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“In times like this it’s difficult…I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. I tried to learn a few basic phrases in Ukrainian on the way over here, but it turns out I should have learned Polish,” says John Bentley from Portland, Oregon, explaining the difficulty volunteers are having communicating with Polish organizers. “They’re the ones that have food, a bed, transportation, all that stuff.”
Bentley is one of many Americans who have arrived, just trying to do some good on the Polish-Ukrainian border. “I quit my job, I have a mortgage. I just got my first house with my family,” Bentley explains. But none of those obligations could prevent him from coming. Bentley was homeless with his mother as a kid. “We had to work our way up, now I’ve made it. It’s the American dream, but I quit my job to come here for a month to help.”
Due to the nature of Bentley’s job, he couldn’t take a leave of absence, but when he gets back home, he knows it will be waiting. “I lost my seniority,” he says but he quickly brushes off the sacrifice.
Bentley came to be a combat medic in Ukraine. I thought I’d just be able to help people. But right now I’m here at Hrebenne, working graveyard, relieving the doctor. Trained in emergency response, Bentley has stepped in to manage volunteers.
“People are handing off clipboards, explaining random needs one to the next,” Bentley says. “It’s disorganized,” Bentley admits, “but not any more or less than any other emergency situation.”
One problem, Bentley says, is that he’s seen the same story over and over again. Mothers and children are fleeing their homes. They’re arriving traumatized and without a plan. And they need help. And there’s thousands of them.
To date Poland has welcome 2 million Ukrainian refugees. It seems that the flight is beginning to wane some. Early in the war 80,000 Ukrainians were crossing into Poland daily. Yesterday that number dwindled to 10,000. But 10,000 people, mostly women and children who need a place to stay, who need care, who need rest is still an extraordinary crisis. And now many of the most evident, the most immediate places are taken…
Ryan Chocholek from Channahon, Illinois, met Bentley and others at the border. Trained in the US Army, Chocholek was an EMT and firefighter. He plans to stay at the border as long as he needs to.
“The way we all came together, and maybe this is just the Catholic in me talking,” says Chocholek, “it seems like it’s just God’s will.” “We all came over here, no plan,” he explains, “but we knew there was a need.”
“When we first arrived this border crossing looked like an apocalypse movie,” says Chocholek. “Over the days, seeing it built up has been really good to see,” he says.
The group of Americans met on Facebook. They saw each other’s posts and knew they had to step in and help. With two weeks’ organization, they arrived on scene. They hoped to enter Ukraine, but when they arrived at the border crossing and saw the need for volunteers was so urgent, they stayed on the Polish side.
Chocholek and Bentley still hope to go into Ukraine, but for now, they are treating ailments and managing volunteers at the border.