (I did a GoFundMe fundraiser before I left to cover basic living and travel costs for a few weeks), but WCK does provide refreshments and lunch to volunteers.
Each day I dress in warm layers before heading to the warehouse. Shifts at the WCK warehouse are typically 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., although sometimes we can work half days and occasionally take a day off.
The warehouse feels like a small village full of volunteers. There are nuns and priests representing different charities, firemen and cadets from Krakow who assist refugees with their luggage, and everyday people fluent in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and English who give out free SIM cards, diapers, baby food, and pet supplies.
No two days are the same as a volunteer
On the first day, I peeled potatoes and chopped zucchini alongside Stash, a Ukrainian-American war correspondent from Brooklyn, and Lloyd and Cindy, a retired couple from Denver, Colorado. The following day, I filled and sealed plastic cups with freshly-made applesauce for toddlers alongside Frances, a Ukrainian-American from Washington, DC, whose grandparents still live in Kyiv.
As a native Russian speaker, I was quickly posted to the 24-hour WCK tent near the entrance to the Przemyśl train station. My role here is to help serve spaghetti Bolognese, vegetable soup, grilled chicken, and buckwheat to refugees. The people I’ve served are overwhelmingly women, children, and the elderly.
No two refugees are the same, either
Some arrive with many bags, while others arrive with just a few possessions and their pets. There was one little boy who wouldn’t let go of his pet cat that seemed shell-shocked as well.
Many refugees are relieved to have reached safety in Poland, while others look exhausted and have tear-streaked, gaunt faces. Another young man I met had his lower leg blown off by a Russian bomb — he limped 35 miles to the border on crutches, he told me.
A 92-year-old lady from Kherson told me that she and her daughter are moving to Spain to join her granddaughter who lives there. I tried to imagine having to start anew at her age, in a country I’ve never been to, whose language I don’t speak.
I also met the niece of my parents’ friends who live in Sweden; she told me she managed to escape from besieged Kharkiv by undertaking a 24-hour train journey to the border. The train was standing room only and the windows were blacked out to avoid being bombed by the Russians. Her frail, elderly parents stayed behind in Kharkiv.
I’ve seen a general lack of organization and coordination between various volunteer groups
Religious charities at the train station do what they can to comfort the distraught and provide temporary accommodation for those who have nowhere to go, but there aren’t enough on-site psychiatrists to cope with all the traumatized people who need professional help. I haven’t seen any special provisions being made for the arrivals of elderly or disabled people, either.
There’s been a massive outpouring of goodwill in the two weeks I’ve been here
People have arrived from Europe, Israel, and beyond to serve food and offer to take refugees into their homes. There’s even someone who dresses up as Santa Claus and stands at the border to give out toys to the incoming children.
I’ve also met refugees who came into Poland and are now returning to the border to go back to Ukraine. They say that they want to be closer to their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons who stayed behind to fight.
It can be exhausting being on my feet all day, but it’s also really uplifting to work alongside motivated people from all over the world. I do wish I could be doing more and wish I had more diverse skills to offer (like a doctor or a psychiatrist), but I’m happy I made the decision to come here and feel that I am making a difference in my own small way.
While it’s profoundly depressing to see hundreds of refugees passing through the train station every day and hear the harrowing stories they tell me, I’m glad that I have the language skills to communicate with them and listen. Many just want a sympathetic ear and to be heard. I’m staying until April 2, but looking at returning at the end of April for another two or three weeks.
To anyone thinking of volunteering, I’d tell them to do it — every little bit of effort helps
But remember to balance volunteering with some time to yourself to process what’s happening, because witnessing a humanitarian crisis in person is very tough. And get to know fellow volunteers so that you act as a mutual support network to one another.