IU professor Elizabeth Cullen Dunn said three million of the millions of Ukrainians displaced both in and outside the country got into Poland. Each one has individual needs.
“When you’re going to make a difference to refugees, you can’t make a difference to large numbers of people at a time,” Dunn said. “You make a difference to people one by one by solving their unique individual problems. And all refugees need an individual solution.”
More than 12 million Ukrainians are believed to have fled their homes since the conflict with Russia escalated Feb. 24, according to the United Nations.
Dunn, the director of IU’s Center for Refugee Studies, traveled to the Polish and Ukrainian border about two weeks into the war. She speaks fluent Polish and spent two and a half weeks assessing the humanitarian aid response and volunteering. She plans to go again in May.
One day at the border, refugees were held up by a Ukrainian teenager and her mom, who was having a heart attack. The girl and her mom were in a 12-passenger van with a German driver, who was helping to evacuate refugees, as well as approximately 40 cats and some dogs.
The cats were rescued from a shelter where the teenager had volunteered. An ambulance whisked the teenager’s mother away, but the young girl was afraid to leave one sick cat in particular, named Lemur.
“These cats had not been fed or watered for a week, because of the bombing,” Dunn said. “They were in really bad shape. This girl was terrified that if she left to go to the hospital with her mother, this cat would die.”
Dunn said the girl was hysterical. Cars piled up for hours behind the van. The girl screamed and broke down.
“The whole thing had gotten to be too much for her,” Dunn said.
After Dunn and her colleagues helped calm the girl down, they took her to an emergency vet who stabilized the cat. The girl finally stopped screaming. Lemur lived. The girl was reunited with her mom.
During the rest of her time in Poland, Dunn worked on research with professor Iwona Kaliszewska from the University of Warsaw, who speaks fluent Polish and Russian. The researchers visited transit shelters, border crossings, bus stations, feeding stations and a shelter, pitching in any way they could.
“When there were things that needed to be done, we did them,” she said. “So we served food, and we help to deal with the mountain of donated clothes.”
Dunn and Kaliszewska examined the volunteer movement of humanitarian and military aid in Ukraine. A lot of medical supplies are designated for Territorial Defense Forces, she said. Dunn said she volunteered to source bulletproof vests, helmets and medical supplies such as clotting bandages for gunshot wounds and antibiotics.
“People are literally passing things in hand to hand,” Dunn said. “It’s millions of people doing this work. It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The majority of volunteers helping refugees in Poland are local, Dunn said.
“I do not know a Polish person that does not have a refugee family in their home,” she said. “The big international aid agencies just are not there.”
By March 25, a month into the war, Dunn said only one international aid agency had actually begun helping refugees, while the rest continued to assess the situation before getting involved.
“Polish citizens, Polish volunteers have done the overwhelming amount of the relief,” Dunn said. “The same thing is true inside Ukraine. The majority of aid to displaced people or to war-affected people has been done by Ukrainian volunteers.”
One organization, Rural Women’s Circle, volunteered to provide soup to refugees. Volunteer firefighters transported people from the border to train stations. Others organized on Facebook to provide housing for refugees.
“I think as the volunteers get trapped out in terms of exhaustion and having no more money, the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) will take a bigger role,” Dunn said. “Right now the problems that refugees have are not problems NGOs can solve. They need jobs, and they need housing.”
Many Ukrainians have no choice but to run. Life is unsustainable in many cities in the country that have been under siege for weeks or destroyed, Dunn said. One family she knew had to pass 16 Russian checkpoints to leave. Another was told there was a humanitarian corridor they could seek refuge in, and loaded into three cars to evacuate. But as they left, one of the cars was bombed.
“Despite the fact they were told they could pass,” Dunn said. “Everyone in it died.”
Returning home will be different for many refugees. Some cities were not heavily affected by the bombings. However, cities like Kharkiv have been completely destroyed, Dunn said.
“Even if the war ended tomorrow, it’s going to be years before people can go home,” she said.
Bloomington residents and IU students can help by volunteering or raising money for organizations like Exodus Refugee Immigration or the Bloomington Refugee Support Network. Shipping clothes and blankets is expensive and less helpful than sending money to local organizations such as Razom for Ukraine and Fundacja Ocalenie on the ground doing the work, Dunn said.
IU professor Volodymyr Lugovskyy, originally from Cherkasy, Ukraine, moved to the United States in 1999 to receive a Ph.D. in economics at Purdue University.
Lugovskyy said he used to visit Ukraine regularly, but he has not been home since the conflict between Ukraine and Russia manifested in 2014. While his immediate family lives in the United States now, he has extended family in Ukraine.
“I’m trying to provide some kind of support by calling them and talking to them,” he said. “Many times, they actually provide me with some kind of emotional support.”
Most of Lugovskyy’s relatives decided to stay in Ukraine. Some have moved from one area to another within the country. Only one family left.
That family, a mother with two children, initially moved to Poland. She has since applied to go to Canada, but the family is currently in Finland awaiting a decision, Lugovskyy said. On March 17, Canada announced Ukrainians and their immediate family members can stay in Canada for up to three years, with many requirements waived, according to Reuters.
Although the family was not living in a territory controlled by Russian forces, there was a lot of uncertainty about their safety, Lugovskyy said.
“They just decided not to take risks and they left,” he said.
Lugovskyy said it is important Ukraine receives assurance the West will protect Ukraine against invasions or provide sufficient military equipment. Ukraine is fighting both for its freedom and its security, Lugovskyy said.
“It’s much cheaper to provide resources for Ukraine to defend itself than to deal with the refugee crisis,” he said.
If Russia is allowed to gain from its attacks, Lugovskyy said he thinks Russia will continue attacking Ukraine and eventually its neighbors.
“They will not hesitate to use nuclear threat,” he said.
Lugovskyy said his biggest worry is the West potentially deciding although they don’t want Ukraine to lose, they also don’t want Ukraine to win. The West may fear agitating Russia will cause nuclear escalation, he said.
“This conflict will be going on for months, or maybe even years,” Lugovskyy said.