We are a new team of 6 students joining Keep Them Warm from Nijmegen. We admired the initiative that our fellows in Leiden had kicked off, and it inspired us to join forces and to start organizing fundraising campaigns and our first trip to the Ukrainian border. With 6 drivers and 2 busses that would soon become characters of their own right, we undertook the odyssey to Przemysl, a Polish town a mere 15 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, which since the start of the war has turned into the main passage for the stream of refugees crossing the border from east to the west.
On the morning of Wednesday the 22nd of February we took off with each bus stocked to the brim with as much donated food, winter clothing, medicine and necessary office supplies as the bus’ suspension could carry. On the second day of driving, we arrived at our first stop at the court of justice in Tarnów, Poland, where we were warmly received by a local judge called Pjotter and his son. The aim of this delivery was to hand over the office supplies that were donated by the court of Arnhem and that from Tarnów would be further transported to the higher court in Lviv, Ukraine.
After the supplies had been handed over, judge Pjotter took us on a walk through the city center while giving an insightful oration on the turbulent history of the region and the context of the current war in Ukraine. The conversation about the ongoing conflict was continued over dinner—to which Pjotter had kindly invited us—in a scenic Polish restaurant seated at the edge of the main town square in Tarnów.
After the delightful dinner, we proceeded on our trip into the night and arrived long after sundown at our hotel, incidentally located in the same building complex that houses the Hope Shelter from where we would later pick up multiple refugees. Fatigued from the long two-day trip we retired to our beds early in order to get some well-needed shut-eye.
The next day arrived and with it the first anniversary of the war, a year of bloodshed and humanitarian crises. In the morning we headed towards the premises of The Canada Way, an NGO that was started and is ran by military veterans who continuously drive crucial humanitarian aid into the struck parts of Ukraine and provide medical aid to those in need. On the driveway of a house decorated with Canadian, British and Dutch flags we were welcomed by Stephen, Szymon and Kate, three of the incredible volunteers who have been based in Przemysl since the very first month of the war.
Over a very much needed cup of coffee we all listened to their stories about what they have seen in Ukraine, the streamlined logistics of their operations, and the mental and physical burdens they have to battle with in order to carry out their work. It was touching to hear the stories of humanitarian helpers who have been in the area since the war started and opened our eyes to many subjects that are enormous problems but are barely spoken about in the media such as human trafficking and sexual abuse.
We provided a helping hand by sorting a garage full of donated clothes and carrying the supplies from our own buses into the basement of the house which has been transformed into a distribution center. The Canada Way is always in communication with the military and humanitarian organizations on the ground to stay up to date on which supplies are most necessary and in which areas. In that way, the right supplies are donated to the Canada Way and they can provide targeted help for citizens and soldiers in Ukraine. For the next day a trip was planned for them to drive to Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine, so we assisted in loading the vans with food and clothing.
At the end of the day, we shared some reflections and said our goodbyes (for now), and we drove off in our unloaded buses to the city center of Przemysl. We wandered through the town to get a glimpse of the city that had become such a keystone figure in the continuous flow of fleeing Ukrainians when we heard a beautiful harmony of singing voices in the distance. Getting closer we could see a large crowd of Ukrainians and Poles on the square in front of the local Municipal Office gathered around a beautiful display of candles, still singing unison. Marking one year of war, this memorial was devoted to the casualties of the war. One year of insecurities, pain, sorrow and thousands of refugees fleeing their home country. The memorial was very emotional and made a great impression on us.