Przemyśl, Poland is a historic town hailing from its first settlement in the 800’s. After centuries and many wars, the town is somehow still preserved in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, with access to Warsaw and Kiev via regular train routes, making it especially welcoming to those fleeing Ukraine in March 2022.
This town of roughly 60,000 flexed in March to accommodate the constant flow of Ukrainians fleeing the war in Ukraine - mostly women, children, and elderly who came through Przemyśl, making their first stop outside of Ukraine, outside of the war. They came battered, tired, empty-handed and hungry, and in need of first aid and a long term plan. Immediately, a handful of Russian and Ukrainian born Americans jumped to action and established their new non-profit, Global Disaster Relief Team (GDRT) within an abandoned shopping center in Przemyśl.
Global Disaster Relief Team arrived early March to provide first aid, medication distribution, and care for many Ukrainians crossing the border. According to New York Times assessment in late March, around 500,000 refugees had left Ukraine and come through Przemyśl.* GDRT estimates to have treated, on average, 600 patients a day as of late March.**
In April, just a few weeks after her return from serving a two week deployment in Tesco shopping center in Przemyśl, Poland, we caught up with Nika, a nurse of five years, now director of home health in the US, who moved from Russia 23 years ago.
“When I was a child or when I was young nurse, I was dreaming to… when I retire I would go somewhere in Africa to do vaccinations or some volunteering work but it was, like, in long term future. So, when this war started and realizing that I do have my nursing skills and the language skills because a lot of Ukrainian people speak Russian and I can understand part of Ukraine language too, I started to look at volunteer organizations who are planning to do some medical mission close to the border or maybe inside Ukraine.”
After Nika applied for and began the recruitment process with various organizations, she felt like the process was stalling. And then she saw a call for Russian speaking nurses on a facebook group. The ad said something like, “‘we’re looking for nurses to help Ukrainian refugees’,” Nika recalls. “So, I texted him, he replied immediately. We chatted over the phone and we set up a date for deployment in, like, a week.”
Nika praised GDRT’s prompt response, “So that was quick, and efficient and that what actually was why I started with them. I was absolutely impressed how people just throw back and stay and sleep in same room where they are doing treatment, it was like, mind blowing what they did from the beginning and how far they moved.”
Nika recalls reading about the first GDRT deployment team that gathered supplies and set up a pharmacy and first aid center in the Tesco Shopping Center, hardly ever leaving the site, and securing sleeping quarters not far from the area where they served. By the time Nika deployed in mid-March, the team had grown in numbers and in support and had secured a house where all the nurses and medics could get rest in their down time.
Nika worked as a nurse, while serving with GDRT, taking shifts with others nurses and medics. She shared some of her impressions of working in her skilled role every day.
Considering the most difficult part of being at the Tesco shopping center, Nika recalls the constant flow of new people needing help. “The amount of people that was coming through every day… it was overwhelming. The day shift we had two to three nurses working nonstop just placing medication[….] I thought it would be complex cases that you would need to be hands to the elbow in blood situation, but it was like simple, simple down to the first problem, women and child, headache, blood pressure, eye cleaning, ear cleaning[…] everything on home health level but the amount of non-stop people that was probably the most difficult part and of course on top of it, people under a lot of stress. Of course, people with heartbreaking story, people with PTSD for sure [ …] by day two you easily can look at the crowd, pacing back and forth in front of your eyes and you can see them all - we call them ‘gray people,’ like people who were definitely in very difficult situation, people in grave danger for long time it was like life was sucked out of them. That was probably the heartbreaking part.”
When asked how her nursing skills were helpful when serving with GDRT, Nika states, “assessment skills - absolutely crucial because you need very quickly to figure out how serious the situation.”
Nika states that there were multiple humanitarian aid organizations within the same location and they all worked together. ”Everybody in the center worked together and we were absolutely helping each other because everybody had the same goal - to help refugees as effectively and as quickly as possible. Red Cross came to us once to get some medical equipment that they didn’t have when they were treating patient but we were using.” She talks about a flyer shared by an Israeli humanitarian team as well to help with stress response for refugees, “it (the flyer) was printed in Russian and Ukrainian and English and it was absolutely helpful.”
Nika states flexibility was key to the success of the team while serving in Poland. “At day two or three of deployment there were so little people in center that we thought ‘Oh my god, they will close us and they will send us back, what we gonna do?’ And then next day a new wave of people hit us and it was non-stop from that point."
While Nika states the sheer volume of people needing help was overwhelming, she still considered each individual person she cared for as uniquely important. “And each person has their own pain, their own broken life, their own losses, that are truly heartbreaking. Each story that you hear - heartbreaking, each hand that you put cream on… carry a piece of war in them.”
Even though the center had many people coming and going every day - both volunteers and Ukrainians fleeing war, Nika said she never felt threatened or unsafe on the territory. “It’s a really safe place… because of, like, the center itself, the only people who are screened have access… so refugees and volunteers have bracelets that are checked every time you’re leaving or going in.”
While her work with GDRT was typically shift work, Nika states she often stayed on after her shift. She told us, “when I had little bit of energy left I was staying after shift and doing some craft with kids. I was just putting tables outside… in the hall… and was just doing some simple craft with kids.” For the kids' benefit, she would do art therapy. “I do believe in art therapy and I did have a really good conversation with some teenagers while they was doing simple paintings with wool or some simple wire flower project flower for grandma. It was absolutely touching and I believe we… I didn’t position it like, ‘oh I’m doing therapy.’ No for me, it was just like, hey let’s have fun, let’s chat and share and smile to each other…”
Nika was among many volunteers who contributed to a lightness in the atmosphere, by creating games for kids. She recalls the liveliness that existed in the center for the kids, “there was a lot of helpers who work with kids or just play with kids, football in the hall or some kind of crazy funny, games, and you look at the center and you see like kids playing and you’re like ‘ok, they‘re ok… they’re ok. They’re still playing’.”
As we have all seen, the atrocities in Ukraine are difficult to witness and while Nika was safely living her life in the US, the pull to help was strong. The decision to drop everything and go help was easy, “You just f—ing go. I told my husband, I cannot not go and he understand me, like, on this one phrase and it was no debate after that. And I am really thankful for my job, for my boss itself, the company…. who managed to stay two weeks without me and actually our home health company donated money and help me to buy some supplies that I was bringing so we were able to order some supply like medical supply, iv starters, dressing changes, sutures that I was bringing with me.”
But returning to the US, was hard. Near the end of her deployment, a couple of the team nurses had become sick. The deployment crew was understaffed but the flow of refugees did not stop. Nika remembers the team fondly and worried about how they were going to recover and get back to work. She tells of the friendships among the team that started. “You get a bond with the people, so this was pretty hard.” She left her contact information with the team so that current and future deployment teams could reach out to her, even when she was back to her normal life in the US.
Nika carries a lot of positive feelings towards the Global Disaster Relief Team, for their hard work, their skill, their can-do attitude, and their ability to adapt. When asked if she would recommend other volunteers to help or support GDRT she replies, “Absolutely would recommend but be prepared that you need to be flexible. Situation changes every day.”
We asked Nika, if others are wanting to help out right now, what she would tell them is important to remember while serving?
She responded, “If other people want to help right now, what would I tell them… actually, each of us can serve, it doesn’t matter what location we are. We realize it’s not just a box of diapers that you can send for one time… It’s not about one time help. There is huge, huge amount of people, most of them women with children and elderly people who were displaced, they were forced to start their life somewhere from ground zero.”
Nika recalls a lady at the center, in her winter coat and house slippers, holding only her purse in her hands. “She had nothing on her. Like seriously nothing on her, no toothbrush… nothing and this 70 year old lady just lost her daughter who was killed and she was forced to go somewhere unknown place, unknown people, unknown language… each story is heartbreaking and mother with young child who will be sent to other country to start her life, like, she will need help… for a while to help her to study language, to find job, something. So whatever can be done on any person’s side, people need to get involved… teach language, send something, hug them, listen to them, share some art with them… what they need. There is too many of them and it’s in the center [Tesco] it felt like no matter how much you do it’s never enough. Because needs are much greater than help that volunteers are providing. They (volunteers) are like first contact with life on other side from the war and it’s like you meet... you are first person who they meet to give back belief in humanity.”
Nika is aware that volunteer fatigue is real and often, right after a disaster there is a groundswell of help that eventually fizzles. Nika warns about this and encourages all interested volunteers to continue to stay involved and help, “there’s situation called ‘volunteers fatigue.’ At the beginning of the crisis, a lot of people jump but in a week, two, three… people think, they get used to that and do nothing and a lot of people stop to do what they were at the beginning. But it…crucial to keep going, keep help coming because war is not over and it looks like it will be for a long time.”
For a parting piece of advice for any volunteers or people out there thinking about volunteering, Nika offers, “You cannot save them all, but you can help this one.” She wants all volunteers helping out Ukrainian refugees, “let their life be a little bit better after they met you.”
*Pronczuk, M. & Gettleman, J., (23, March, 2022). A Town on Ukraine’s Edge, Determined to Escape Its Past. The New York Times. nytimes.com/2022/03/23/world/asia/ukraine-poland-border-przemysl.html
**www.gdrt.org/about, accessed 6, April, 2022.