Fat Mama Travel for a Cause - The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis
Updated: Apr 7, 2022
If you have been watching the news lately, then you know about the humanitarian crisis unfurling in Ukraine. Watching the pain, suffering, and horrors inflicted on the Ukrainian people at the hands of an invading dictator is heart-wrenching. Every night I go to bed asking myself, “What can I do to help?” But of course, as an un-employed housewife turned travel blogger, I feel like the help I can give is minimal. Then, about two weeks ago my fairy-mother-in-law sent me this email:
“Rick has a Santa Fe friend that flew to Poland to help with the refugees from Ukraine. Last night Rick got this message from him.
I just got back to my hotel. We (you and I) bought a dozen meals today at the border for refugees. We also took 3 refugees to Warsaw and provided shelter for the next few days. Illya, Oksana, and the grandmother.
I helped him with some money, but he is basically funding this effort himself. However, if you are interested, this is a charity that is funding others to do the same sort of thing. The amount of money they have raised is a drop in the bucket compared to the need. When I gave them money yesterday, they were at $160K. Right now, they are at $588K.”
Since that first email, my in-laws have sent me daily updates about their friend Keith, his work, and the people he is helping. I have been moved to tears and a fire has been lit inside me to also help the displaced fleeing Ukraine. These thoughts made me realize how powerful travel really can be.
Yes, I am just a blogger with an almost non-existent following. But I am also a seasoned traveler. I have over 2 decades of experience working with non-profits, companies, and educational agencies planning, managing, and executing large-scale events including student international travel and aid projects. I know how to create networks, supply chains, recruit volunteers, and get the word out about what is going on. I could travel for a cause. A really good cause.
So that is what I am going to do. I am going to travel for a cause. And I hope all of you will help me.
On the Ground in Ukraine
Like I mentioned, I’ve been getting daily updates from my fairy-mother-in-law about Keith and the people he is helping. One of those updates was an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper (Keith’s local paper) who wrote a story about him that you can read here. But far more personal are copies of the texts and emails Keith is sending directly to my father-in-law Rick.
His most recent email, sent March 6th, 2022, after being in Poland for about a week, was the most moving thing I have read about the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Here is Keith’s email (with minimal edits) about his experience and the people he has met.
You guys have been beyond generous, and I want to thank you from the deepest part of my heart. We are making a difference here, I wish you could see it in person, but I’ll try my best to describe it below as many of you have asked what my days are like.
I’m having 2 cappuccinos and scarfing down a quick breakfast from my hotel in Zamosc, about 50kms from the Poland/Ukrainian border. When I booked it my 2nd night after I arrived in Poland, it was the closest I could find to the border, and I was a little pissed it was so far away as it extends my driving each day by ~2 hours. In hindsight it allows me to both prepare for what I’m about to see and decompress from the events of the day. It’s perfect in every way, and I’ve met some amazing people who are staying here in support of the US/Ukrainian government. The small amount of intel they are allowed to share has eased my mind and given me insight to the situation at hand, and how close we are to it spiraling even more out of control.
Immediately after I arrived from the States, I went to the nearest border crossing I could, Medya, and tried helping people that has just entered Poland. A recurring theme I see is one of absolute distrust of anyone not in their immediate family. Giving help and getting them to trust you in order for you TO help is insanely difficult. At that time, at that border, there was one popup tent from a local synagogue offering support, but the cavalry was on its way. The next day volunteers seemed to outnumber the refugees that were crossing by foot, with untold more crossing via bus and personal cars. After seeing this amazing ramp up of help and seeing just how quickly the Polish/EU people sprang into action, I realized the part I could play was decreasing and it was time to get creative.
Those walking over, the look in their eyes and utter exhaustion they were under deeply affected me. I wanted to carry each one myself, of course this was an unrealistic thought, but it was still one I couldn’t shake. Could I get a bus? Nope, all spoken for. Buses were being driven in from every near country from Norway to Moldavia. Fuck it, I have a rental car, I’ll cross over and make sure at least a carload a day won’t have to walk the ~80kilometers to the border.
Crossing into Ukraine wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be as no one wanted me to do so. Not my friends, not my rental car company, not my government, not the head of the Ukrainian border patrol who interrogated me for 30 minutes asking why why why I would ever want to go into Ukraine right now. What was my job at home, why was I driving a car I didn’t own, why would I want to go to a train station where 100-200k refugees were arriving each day and why do I want to help people I’ve never met, in a country I’m not from, for a cause I wasn’t born into.
He [Ukrainian border patrol] told me no a number of times, closing my passport and handing it back to me, each time me telling him he can’t deny me entrance. It’s my right to go. He either grew tired of me, or realized I was holding up others trying to enter (there weren’t many honestly, just people like me giving rides and men returning to fight). Over the next few days when we see each other at the crossing he yells out “AMERICAN!!” and I exclaim “UKRAINIAN!!!” We laugh together, give each other a quick hug, and he expedites my entrance…
The first time I crossed over I drove at a reasonable pace, in awe of the conditions of the country and the thousands of people walking along the road. The queue of cars to enter Poland that day was about 3kms long, not bad I thought, good choice Keith on your border choice as I thought I could do multiple trips a day now.
The road to Lviv winds through small villages, open expanses, and farmland. Even though it hasn’t been hit yet by bombing, you could fool yourself into thinking some sort of war has touched this area. Its almost as if the despair and sadness the refugees were currently feeling is being absorbed by the architecture and landscape.