The First Two Days on the Polish-Ukraine Border, as Bombs Fall on Lviv

March 26, 2022

Note: There is no information in this post about border crossings, NATO troop movement, or Ukrainian military support.

I don’t have much to complain about in life. My child is safe in Portland. I have a cute little hotel room in Rzeszów, Poland. And, as I write this, Russian rockets are slamming into Lviv, Ukraine, just across the border. I’m worn out from the last two days work, fixing up a safe house in Jaroslaw, and ferrying refugees up from the border, but I’m well-fed, wifi-ed, and out of harms way. Unlike so many. Tomorrow, I was to help deliver aid to Kyiv via Lviv. We’re re-thinking that plan.

I arrived Rzeszów Thursday evening to plug into my circle of helpers and went right to work packing up medical supplies (and “gear”) to get across the border. Friday morning we went to the house, ready to work. Our team leader, Sally, who is a human dynamo, got us on the road. There was a film crew from New York documenting her story, so the van ride felt a little like being in a reality TV show. The first stop was a hair salon to pick our Ukrainian contacts, Zenia and his very pregnant wife, Valentina. Then to the “Yellow House” (Żółty Dom) to get to work on the Polish HGTV version of Home Town.

The Yellow House was a wreck. It had been empty of years and smelled like it. So we got to work pulling weeds, hauling trash, storing random office furniture, and removing a ton of broken vodka bottles so the Ukrainian kids could play in the yard. Sally bought $550 worth of gardening and cleaning supplies and we started the transformation. The back-breaking labor was made easier by our amazing hosts. The Ukrainian women, whose husbands are across the border fighting the mighty Russian army, made us snacks, and the owner of the house gave me a bottle of whiskey and called anybody who refused to do shots with us a communist.

As I toiled away, I interacted with the kids, so much like my own daughter, and felt their trauma. They were in an unfamiliar country where they couldn’t read the words or understand the language. They were the new war refugee children. Many would never return home or see their fathers again. The weight was unbearable at times. All I had and all they were losing. But both Ukrainians and Poles kept smiling and remained full of love and hope. When you find yourself in hell, keep going. I bought sunflower seeds so they could turn that hope into a garden in their new home.

By the time we got back to our hotel in Rzeszow, I just passed out. Maybe it was the whiskey. I had time for a video chat with Cozy and wanted to climb through the screen to hug her. My knees shook. Then I drifted off and had a dream about Auschwitz.

This morning, I overslept because I forgot what day it was and set my alarm clock to Friday. After a quick breakfast, it was off the Yellow House to do more work. But after a few minutes of raking, Sally and Zenia let me know there was a family from eastern Ukraine at the border and I should come to help collect them. So we headed in the van down the road towards Lviv, Ukraine. But first we picked up an elderly Ukrainian woman who was staying in a youth hostel that had been converted into a refugee shelter. She missed her home in Lviv, which hadn’t been shelled in two weeks and seemed relatively safe. When we got to the Jaroslaw train station, I walked her to her platform for her train to Lviv, held her hand and wished her luck. I now regret that decision.

We didn’t have to cross the border because the family made it to Korzowa, where there is a massive shopping mall, called Centrum Handlu, that has become a refugee resettlement center. Thousands of lost souls. Some asleep on cots at noon. Others staring into space, wondering what their new reality had in store for them. Our family, one mother and six girls (and one Pekingese) seemed relieved to be going somewhere, anywhere. We loaded them into the van and headed away from the border. One girl, maybe 2, and I made faces and, as is now tradition, I showed her a picture of “moya dochka,” Cozy. Ukrainian children seem very frighted of strange men because of the carnage Russian soldiers have caused, so I try to lessen the trauma if I can.

The family seemed to adjust to their new digs at the Yellow House and I got back to work, aided by four incredible Amish volunteers from Montana. As we worked, word started to come in that Lviv was under attack. My mother, watching CNN back in the States, was texting me info. First a fuel station, then a communication tower, then a school. About 40 miles from where we had been. We headed back to Zreszow to adjust our plans to the news, including for tomorrow.

In time, I will be able to give a full accounting of what happened today. As crazy as it sounds, we got a very real lesson on the presence of Russian spies in our midst. I’m just trying to process the savagery of war on these people and the impact on the children of Ukraine. But I am glad I’m here. We’re about to be joined by a lot of people with no place to go. I can’t imagine I will be the same person after this. I can’t imagine any of us will.

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