(I am compiling these notes to keep from overwhelming my confidante on our phone calls.)
Last week, I was overcome with a guilt of not having acted on my deep desire to do all I can regarding Ukraine. What good is working for democracy if I will not show up for it when it is attacked in such a literal — and massively consequential — way?
I bought my ticket that night and landed in Warsaw yesterday, working my way down toward Przemysl, the large town near Medyka, which is the main border crossing on the Polish side of the Ukrainian border.
As usual, I have some questions I am trying to answer:
- Just how bad is it? And what kind of bad is it?
- What are the problems to be solved?
- Can I help solve them?
There are a few potential problems I have been able to suss out from articles published on the crisis and the crossing, and message boards used by people on the ground.
- Lack of volunteer organization. Many good people who rushed in to help however they could. (I am trying not to be one of them, and take my time, observe the situation, and plug in where I will be most useful — or at least not an unintentional burden.)
- Predators. May heaven provide enough rope to hang every last one of them.
- Overwhelmed local infrastructures. Przemysl was not designed for this crush of people. Millions in a few weeks.
- Unclear presence of large organizations. It is rumored that there is no Red Cross presence, which could create a major gap in services. UNHCR is reportedly present. I don’t even know all the big players.
- Translation difficulties. Polish and Ukrainian, though both Slavic languages, aren’t all that mutually intelligible. Throw in English as the lingua franca and apparently this is causing problems.
- Utilization of skills among refugees. Ukraine was a rising nation leading up to this attack, full of enterprising and talented people. Many are crossing into Poland and then turning around right away to become aid-givers themselves. I wonder how efficient this process has been, and if there are innovations to be made. Also, there is the issue of these same folks being unemployed at the moment, and the unimaginable financial stress this must cause.
Then there seem to be the sufferings of having to seek refuge. Exhaustion. Trauma. Uncertainty. Confusion.
There is much to learn.
I elected to not send money alone. By doing the math, the three weeks I intend to spend here, even if spent doing standard volunteering several hours a day, have far higher financial value than the amount I could reasonably spend. This is including the surprisingly low-cost flight, and the costs of transport and lodging.
I’m also motivated by a complex feeling of loss within my family, based on separate experiences with my father and my mother that I am still processing. This gives me an opportunity to put myself to use instead of wallowing in a childlike confusion.
I shouldn’t have too many things I want to test at this point, as I am only beginning my learning process, but I will record them here so I don’t forget.
- Is there a need for a website dedicated to volunteer organizing and resource amalgamation? If so, I’ve got a mockup running on medyka.org (screenshot below). It includes multilingual support, easy access to resources for three kinds of users, and a job board function to link orgs with vols.
- Is the Synagogue being put to use? Does it need to be? In the town (Przemysl), there is a historic Synagogue that seems to be empty. The national Jewish federation in charge of it has offered it to the city. I’d imagine that the city was too swamped by the flow of refuge-seekers to take up that offer. If it’s not in use, can it be? And is it a lack of resources that is preventing its use for the greater good?
- Can Apple’s AirTags be used to provide additional safety to refugees at risk of being trafficked? I was sent all over the world as an unaccompanied minor — having a little necklace on me that let the grownups know where I am would probably have been a smart idea. I will see if this is a needed tool. I brought a handful with me, just in case.
- Can Apple’s iOS15 translation upgrade be useful in lowering the communication barrier? Yet another nifty product out of the Cupertino gang, this new translation software effectively becomes a real-time audio-based translator. Hold the phone up. One person talks in their native language. The phone plays it for the other person in their native language without needing extra touches. They do the same. It feels like a regular conversation, only with an intermediary who causes a few seconds of delay. I wonder if aid workers know about it, if it can be useful, and if the fact that it includes Russian (known to many Ukrainians, especially those who lived in the Soviet era) but not Ukrainian will be an issue.
- Can direct personal loans be useful? Much like the Kiva model, there could be a chance here for peer-to-peer lending. The folks coming out of Ukraine will have greater earning power on this side of Europe, so default rates will likely be low. And so what if there’s loss in a model like this.
I am now aching from hunger and only fifteen minutes from satisfaction when the breakfast buffet opens. I am staying at a golf club hotel that was once a palace, here in the Polish countryside. It sounds posh, but really it was one of the cheapest nearby options when I began to get too tired on my drive down to Przemysl yesterday. Now I will pack up, take my bags down, eat, and take the remaining four hour drive down to the border in my speedy little rental car.
Warsaw was fascinating. Like a grandfather to Minneapolis. Also, Przemysl doesn’t have a sister city outside of Europe. More thoughts on these later.