The first aid convoy of Menschenfreude e.V. started on March 8 towards Ukraine. This was preceded by an unprecedented fundraising campaign with countless helpers. In the end, a team of 24 drivers set out with twelve vans to distribute the collected relief supplies in refugee camps - mostly specially converted churches. These are very moving and emotional experiences that we would like to share with you here.
As we left Swisttal and North Rhine-Westphalia behind us, none of us realized what intense experiences we would have in the coming hours and days. How many kilometers we would cover, how much human suffering would get under our skin. And how helpful individuals have become a team within a short time with a wealth of experience that welds together. One thing is clear: each of us will continue to help in the future. Maybe more so after this trip.
First stop: Warsaw
Our way leads us on the first day via Poznan to Warsaw. In the refugee camp we are already expected. It is a church of the Christian Baptist community. It offers protection and refuge to the refugee families – mostly women with small children. “About 150 people come to us every night.” Pastor Piotr warmly welcomes us, invites our group to a soup and bread. We sit together for a moment. How can we help?
A church room as a hostel
His co-workers and he tell us a little bit about what has been going on here for about two weeks. Around the clock. It’s a place of safety, a brief respite, an improvised hub. The church room converted into a huge bed camp. Empty offices as makeshift playrooms. In the hallway are boxes of clothes and diapers from which families can take what they need.
“Some stay here for a few days. Because they hope that they will soon be able to return home. To Ukraine, their homeland. But that is not on the horizon. Some we help to apply for a visa to the USA or Canada. This can take time. Of course, they will be here a little longer. But many also travel on directly after one night. That’s when we don’t know what’s going to happen with them.”
Young people volunteer to help
Helpers tirelessly clear dirty dishes, pillows, blankets, children’s toys back and forth around us. Organize, clean up, answer questions. Helper Ira keeps a cell phone list of what supplies are available and what still needs to be procured. “The women can tell us exactly what they need. After all, they weren’t allowed to take much with them on the run. Some have nothing on them at all. Some need something specific for the baby or themselves. Medication, for example. That will go on the list and we’ll see that we get that accordingly.”
Distribution of our donations
Some of our group clean out the trailers and help kids look through what’s available. The boys love the soccer jerseys – Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln – and the sports clothes. The girls are happy with scarves and fleece jackets. Candy and things for the bathroom take all. “Is this for the hair or the body?” A boy holds out a bottle of Superman shower gel to me. He speaks English very well and is maybe ten years old. “I think it goes for both.” He’s a really sweet guy and doesn’t deserve all this. Like none of the children around us. I have to think of my own son, whom I would like to hold at this moment.
Together with helper David we carry blankets and sleeping bags into the large hallway and then look at Ira’s list. David translates. He’s doing great. What a tireless effort. We together determine what we will buy from our donations at the supermarket today. In the end, Sebastian and I fill two shopping carts with toilet paper, porridge and baby jars. Stefanie and Knuth help us carry.
Next stop: Lublin
In the late evening we arrive in Lublin. Another two hours further east. It is much colder than in Warsaw and there is some snow. A group of us still looks around the city in the evening. In Warsaw, we were told about people who stand in line to the train platform all day and don’t make it onto the trains in the end. They then have to wait it out at the station until the next morning, when the waiting starts all over again.
People sleep at the station
And it really is: “It’s only a five-minute walk from here.” Stefan and Bernd handed out a few sleeping bags from our fund. “There are mothers lying with their children against the wall of the house and spending the night like that. Polish soldiers are there and distribute hot soup and blankets. They organized it very well. It has to be said. But it’s still all bad.”
These are unbelievably large dimensions that even we find difficult to comprehend. We try to help with all our strength. And will do so again tomorrow. At the moment it is cold. And it’s getting late.
Videos of a destroyed homeland
In between we have a marten bite on the car that we have to have repaired. We sit in the workshop and wait. An old man approaches us. He recognized us as Germans and also speaks a little German. He is coming from Ukraine at this very moment. He was allowed to leave because of his age. “Let me show you my car.” We go with him out to the parking lot and his car stands there covered with scratches and a makeshift covered broken side window. “That was debris. They’re ruining everything. They’re ruining our homeland. Everything.” He cries.
We go in with him and sit down at the table. He shows us cell phone videos of the street where he lives. Only dust and dirt and rescue vehicles can be seen. Wailing sirens. We are stunned. Much more real than what we know from television. “Is there anything we can do to help you?” We are perplexed and shocked. Suddenly the war shows up in an everyday situation – like here in this car dealership in Lublin. Across the street is a McDonald’s, a shopping center with a glittery facade. And next to us sits this old man who had to leave his destroyed home and drove for hours in his broken car.
“Can I take your picture?” At that moment, I am sure that I must somehow capture this encounter. He understands what I mean. With red teary eyes he looks up. “Show this to everyone! You have to show everyone what’s happening here!” We stand up and take each other in our arms wordlessly. He leans his head against mine for a moment. Then we say goodbye. We will put the photo on the Internet. We show it to everyone.
Next stop: Dorohusk
The next day our way leads us to the Ukrainian border. A constantly updated website shows where what kind of help is needed: Transportation, food, medical help and so on. And how big the flow of refugees from the other side is that day. Red, yellow and white. Red means great hardship. We decide to go to the Dorohusk border crossing, which is about an hour away.
The closer our convoy gets to the border, the more checkpoints there are. And more police. We are also checked several times. More and more Ukrainian vehicles are coming towards us. It’s the people who made it out. Cars with roof boxes, fully loaded with suitcases and fully occupied. And also some of these vehicles have scratches and broken windows, which are covered makeshift. Like Viktor’s car in Lublin.
Helpers from all over the world in action
On the ground in Dorohusk, on the border between Poland and Ukraine, many aid organizations are working. It is an unreal, restless, almost defiant atmosphere under a bright blue sky; a sun that shines for all of us. It is an improvised, unconventional, and most certainly very effective shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration between committed people from all over the world. Driven by the determination to do something about this humanitarian catastrophe.
There are tents with food, soup kitchens, benches to rest. “Where are you from?” A woman approaches us. “Germany.” We can speak german. Tanja comes with her colleague from the Flensburg area. The two are midwives and have noticed that many small children coming across the border have not been diapered for days. In a warming container, they offer mothers the opportunity to clean, feed and warm up their children a little. What a great idea from these two women.
Unreal moments on the border
Many impressions that touch us: In a tent, an old woman sits slumped on her walker and weeps bitterly. A little boy stumbles after his mom in a snowsuit. He is too tired to walk. A woman comes across the border with a rolling suitcase. “Look Kathrin, that woman there. Do you see her? That could be me.” Stefanie and I look at the scene. The woman is all alone. It passes the border crossing. Stand still. Move to the side of her suitcase. Stands and looks. I wonder what she thinks.
Warmth and orientation for the onward journey
Bernd and Knuth distribute some food, sweets, warm blankets and sleeping bags to women and children. Want to do anything. But in the main, there is nothing left for all of us but to be spectators. Spectators of a human tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes.
Next stop: Chelm
On the way back we will pass through the eastern Polish town of Chelm. Here, too, it is a converted church parish that offers women and children a refuge night after night. We contacted the local team and learned that on this day again some families arrived who would like to continue their journey to Germany or neighboring countries.
Thinking about responsibility
The night before, we had sat and talked together at the hotel. About responsibility. But also about the limits of the possibilities to help. As a team. And about our very personal limits. It was not easy in the last days to expose ourselves to this suffering. And it will be with us for a long time. How far would our own resources go? Can we hope for a network at home to catch us? And what would our continued engagement look like once we were back to our normal daily lives? We all have families, jobs, normal lives. None of us knows what will happen next. How long it takes. What else may be in store.
Nevertheless, we all matured the decision to go one step further and not to leave the families in the refugee camp alone.
And so the next morning we drive back to Chelm to pick up the waiting families. Some, we are told, only want to go as far as Berlin. Some we will take to North Rhine-Westphalia, where they will stay with us at home, neighbors and friends. We organized all this at short notice. Within 24 hours. 37 people.
With the families to Germany
Back in Chelm: On the shelf against the wall are papers in transparent sleeves. These are the cases that will be conveyed today. On the benches sit families, women with small children between bags and suitcases. “Five minutes, okay?” The woman points to a free bench. Sebastian and I sit down and wait. A Texas news reporter walks back and forth among the waiting people, interviewing the helpers. He also approaches me to see if I will tell him what we are doing here.
Of course with pleasure. In my best school English I tell about Menschenfreude e.V., me, Kathrin from Germany, and what we have achieved and experienced in the last days. Reporter Gary is taken with our involvement. “Twelve hours you guys drove across Europe to help? Oh hey wow!” We take a few more photos.
God’s blessing for all that is to come
Then it gets serious. The woman from the reception comes up to us and says everything is ok, we can go. Go? We stand up and look at each other. “Just like that? Now?” Yes, we can. Setting out for safety, but also for a completely uncertain future. For an unknown duration.
“This is your family.” The woman makes a hand gesture in the direction of the waiting people. We are to make way for the next family handover. “Thank you. God bless you.” “God bless you,” she repeats. She realizes we can’t just let go. It’s incomprehensible. We look at each other and tears come to both of our eyes. “Thank you, okay? Thank you.” We hug each other and hold each other for a very long time. “God bless you, ok?” “God bless you, too.” We know it’s an unreal, inhuman situation. Life paths cross for a moment, perhaps one of the most important in life. And then that moment is over, we let go and it’s a matter of moving on in this strange lottery of biographies. It’s a matter of simply trusting that everything will somehow work out.
“Think about it,” Sebastian will say later in the car. “They just ride along with us. We could be bad people somehow. How desperate do you have to be to just get in a car with strangers and drive across Europe for two days?” He’s right. It is a madness.
Last stop: Sublice
In the evening our drivers arrive at the hotel. Little by little. Stefanie and Knuth took care of the booking for all of us and give us such an incredibly warm welcome. After more than seven hours of driving across Poland. Some Ukrainian families greet each other. They are happy to exchange a few familiar words. Exhausted children are put to bed. To a warm, clean hotel bed after many days on the run.
In the evening our Menschenfreude team still sits together. Knuth provides us with bread and drinks. That feels good. “They told me that they drove for hours in a column of cars toward the border. And there was shooting behind them.” Ken tells the story of the family of four he picked up from Chelm today. “If you go out to pee, you can’t get back in. Imagine this. They say if you stop, you stand an hour or two to get back in the column. So you have to get in the car. That made one of them throw up. Into the moving car. There was no other option. He just threw up in the car.”
Family reunion and farewell
The next morning we all gather again in the breakfast room. Manfred, Stefanie and Knuth, the two Sebastians, Ken and me. Jürgen is sitting at the table with his family. With the family he will take with him to Germany that day. They are the parents and four children. As he speaks, he adjusts the pieces of bread on the plate for his youngest daughter, and she pokes at them with her little fingers. She reaches for his hand and they look at each other. It all looks so carefree and familiar. But if you know the background of this completely arbitrary meeting, nothing is normal at all. It is depressing.
“One day,” Jürgen will say later in his farewell speech. “And for that, I pray to God, we will all meet again in a wonderful, rebuilt country.” He wishes everyone a safe journey. Wherever it may go.
Addendum: Back home in a new everyday life
On Saturday we are in the garden with our host family from Kiev. On Sunday we visit a market together and eat ice cream. It is the helpless attempt on our part to create some security and normality. Meanwhile, relatives and friends back home fear for their lives.
During the week, Yana sits at the laptop in the mornings in our münsterland village and does distance learning. With her school in Kiev. The eleven-year-old girl who had to flee her encircled city completely abruptly on a Tuesday in March 2022. With her brother, grandma and two makeshift backpacks. She learns online, along with her classmates who – like her – are torn from their lives, scattered across Europe. “When people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I always say journalist.” Yana certainly has enough to tell . And that even at the age of eleven.
It is touching and admirable. It is quietly hopeful. And it’s so macabre and infinitely sad at the same time. It will go on until the school is also hit by a bomb. What is then, no one knows.
Every euro is just right here
In the end, one thing is clear to us: every single euro is right. Every euro donated to this project, to help alleviate this horrific humanitarian tragedy, however small that help may be! For this and for further donations we can not say thank you enough !
More impressions of the trip in the video:
More information about the relief transports of Menschenfreude e.V.
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