Anguish and hope in a Ukrainian refugee camp

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My daughter and I continue to debate who made the initial suggestion to go to Poland and volunteer in a Ukrainian refugee camp, but April 4 found us on Air France, escorting medical supplies collected via the efforts of University of Rochester physicians Alex Paciorkowski and Yuliya Snyder (Ukraine Med Relief – Rochester Healthcare Workers) with Warsaw the intended first stop for a drop-off of the medical supplies, and then to the refugee camp. What we saw and what we did will remain with us forever.

Loading medical supplies in Rochester

My daughter Rachel Kaplan, a Hillel School and Brighton High School graduate, currently serves as executive director of Hillel at the University of Cincinnati. In “retirement,” I work part-time as a practicing physician for UR, with the remainder of my “usual” week filled with activity as board president of the Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance. For both of us, comfortable jobs, comfortable lives—and neither of us with any prior relationship or interaction with either Poland or Ukraine. However, like many, we were inflamed at the horror of the Russian invasion and the evident lives disrupted. Which somehow led to the refugee camp at Medyka, Poland.

After our medical supply drop-off in Warsaw, a big city whose streets and steel-and-glass towers side by side with three-story brick boxes reminded me of Boston, we immediately began our trip to the border, a four-hour drive through farmland, villages with cobblestone streets and colorful houses, and one-lane highways that somehow allow for the passage of cars going in opposite direction from each other.

Medyka is a town of fewer than 3,000 in southeastern Poland (roughly 150 miles from Krakow), with a church, a cemetery, a market—and a border crossing that until February was on no one’s map. As I write this, the Polish News reports 27,000 people crossing within the past 24 hours, 11,000 of whom crossed on foot. To date, nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees have entered Poland.

We hooked up with Sauveteurs Sans Frontieres, an Israeli group more commonly known as Rescuers Without Borders. In the week prior to our trip I had sent a slew of emails to anyone and everyone I could think of, searching for volunteer opportunities; both Rachel and I thought it best to join an established group as opposed to “just showing up.” Watching a news report with an on-the-street interview from Lublin, I recorded the name of a business in the background; they, too, received an email and lo and behold responded—with a contact, who then led me to another contact, and another, and thus to the Israeli group.

A medical tent at the Medkya refugee camp.

The refugee “camp” at Medyka was approximately 30 tents arranged along a pathway leading to a makeshift bus depot—from where the refugees are taken to either a local school or indoor shopping plaza now acting as overnight accommodation. The initial tent complex provides basic needs—food, dry clothing, a SIM card, a place to sit—all free, all provided by nonprofits, religious organizations, government-affiliated groups, and concerned businesses. SSF is the first tent at the border, one physician and one nurse per eight-hour shift providing 24/7 medical help to those among the refugees on foot requiring care. The tent was heated by a small wood-burning stove (yea for my Cub Scout years!). The supplies are all donated and, yes, sometimes you have exactly what you need and sometimes you make do—a half-filled water bottle laid on its side with a hole cut on top for medicine insertion effectively serves as a nebulizer that provides aerosolized medication. 

Neil Scheier with a patient at the refugee camp.

I had wondered just what medical issues I would see. What I neglected to wonder about was how I was going to communicate with patients speaking languages that I don’t (roughly two-thirds of the people in Ukraine speak Ukrainian, while most of the rest are Russian speakers), and would I recognize the medicines they take. Now I was confronted with those questions. The answer to the first: volunteer Ukrainian and Russian interpreters from around the world roaming the camp. The answer to the second: Google Translate. 

What I did see included known diabetic patients without insulin for a week to high- blood-pressure patients without medications, to burns and wounds, to babies crying because their diapers had not been changed in over a day, to painful feet and backs, to stomach ailments, to acute gall bladder issues, to chest pain in the elderly, to children with runny noses and sore throats—the entire gamut of medical ails. All had just walked for days to get to Medyka—and they were totally appreciative of any and every gesture of help.

Behind the medical tent is a larger tent for women and children, offering a warm place to sit (Medyka’s weather in March mimics Rochester’s, rainy and temperatures in the 30s and 40s), a cot to nap on, dry clothing, diapers for babies, food for all. If necessary, refugees can stay overnight in this tent, continuing the journey in the morning. The border closes at midnight, but already initiated processing continues, and thus people continue their entry into Poland until about 3 in the morning. The flow starts again at sunrise.

There is a distance of about 1/8 mile between the border crossing and the official Poland border, a paved path surrounded by a high fence. Thus, standing at the entry to the medical tent I could watch refugee families complete their journey. What struck me most was the confidence in their walk; whether carrying child in their arms or using two canes to walk, they had arrived.

What I cannot in any way convey in this writing is the extraordinary stress of people forced to leave their homes with their lives packed in a single suitcase. Yet, amid the expected stress reactions of crying and tears and pain and anger, one could also sense a belief that this was all temporary, that ultimately they would return home. It may be months, it may be years, they may be heading to a country whose language they don’t speak, but there exists among so many the firm belief that Ukraine is their homeland and return they will. 

Neil R. Scheier M.D. is clinical senior instructor in medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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