It started just a few days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, when the flood of refugees began to stream towards the country’s western borders in the hope of reaching safety before the fighting and bombing, which had already started in the east, reached them. As women and children began to cross the border into Poland, they found themselves in a different kind of vulnerable situation than the one they had left. Many had no belongings with them, having managed to grab just a couple of shopping bags filled with food before they left home. No clothing, no personal items, and no husbands, fathers and brothers over the age of 18 – the government order that men over that age remain to fight was already in place.
Single mothers clutching young and traumatised children entered Poland in the hope of finding sanctuary. However, it wasn’t as simple as that. There was very little time to prepare for the hordes of refugees crossing the borders, and governments were woefully underprepared to deal with the logistics of managing that many refugees.
A personal mission to make a difference to Ukrainian refugees
Christian set off from Sweden in his car and drove the 2,000 kilometres to the Ukraine/Poland border in the hope of being able to help, not knowing really what to expect when he got there. As a former diplomat, what he did know is that these people were moving from one kind of danger to another – they were so vulnerable that they could end up being caught by human trafficking gangs, for instance.
What was sort of reassuring about humanity, though, was the stream of traffic going to the Ukrainian border – it was obvious that people wanted to do anything they could to help. Again though, logistics of aid were lacking and while people were leaving clothes and bedding and toys for the incoming refugees, there was nowhere to put all these donations and they were left by the road in the snow, rain and ice, meaning they couldn’t be used effectively.
Lack of organisation at the Ukraine/Poland border
Upon reaching the border, Christian’s first reaction was negative – the railway station into which the refugees were coming was chaos, with police everywhere but seemingly overwhelmed by the situation. There were also people trying to charge those attempting to offer aid for parking spots, something that he found abhorrent and made his feelings clear to those trying to make him pay. Small kitchens had been set up that were serving tea and basic meals, but really there was little infrastructure to support this influx of people. Not being entirely sure of where to start to offer help, Christian found a non-governmental organisation (NGO) representative with a megaphone, and asked if they could relay a message for him – ‘did anyone want to come to Sweden to safety’? Two mothers, each with young children, were quick to volunteer. But technically there wasn’t enough space in the car for all of them – one mother ended up with her child on her lap for the 2,000-km journey to Sweden in order to accept the offer of help.
Having faith in people to do the right thing in a crisis
When interviewing Christian, the trust that these vulnerable families had in him is what really struck me personally as a parent – how desperate does a mother have to be get into a stranger’s car with her young children and hope that he’s going to take them where he promised? This was the reality of choices that they faced. Stay in place and face whatever the authorities in Poland were able to offer, potentially be taken advantage of by people traffickers, or risk heading to Sweden. To try and allay their fears somewhat, Christian showed them on the car’s satnav where they were going as they travelled, and made his phone a mobile hotspot so they could try and communicate with the members of the family they had left behind. The nine-year-old child in the back of the car cried for most of the journey, and perhaps more concerning was the 14 year old who didn’t say anything. After a long but ultimately uneventful drive, they reached Sweden, where authorities proved, once again, unprepared for the processing of any refugees. They were welcomed, though, by families offering their second/holiday homes on Sweden’s coastline as temporary accommodation. Food, clothing and toys were willingly given, with a local toy shop promising the equivalent of US$50 per child for something they were able to come and choose from the shop. Shockingly – and this shows that there are people in this world who will stoop to new lows to make a quick buck – this generous offer was abused by some people attempting to defraud the shop pretending to pick up toys for refugees.
Healthcare and local assistance for Ukrainians in Sweden
The health and wellbeing of the refugees is of paramount concern to those working with them, but it’s not always easy to obtain the necessary background information. And during a pandemic, knowing if someone is partially or fully vaccinated is important. The refugees were not given health checks nor questionnaires to answer, and if they need healthcare, they are taken directly to an emergency room, where they won’t be charged for the care they receive and can’t be turned away for not being a Swedish citizen.
Without donations from people and private organisations, refugees from Ukraine would be surviving on the equivalent of $6 a day – which, in the current age of inflation, doesn’t go very far. And as people needed their summer vacation homes back in order to fulfil their rental agreements, where are refugees going? Some have actually gone back to Ukraine, said Christian, as the never-ending bureaucracy they face in trying to secure a visa in Sweden has worn them down.
Safe passage into Ukraine
While most of Christian’s work involved getting people safety out of Ukraine, there were some who wanted in. There were a lot of volunteers who wanted to get into the country to provide aid, or fight with the Ukrainian forces. For these people, Christian worked using his diplomatic connections to help them reach their destinations, and in conjunction with friends on the ground in the security services, to organise rendezvous points. Donations of food and medicines also needed to be sent directly into the country instead of being held in warehouses in the border, and coordination of these convoys needed careful consideration. There was – and remains – a dire shortage of children’s medications and hospital equipment, so anyone in the medical assistance sector that is able to provide medication or equipment can reach out to Christian to find out how they can provide help on the ground.
“We are over 200 days into the war in Ukraine now, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Christian. “We have to keep going. The evacuees want to go back home, but realistically, there is nothing for them to go back to. Rebuilding the infrastructure that has been destroyed by Russian bombing campaigns will take many years. So living up to our obligations as members of the United Nations, and as fellow human beings, will be key to helping Ukraine and her survivors come out the other side of the this war and overcome the trauma they have experienced.”