Two Dominican priests from the United States joined a squad of officially sanctioned drivers.
As of this writing, I’ve visited four aid centers at the Polish-Ukraine border. One of the largest, a major installation, off the A4 highway that crosses southern Poland, is a large industrial and commercial center. There, things are highly organized. A pronounced police presence makes this refugee welcome center feel very safe. NGOs are providing food, and the police oversee transportation.
There are so many people who need transportation. They’re taking buses, vans and cars to Krakow and Warsaw and beyond. Taxis and trains are free for Ukrainians. And volunteers are spending their weekends driving refugees across Poland.
But getting in a car with someone you don’t know comes with a risk. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children. They are particularly vulnerable. To combat human trafficking at this location, drivers have to register.
Since we were headed back to Krakow, and had space in our car, after our tour of the camp, Fr. Jonathan Kalisch — the Dominican friar I’m traveling with — and I registered with the police to drive anyone in need.
An announcement was made with a loudspeaker (it looked like a DJ setup) and immediately two young women came forward asking if they might go with us. Irene and Elina are young mothers from Dnipro. They are traveling with three little girls. The older two (twins) are 7 and the youngest girl is 3. Her ladybug earrings sparkle, like her eyes.
It took them several days to travel from Dnipro in eastern Ukraine, a thousand-kilometer trip. Irene’s husband drove them to the border.
Many Ukrainians have family or friends in Poland. Irene and Elina are among these, the lucky ones who have a place to stay. But so many do not.
We put our destination in the car’s navigation immediately, so that our passengers could see that we were taking them to the address they shared with us. We tried to make them feel safe. The ride passed quickly. The girls were incredibly well behaved. Despite the crowded car, the atmosphere was peaceful. Our conversation was limited, unfortunately, because of the language barrier. Recognizing, too, the trauma so many suffer, Fr. Kalisch and I put on some background music and quietly chat.
The twins proudly show me they can count to almost twenty in English. The youngest smiles back whenever I smile at her. She plays on her mom’s phone and talks in her sing-song way, the way all little kids do.