If Not Us, Then Who?

2_1_DonbassAlla sits behind a table, blond hair swept to the side, black jacket emblazoned with the Ukrainian symbol on the breast, the blue and yellow flag on the left arm, a blue and yellow heart on the right. She glances up at us with an apologetic gesture to wait a few more minutes. We signal back not to worry. What she is doing is more important than our interview. In front of her, a line of people bundled in their winter coats fill out paperwork then sit before her to talk, to tell their stories of horror and loss, to find some hope and help.

We sit in the vaulted waiting room of Kharkov ornate train station. In the chairs around us are clusters of families or friends who have recently arrived from one of the towns in the throes of war in Eastern Ukraine. Many of the train schedules are no longer regular or predictable. Some people trying to flee the violence have sat for three days in a stationary train, waiting for all the cars to fill up before it will head toward more peaceful cities. This station is one of three main centers where people arrive, unsure of what to do next.

The hub, known as “Station Kharkov” welcomes incoming passengers and helps to connect them with resources like housing, food, clothing, and supplies. This network of volunteers and resources was developed not by any organization or government agency, but by ordinary people who wanted to help. A closed Facebook group serves as a communication center for organizing people and supplies.


Alla finishes with the last person in line then joins us for a hurried interview by one of the massive pillars supporting the high ceiling. She has been volunteering at Station Kharkiv since Aug 2nd, the second day of its opening. She is a successful business woman who used to run a kennel, but now she spends all of her days at the station helping to welcome and care for incoming refugees.

She tells us she came because of the needs, and kept coming back because of the needs and now she is a permanent fixture at the station. She sometimes gives her personal phone number to people with special cases in order to make sure they are taken care of. These people pass her number on to others who are still in the conflict region and during bombings she gets phone calls from people who just need to talk. As if on cue, her phone rings and she excuses herself. It will ring several more times before our short interview is over.

“Mercy,” she says hanging up her phone, “you can enter, but you can’t get out. Be careful, it is contagious. Signs include lack of sleep, shaking…” she trails off with a wry smile.  When asked what hours she works, she tells us “9 a.m. to 9 p.m. But sometimes 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. if there aren’t enough people.”

I ask her how she has the strength to keep going. “I don’t have the strength” she says simply. “But who will do it if we don’t? If the state did as well as we do at taking care of people, I could go home. But I can’t. We see a human in the person. The state just sees a number.” She excuses herself as another group of passengers comes in.

Estimates of the number of those displaced vary – they tell us the official number is around 100,000, but the volunteers here at Station Kharkov say it is at least 300,000 and one person reckoned it was closer to a million. In August, there was a record of 600 people per day arriving at the station, but lately it is more like 275.

“People arrive depressed and desperate,” Sasha, another volunteer, tells us, “This is the first stage of counseling. They care for kids by giving them toys. This helps the moms relax too because their kids can finally relax and play.”

There is also an employment registration at the station, representing state agencies with vacancies. They often offer factory jobs for minimum wage. “Many skilled workers don’t like these jobs,” Sasha tells us, “But it is something at least. There is a woman with three kids who is working on a crane and now she can pay rent and buy food for her family.”


Alla and Sasha

From the station Sasha drives us a short distance to a center for aid where people are directed after registering at Station Kharkov. We enter through a back door so as not to anger the long line of people waiting for their turn to be seen. Like Station Kharkov, the center operates smoothly, with an aura of peace and calm that must be a welcome respite for the weary travelers. There is a room with several benches for waiting families, a line of people behind computers processing the families and their needs, a brightly colored play area where kids wearing new TOMS shoes scuttle around with plastic cars and plush toys, and a warehouse in back with rows and rows of donated goods. They serve about 40,000 people, roughly 200 new families a day.

We are introduced to Aleksi, one of the volunteers running the center. His eyes are tired and worry lines are etched into his forehead. A graphic designer by trade, he started by helping to evacuate people from the war zone, but he saw that his friends needed more help than just getting away from the violence, so he started coming here to volunteer as well. He works all day at the aid station and then goes to the railway station to work evenings and nights.

He points out a man behind one of the registration computers with fox ears coming out of his hat. He is a child psychologist. “We have trained counselors just working in the crowd because people won’t come and ‘talk to a counselor,’ but they will talk with the volunteers helping them.” Aleski is called away and Julia turns to tell us a little more about their work.

Formerly a dean of a university, she, like many others, has basically left her job to volunteer and help. She works with accommodation, finding people short-term housing when they arrive. “There is a third wave of people coming now and there are hardly any vacancies,” she tells us.  “Free accommodation is all full so we are trying to find apartments to house people in. One business man helps, paying 100,000 UAH (~$5,000) a month toward short term housing. He also accommodates people in his golf club.”

Another businessman we were told about pays for mothers and children to stay in a hostel when there is no where else for them to go. We have visited churches that have transformed their Sunday school rooms into housing, businesses that have turned their offices into rooms, children’s camps, youth centers, so many local institutions are giving up space to provide housing for their displaced neighbors.

It is not just those who volunteer their time at Kharkiv Station or other centers for aid. We consistently meet people who are doing what they can to help. Our guide in Rivne – also named Sahsha – is a taxi driver who knew hunger as a child. So when he heard that people were dying of starvation in Donbass, he made rounds asking for donations from churches and friends, loaded two tons of food into his taxi van, and drove it into the war zone to deliver it to those in need. He has made subsequent journeys as often as he has been able to gather the goods.

Sasha and his van full of food and supplies for people in Donbass

Sasha with his taxi full of food and supplies for people in Donbass

Sasha tells us the crisis is bringing communities together, that Baptist, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic churches have joined forces to feed people. “Muslims are also helping, when they feed people, they bring good rice.” People from diverse faith confessions meet every morning to pray together for their country.

While the war has been divisive in many aspects, the spirit of camaraderie and the personal responsibility people are taking to care for their neighbors in need is inspiring. War consistently brings out the worst in people, in governments, in societies as a whole. But there is a glimmer of hope when one spends time among the many selfless volunteers of Ukraine.


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