Resident Feature

The Call to Help Ukraine

From the week of Monday, March 15th to Tuesday, March 20th, my dad and I were in the countries of Germany and Poland, as well as the border of Ukraine. When airport security asked “traveling for business of pleasure?”, my father and I would automatically reply “pleasure”. However, that is far from the truth. You see, we have raised $23,000 from friends and family in a single week for this “vacation”, and rather than spending it on poolside drinks and fancy dinners, we bought hundreds of gallons of diesel and almost $9000 of medical supplies. Why? Because we are on a mission. 

A mission to help the Ukrainian people in any way possible. 

Our base was a small hotel in Berlin. From there, my dad and I drove across the entirety of Poland to a small Polish city bordering Ukraine. This was a ten hour drive. After spending the night at a little Polish hotel, we awoke with the sun and drove to a warehouse, where we dropped off all of the medical supplies we had collected (gauze, wound cleaner, bandages, tape, medication) to be driven directly into Ukraine in a few hours. We drove to the nearest refugee center and parked alongside military vehicles, each of which sported the Ukrainian flag, Polish flag, German flag, or American flag. It was then we entered the refugee center, stepping into the tragedy to witness with our own eyes. 

Cots, hundreds of them, in disheveled rows. Many people sat upon their single blanket, gazing intently upon nothing visible. Some were still trying to sleep, despite it being noon. No one’s phones were charged, few people had any personal items with them. There was an unsettling blend of solemn silence, sounds of anguish, and small children babbling to one another. There were dogs, too: sitting quietly with their families, eyes wide and tail still. I saw a Ukrainian woman who had recently lost a leg during a Russian attack, and a grown man hiding under his covers. I saw a person my age, wearing a sweatshirt with a character from my personal favorite TV show, sporting similar hair to my own. This person was sitting on their cot, no one with them. An air of heaviness surrounded them as they stared straight ahead, unblinking, with unforgettable eyes of despair, a shell of recent memories. I wanted so badly to go over to them, compliment their sweatshirt, joke about us being hair twins, and give them a hug, but this was simply not possible, for I speak English and they most likely only speak Ukrainian. This was one of those times where Google Translate could not possibly translate the emotion I needed to convey. 

Later that day, my dad and I were driving seven refugees and their pets to Berlin. A mother and two young sons, another mother and her single teenage son, and two older women with their two cats, Lapka and Rada. None of them spoke any English, so Google Translate really saved the day. 

Not too long into the ride, Yehor, the sixteen-year-old sitting behind me with his mom, began asking me questions via a translation app. He asked about my age, why I was at the Ukraine border, and to my amusement, where in England I am from. I shared with the whole car one of the few Ukrainian phrases I know “Я з Америки’’ (‘’I am from America’’), which was met by surprise. The woman sitting next to me, Tanya, pointed at my phone speaker, and I allowed her to speak into Google Translate. She began crying and saying how my dad and I are blessings and we were saving her and her sons’ lives. She spoke about how her twelve-year-old neighbor had been killed a few days ago when a bazooka struck his home, ending his and his parents’ lives way too soon. Yehor’s mother shared that her cousin’s house was near where a large bomb was dropped, and it collapsed atop her cousin and his wife, along with their four children, all under the age of 11. They remained alive beneath the wreckage for a short time, but no one was able to fish them out and help was nowhere close to being on the way. I have yet to think of a way to respond to that, other than tightly hugging the woman beside me. Once back in Berlin, we found every one of our new friends a place to stay or a train that would take them to their final destination. Upon our many hugs and tears of farewell to each person, Yehor grinned and pulled out a Google Translate that stated, “I won’t ever forget you, thank you so much. Let’s stay in contact?” 

We exchanged contact information, and I believe that we both agreed that if we had been born closer to one another, we’d have been great friends. 

Two days later, my father and I completed another round trip to the border and back, bringing more kind Ukrainian people to Berlin. This group was an old couple and their beagle, and an adult with his 70-year old mother. His mother was restricted to a wheelchair, and the complexity of helping her into the van prevented us from allowing more people inside, though I wouldn’t trade her out for the world. She was very on edge and had never before been in a car, so was either carsick, screaming, or yelling at her son for the entirety of the ride. I’m really grateful that he remained with his mother during this time of crisis. By the time each person was safely dropped off at their respective locations, my dad and I were so drained that we could barely function. 

I was away from home for one week, but it might as well have been a year. I feel that my life has been forever changed. I think I really did something for the first time. And now, returning home and seeing everything has stayed the exact same– I feel like an alien. I am used to feeling like an outsider, and being uniquely satisfied with my own being. However, returning from driving refugees across an entire country whilst learning their stories and figuring out their next step is incomparable to anything I’ve ever endured. 

And I truly am grateful for this experience. I am grateful for all the kind people I met; Berlin, Germany for welcoming the Ukrainian people with open arms; Poland for taking in all of these people who are in need; and the kind Ukrainian people I met.

By Soren Busselen, San Ramon Valley High School