Fat Mama Travel for a Cause - The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

Updated: Apr 7

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.”

Photo from Keith's first border crossing with Ukrainian refugees (March 2022)

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.


Google maps brought me past ~10-15 checkpoints constructed with sandbags, welded steel crossmembers laying in the road to hopefully halt/delay enemy tank and truck movements. These checkpoints were heavily armed by local militias as the actual military was in the east of Ukraine resisting the Russian attack. Brilliantly I might add.


Each checkpoint I was met and interrogated by the point man, and I would explain what I was doing and why I was there via Google translator. I finally wised up and took a screenshot of “I’m an American here to pick up women and children in Lviv and to bring them to Poland”. That worked like a charm and was rewarded with handshakes, head shakes, high fives and laughter.


Entering the city itself you would never know the difference between Lviv and the front lines as the amount of active troops… was both exhilarating and frightening. This wouldn’t last another day though as since that first day the checkpoints are now unmanned everywhere but the entrance to Lviv.


Getting closer to the train station was the unorganized cluster that one would imagine… I parked down the street from a synagogue, jumped out of the car to be greeting with a mass of people and noises hitting me hard. I looked up and saw a van with ~20 women and children standing by it, way more than the van could hold of course.


I walked up the mid 20’s guy talking to them and offered the space in my car if they needed it as I knew we were on the same mission. He introduced himself as “Boyan from Poland. Who are you and who are you with?” My response made him laugh and I saw yet again the look so many had been giving me. “Why?” We exchanged numbers and agreed to work together going forward.


I… walked toward the train station and wrote up another translator paragraph. “I’m Keith from America and I’d like to give you a ride over the border to Poland”. This did not work nearly as well as I thought it would… I found out later they were concerned Putin would find out they accepted help from me and would take retribution against their family. They would rather sleep in the street the week it takes to get a bus pass and walk to the border than run that risk. I had to come up with another angle.


“Does anyone speak English” I announced on a corner overlooking an intersection in front of the station. The second I said that a hundred faces looked to me in disbelief. Shit, I shouldn’t have done that I guess!


One kid looked at me and pointed to her mom. I explained who I was, why I was here and please trust me. As we were driving to Poland, the little girl, her mom, and grandmother all sat in the back seat as they didn’t want to be even a foot from each other.


A week getting bombed and sleeping in a bomb shelter will do that to you, I guess… They hadn’t slept in days, and as I found out from the mom, had no idea where they would be sleeping in Lviv for the next week as they waited for a bus seat… Passing through the checkpoints was easier now as they all knew who I was and why I was there, so that was nice. We took our place at the end of the 3km line and over the next 6 hours we spoke, they slept, and I tried to not have my heart explode from excitement. I can’t explain the feeling, I just can’t.

Keith, with refugees in his car, waiting to cross into Poland (March 2022)

As we left the last border agent, received our passport stamp, and entered Poland, mom started to wail in a way I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. Both happiness that they were safe, and sadness in the life they just left behind. A husband/brother/father she may never see again, a city in crumbles as her last sight of her home. I showed them were to check in with the Poland authorities, and drove them to a nearby hotel and checked them in. Hugs and tears were shared, a common theme at the end of each trip…


As I drove back to my hotel, it was around 3am, and my friend in [New Zealand] called me to see how I was doing. At this point not a soul beside Rick knew what I had done and for the next 45 minutes I rambled on explaining the trip. At my hotel I put my head down and was able to get 1-2 hours of sleep before I jumped up, went downstairs and crammed some food in my belly. Time to go.


My [second] crossing into Ukraine was much easier as the guards on bother sides recognized me (I’ve been told they haven’t seen another American) and I now get the expedited entrance. One of the best parts of my day is hearing “AMERICAN!!!" from my friend Nokoli.


I called my new Polish friend Boyan… we were now 4 cars in our ragtag group: three from Poland and me. They, now we, have a contact in a small town in Poland arranging the rides via Telegraph. Sometimes it’s efficient in loading up the cars, sometimes not, but the effort is there.


My first few days going to Lviv have been on this schedule with them and we were lucky to get 2 trips a day in. We decided yesterday to not cross over every time with them in the car as it extended our days substantially and removed any chance of us getting in three trips a day. I thought we could do 5 trips, but being the new guy, my ideas weren’t accepted. They would be soon enough.

Screen shot of Keith at the boarder crossing from my father-in-laws "Find My Friends" App (March 2022)

We now can do 3-4 trips a day, with the last trip of the day being the nectar that I will feast on the rest of my life. The first trips of the day go something like this. I leave my hotel around 5-6am to meet everyone at a gas station just this side of the border. Sometimes they are on time, sometimes I curse their names as I wait in the car and fume about how their being late restricts how many rides we can do, and the sleep they are costing me. I need to work on my patience.


We arrived in Lviv quickly today as the checkpoints are now empty. Our people were at the corner, waiting for us thankfully. A father was there saying goodbye and for about an hour he would kiss each of his daughters, hug his wife and stand by as they sat in the car only to get out seconds later to start that sequence over again. Watching this was beginning to eat me alive and I hoped over and over again this would not be the last time they would see each other.


[The father] walked over to each of us, shook our hands with tears streaming down his face and thanked us. As we drove away that wailing, I’ve heard so many times, filled my car yet again. In an hour we would be laughing, and the mood would lift, with the excitement of the crossing on their minds. No more bomb shelters, no more fear of impending death.


We were able to acquire credentials the other day and it has sped our trips up substantially. We now drive past every line of cars, straight to the border, like a scene out of a movie. I feel both honored to be able to deliver my rides to the border in such an expeditious manner, but also, I feel guilty that we are passing people that must wait for days and days to cross. They wait by the side of the road, in subzero weather FOR DAYS.

They never complain, never never never have I heard a complaint.


Line of refugees Keith witnessed waiting to cross into Poland (March 2022)

The first trips of the day we pick up at the station and drop at the front of the line on the Ukrainian side, where our people can take the walk over the border and be in a warm bed in a couple hours. It hurts to not see them over the line, but it’s for the best as we can make an extra trip a day now. A trip where I can get 5-9 more people to Poland. Which brings us to the last trip of the day.


We arrived last night back at the train station around 10pm. Curfew is 10pm in Lviv and no one is allowed to be out after, unless you have a pretty fucking good reason to be. The bombing mostly happens at night and it’s an attempt to keep folks safe until the light of day.


Jasek (our contact who attempts to arrange rides) cannot find us any this late, and that makes me happy beyond belief as I now get to cherry pick my car. I look for the family with the most kids, with moms with ’that look’ in their eye. I get it. [This is what happened on that ride]:


Last night I had 9 souls in my car. 3 moms and 6 kids. It was a ride I will never forget and will cherish forever. I walked up to them as they stood outside the station, looking around terrified as they had no idea what to do. It was past curfew, they had been either packed on a train, or waiting for that train for days. It took them 10 days to just get to Lviv from Kharkiv.


One mom had a newborn she needed to feed, and she looked at me with those eyes when she heard me speak English as she knew a little, enough to get her family in my car. We jammed in a little SUV I rented from Budget, think Rav4 size, maybe a little smaller. One little guy about 4 sat on the armrest between the front seats and made an amazing co-driver.

"Hello ... Goodbye" Keith and one of his passengers at the border (March 2022)

The kids and I began to play a little game of “Hello…... goodbye…...” as those were the only English words they knew, and the power and meaning of those two little words wasn’t lost on me. We sped through town and were soon greeted by the quiet night road to Poland.


Flying by the tens of thousands of waiting refugees, in their cars on the road, or sleeping by the fires in the night to stay warm for those unfortunate souls that have to be outside stuns every single rider… We arrive around 11:30pm at the border and begin the very long wait to get over, certainly made better now that we are ‘known’ by the guards and given glorious access to the expedited lines frequented by the Red Cross and countless other humanitarian groups.


We laugh and laugh playing hello/goodbye for hours and cross the border around 3am. We’re almost over the border when i hear “AMERICAN!!!” and there’s my friend, offering me an espresso in the back room of the guards break room. Because of this 10-minute time away from the car, we lose a few spots in line, but graciously regain it as everyone knows the reason. Nikoli and I cheer each other over espresso and end it with “see you tomorrow”. He knows no English, I know no Ukrainian, but we both know friendship and purpose.


Delivering rides over the border is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. Think of the best thing you’ve even done (doctors are excluded as you are a different breed). on a scale of 1-100 what you just thought of is a 1 or a 2 comparatively. It’s that powerful. It’s that emotional, it’s that important. After each ‘last ride’ I walk into the woods nearby and lose my shit until I’m able to drive back the 45min to my hotel. My friends have been amazing during this drive, calling to check in and listen to my days. Thank you, friends.


I hope this gives you an idea of my day now. Unfortunately, they will be coming to an end very soon as the Belarus troops are getting closer from the north, and the Russians from the south. Our window to get people to Poland is closing fast and I’ve got to run now.

“Hello…….goodbye……”


Keith

 

I cannot even begin to express how moved I am by Keith’s story. I ugly cried so hard the first time I read this email. Even rereading it to edit small grammatical mistakes stirs my emotions in unexplainable ways. I want to help, especially while I still can. I want to travel for a cause.

Travel for a Cause


So, I’m renewing my passport. I know, I know, Fabby already pointed out to me how ridiculous it is that I, a travel blogger, have an expired passport. But in my defense, COVID has made international travel nearly impossible for the last two years and the passport only expired at the end of last month. So now I will gladly pay out the ducking ass to have my renewal expedited as quickly as possible because I am working to organize aid for displaced Ukrainians and hope to be in Poland helping by the end of the month…


We will see if the world can wait for me to get my ducks in a row or if events escalate to a point where it is not feasible for me to travel. Stay tuned for the epic humanitarian journey this Fat Mama is about to embark on!


Follow Fat Mama's updates about Travel for a Cause and her Humanitarian Quest Log to stay connected with what is happening on the ground in Eastern Europe and find out how you too can help.


Keep Calm and Quack On

Fat Mama stands with Ukraine