From Warsaw to Beirut, volunteers lead the way in Ukraine's humanitarian response
Ahmad never imagined that his five-year stay in Ukraine would end this way: A desperate flight to Poland with warplanes flying overhead. The Lebanese student had originally come to the country when he was 18 to study engineering but would leave just months before he had the chance to earn his diploma.
"More than two million refugees have fled the country, 12 days into the war"
Ahmad is just one of the many Ukrainians and foreigners fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than two million refugees have fled the country, 12 days into the war.
“The building I lived in [in Kharkiv] was destroyed. After five years, it had become like a second home to me,” Ahmad told The New Arab, using a pseudonym for fear of retribution should he return to Ukraine in the future.
Ahmad’s journey from the northeastern city of Kharkiv took four days. He took trains, buses, a taxi and finally walked over sixteen hours to reach the border crossing with Poland. Once at the border, he found no relief.
Instead, days-long queues stretched out in front of him – most of the other people waiting to cross were foreigners, told to wait as the passage of Ukrainians were prioritised. His protests were met with violence. Ukrainian police beat Ahmad with clubs and told him to “go back to his country.” He watched as some of his friends – fellow Arab students – were beaten even worse.
“One of them was beaten so badly, I would be surprised if he ever walks again,” Ahmad said.
"Ukrainian police beat Ahmad with clubs and told him to 'go back to his country.' He watched as some of his friends – fellow Arab students – were beaten even worse"
Finally, he made it to Poland where he found volunteers waiting to help him, their hospitality overwhelming. They gave him medical care after his arduous journey, a sim card and new clothes – his were ragged from his sudden flight from Ukraine.
Ahmad was quickly connected with someone he told was housing Arab students in Warsaw. With directions in mind, he set off to his new destination.
“I put out my thumb and the first car that passed stopped and picked me up,” he said. “Everyone has been so helpful, if you need clothes, they give you clothes. If you need to go somewhere, they will take you there.”
“I’ve been in Poland for 24 hours and I haven’t paid a cent,” Ahmad said.
Europe’s army of volunteers
Magdalena Góralska was visiting her grandmother in Warsaw when Russia invaded Ukraine. She was on vacation from her usual place of residence in Beirut, Lebanon.
Seeing the reports of civilians already fleeing from Ukraine, she knew she had to help. Soon it became clear how she could.
A friend from Lebanon called and asked her to help to evacuate some of her Lebanese friends studying in Ukraine. Góralska started to offer any assistance she could, relaying information on how to safely exit the country to Arabs stuck in Ukraine, acting as an interpreter for border guards and connecting students with resources.
She went a step further, opening her house to Arabs displaced from Ukraine once they reached Poland.
“I have received so much kindness in Beirut… Lebanese, Syrians they’ve gone through lots of sh*t in their lives. They don’t need more,” she told The New Arab.
Góralska is a medical anthropologist by profession, but she had spent some time helping refugees in 2015 on the Greek islands. Back then, she said, the mood on the continent was different. Citizens were not nearly as welcoming to the mostly North African and Syrian refugees as they are today to the Ukrainians.
The past week has seen Germans waiting at train stations with placards indicating how many people they can accommodate, leaflets handed out at the Slovakian border informing refugees of their rights and Danish exempting Ukrainians from ‘jewellery law’ which allows authorities to confiscate refugees' valuables to fund the cost of housing them.
Critics have pointed out the stark difference in treatment of non-European refugees as compared to the treatment Ukrainians are receiving. Some have alleged that racism is the reason that ‘Fortress Europe’ has suddenly lowered the drawbridge to refugees.
"The past week has seen Germans waiting at train stations with placards indicating how many people they can accommodate, leaflets handed out at the Slovakian border informing refugees of their rights and Danish exempting Ukrainians from ‘jewellery law’ which allows authorities to confiscate refugees' valuables to fund the cost of housing them"
Regardless of the reasons, the groundswell of mutual aid – much of it grassroots – in neighbouring countries to help the Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion is unprecedented in Europe’s post-WWII history.
To many Europeans, the prospect of a war on the continent was a relic of the past.
To witness it in their own time then is at odds with their conception of reality. By offering acts of kindness, perhaps the volunteers are trying to correct the cognitive dissonance that Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused for Europe.
“Usually we ask, ‘If not me, then who?’ In this case, it’s not true. There are so many people willing to help. I have friends fighting over who will get to host guests [from Ukraine],” Góralska said.
Organising online and in the diaspora
Diana Dayub, a 27-year old Ukrainian and Syrian living in Beirut, was tired of just getting “thoughts and prayers” from her friends. She was receiving countless messages from friends checking in with her and asking how they could help – though well-meaning, they were just adding to her growing frustration.
She decided to channel her own frustration and the well-meaning but otherwise directionless offers of help and turn it into action. She and two friends created a website with a list of resources to assist non-Ukrainians in helping Ukraine deal with the Russian invasion.
The website gives viewers a way to donate, fortify Ukrainian cyber defences, send humanitarian supplies, host Ukrainians and even volunteer in the Ukrainian army.
The website has been translated into over 30 languages and received over 200,000 visitors within the first four days of its launching. “We have had people take QR codes of our website to protests and put it on their posters,” Dayub told The New Arab.
The core team of three that launched the website has expanded to over a dozen people, in addition to twenty volunteers pitching in.
Dayub’s activism has not just stayed in the digital domain, however, as she has had to find a way to make sure that donations that come through her website are actually able to reach civilians in Ukraine.
She spends much of her time coordinating between people inside and outside of Ukraine, solving logistical problems such as finding cars to transport aid to populations in need.
While Dayub’s cyber efforts are indicative of the increasingly globalised world that the invasion of Ukraine is taking place in, others have turned to more traditional forms of organising and fundraising.
Anna Seif el-Dine, one of the leaders of the Ukrainians in Lebanon community group, has also helped organise fundraising and solidarity campaigns in Lebanon. El-Dine said that these campaigns have helped her deal with watching her home country under attack.
“The first three days, I was shocked. I couldn’t do anything. I still am not eating, we can barely sleep,” el-Dine told The New Arab.
She and other members of the Ukrainian community in Lebanon started collecting money to send to Ukraine, while some other clothing shops are organizing a ‘charity fair’ of sorts.
The money has to be collected physically due to Lebanon’s financial crisis and the inability of most depositors to access their bank accounts.
“Many of us are counting each lira, but I hope we can raise a good amount of funds,” el-Dine said.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou