Today I spoke with Nadya, a 47-year-old woman who lives in the border town of Sokol, Ukraine. With a population of roughly 20,000, located 80 kilometers from Lviv, and even closer to the Polish border, Sokol has crossed back and forth between Poland and Ukraine over the last several centuries. Their shared history now fosters cooperation between Polish and Ukrainian people during the humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
“Polish people have come over the border with supplies to help us,” Nadya says proudly, “and we are grateful to them.”
Nadya tells me about how Poles have set up a humanitarian aid center right across the street from her house. She sends me a photograph from her phone showing volunteers distributing food and medicine to Ukrainian refugees.
Nadya is disabled and can only get around with the help of a cane. Her father, who is in his late eighties, and her mother, who is in her late seventies, live with her. They also walk with great difficulty. She is divorced and her husband has joined the Ukrainian army. Her son has also joined the military defense against Russia. Left with her elderly parents, Nadya’s immobility makes it impossible for her to leave Ukraine.
“The bomb shelter is only 20 meters away from my house,” Nadya explains, “but its impossible for me and my parents to get there. Every night we are woken up by sirens, but we cannot make it those 300 meters to the shelter. We just stay away from the windows and the outside walls.”
Reconciling herself with the knowledge that she will not leave her home, Nadya has instead thrown herself into humanitarian aid work for refugees. Despite her lack of mobility and poor health, Nadya is helping the thousands of refugees pouring into Lviv and the surrounding towns.
Humanitarian aid in the region is grassroots. Nadya is an elementary school teacher. She teaches English and German to grades one through five. She and other teachers in her school organized a bomb shelter in the school’s basement. They hunt for sheets, blankets, warm clothing, footwear, and medical kits among people in the town, and they distribute these things to refugees from Eastern and Western Ukraine, who are arriving by the trainload every day. Nadya reports that right now many women and children are coming from the Russian-bombed city of Kharkiv.
“People arrive having lost their homes, their jobs, everything,” Nadya explains. “They come just wearing the clothes they had on when they fled and maybe with a small backpack. Often, they need blankets, even a warm jacket. They are in shock, confused, and at a loss what to do next. They don’t have money. They don’t speak any foreign languages. They don’t know anyone abroad. They are in no position to leave Ukraine and so they stay in our region, seeking shelter.”
Nadya tells me that the refugees are grateful for a bar of soap, a bit of food, a cup of tea.
“People have lost their jobs and the economy is in ruins. This is an enormous problem.
We had to find shelter for a family with a one-month-old baby,” she says. “Their house was destroyed by the Russians.”
Another challenge was locating formula for a newborn with milk allergies.
“There is no food, no medicine, no baby formula because the roads are blocked, and supplies cannot get through. We are grateful for all the humanitarian aid we receive, but it is not enough. We have families coming to our town who have driven over 1,000 kilometers to get here. They are exhausted. They need a place to stay.”
I asked about the border crossing with Poland.
“My nephew is a student in Poland. He waited in his car for 36 hours to cross over the border. On Saturday the queue to the border was six kilometers long. We bring hot tea and coffee to people waiting to cross the border.”
“If things get bad in Sokol and the city is shelled, will you leave?” I ask.
“I have no opportunity to leave. My parents are too old, and my son has joined the army, so I must stay here for him.”
“What would you like to tell people in the West?”
“Ukraine is a peaceful country. We don’t want war. We were happy living in peace before the war. We need your support. Our children are dying. We have no water. We have no food. There will be starvation.”
“How do you feel about Ukraine joining the EU and NATO?”
“My entire family supports Ukraine joining the EU and NATO. How else can we survive with such an enormous aggressive country as our neighbor? Right now, the Ukrainian army is our only hope. We ask that you close the skies. The Russians are attacking us from the occupied country of Belarus. In Ukraine, the people are the greatest asset. We have 20-year-old soldiers fighting to defend us right now.”
“Do you think Ukraine will win this war?” I ask.
“Yes, we will do our best and Ukraine will win. We don’t want to take any territories from other countries. We just want to raise our children in a peaceful country. We want to stop this suffering.”
“What is your feeling towards Russians?”
“My generation grew up in the Soviet Union. I have lots of friends and relatives in Russia. They are repressed by Putin’s politics. They are even afraid to exchange text messages with us. I do not want to believe that they support what Russia is doing to Ukraine.”
“Is school open?”
“School was closed for two weeks, but now we teach on some days in the classroom and on some days online from home. Many of the refugees who come here want their children to continue learning, so they send them to our school. Today I taught five lessons. Right now, we have around 80 children attending school regularly.”
I asked about Covid-19.
“We have more serious problems to cope with, but yes, people are falling ill with Covid. However, in Ukraine tuberculosis is an even more serious problem. This disease is spreading rapidly under conditions of war.”
“What do you think of President Zelenskyy?”
“I didn’t vote for him myself, but I think he is doing a good job as a leader during this war. We believe we will win. This is a humanitarian disaster, and he is doing the best he can.”
“What is your greatest concern?”
“The greatest concern people in my town have right now is the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The Russians have seized it and they have bombed Chernobyl. The people who work there refuse to leave because they feel a responsibility to keep the plant running safely. They are doing this to protect Europe, to protect the world, from a nuclear disaster. They are being held as hostages at the plant, but they continue their work. People are frightened of a nuclear disaster. There are no potassium iodide tablets available anywhere. That is one medication we need very badly. People are panicking. It’s a problem that there is so much fake information on the internet right now. This causes confusion and panic among people who are already frightened.”
I thank Nadya for our conversation and she reminds me that Ukraine is fighting for Europe, for the West, for the world. “If Russian aggression is not stopped in Ukraine, this war will spread into other countries,” she warns.