When the crisis in Ukraine started earlier this year, the world watched in horror at what was happening to Ukraine and its people. Naomi, a student new to Branksome this year and originally from Ukraine, also felt the same. They—Naomi goes by they/them pronouns—knew that they wanted to do something to help and they decided to take action and travel to Poland to volunteer at the Ukraine/Poland border.
Naomi, who was born in Ukraine and lived there until last year, previously studied at an English IB World School in Kyiv. They are enjoying their time so far at Branksome, and have noticed cultural differences, such as that the community here at Branksome is really “driven” and that, “Everyone is trying their best and that’s something that’s really great to see and feel and be a part of. Everyone has a mission and something that they’re doing that’s really important to them.”
When the recent crisis in Ukraine happened, Naomi had already been worried about what was going to happen to their home country. “From the middle of January, it was a reality,” they said. “It was almost like, ‘It will be any day now.’”
When the peacekeeping troops were announced as having been sent to Ukraine, Naomi heard the news around 10 p.m. that night. They said their immediate family was all together when they watched the news, but then each went up to their own rooms. Soon after, they all came out into the hallway. “We all kind of stepped out of our rooms and looked at each other and started crying,” they said. “Then, we went back to our rooms and mourned it on our own.”
Naomi’s mother was in Poland when the war began, and Naomi was supposed to go to Ukraine and visit their best friend, but cancelled the trip. Naomi received a call from their mother asking if they’d like to join her in Poland over March Break and they immediately accepted. Naomi’s mother is a CEO of a leading private equity firm in Emerging Europe and was in Poland trying to help Ukrainians leave the country, and Naomi felt they had to help, too.
Naomi immediately flew to Poland and met their mother in a town called Rzeszów, about an hour from the Ukraine border. They were staying at the same hotel as a group of visiting United States senators and ended up having dinner beside them. Through conversation, Naomi and their mother agreed that they would join the group of senators and go together to the border to see what they could do to help.
As Naomi’s group approached the border, Naomi felt emotional seeing their country. “Immediately, when we realized that the land we were looking at was Ukrainian land, part of me was emotional and felt blessed that we were there,” they said. “I was so happy to see Ukraine again.”
Naomi saw all of the refugees waiting at the border to leave Ukraine. “There were hoards of people waiting outside,” they said. “They were being processed 50 at a time by border guards inside a tent. They were mainly women, young children and many babies.” Naomi said the people leaving the country were given food, clothes and water and were then taken by buses to a processing centre.
This border crossing is where Naomi provided most of their assistance, by acting as a translator for many of the United States senators. Naomi is fluent in both languages—English and Ukrainian—and there were no translators available. Naomi’s role was to help people tell about their experiences and share what they were going through. “Telling people’s stories–that alone was really impactful,” said Naomi. “I was talking with the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).”
At the processing centre, they had a large food distribution room where the World Food Program and World Central Kitchen volunteers were distributing food. “I remember that morning was the attack on Yavoriv and there were refugees and women falling into my arms in tears saying their town had been completely destroyed and how terrifying it was.”
After that day of volunteering, Naomi took a short break and went to Slovakia to visit a friend. When Naomi returned, they visited Lublin, a town in Poland where the Help Ukraine organization is based, which is one of the biggest organizations doing humanitarian work in Ukraine. “I was there for around 8 hours,” they said. “I was helping to pack and repack donations to be put onto trucks and driven into Ukraine that evening. Donations were grouped into sections: water, hygiene, sleeping, things for soldiers, food, clothing and medicine.”
Naomi feels the experience of volunteering in Poland has left a lasting impact on them.
“I think those few weeks were definitely the most impactful days of my life,” they said. “It was really impactful to see people who looked like people I knew. People who could easily have been my classmates, my teachers, the coffee shop owner down the street. Seeing all these people in the same situation regardless of their socioeconomic status, their education, regardless of all this, everyone was in the same position. Seeing teachers that I knew leaving and never thinking that it could happen was more eye-opening than anything.”
When asked if they have hope that things will change or be resolved, Naomi does feel hopeful.
“I am very confident in our people and our strength and our bravery,” they said. “Ukraine, in my view, has become the front line of democracy. Seeing this war come to a new stage, I’m really holding out hope that we are going to win this stage. I know that Ukraine is going to be a prosperous country once this is over and I’m going to go back and live there. I know that there is a bright future waiting for Ukraine and it’s just at our fingertips.”
For those wishing to donate to help the people of Ukraine, Naomi is encouraging people to donate to smaller aid organizations, such as Careitas or the Help Ukraine Centre.