What Volunteering on the Polish-Ukrainian Border Taught Us About Unity

Illustration by Ania Maryniako.

Over the summer, our family traveled to the border between Poland and Ukraine to assist refugees fleeing the Russian–Ukrainian war. With no plan except a desire to help in any way we could, we located a nearby train station and ventured in, looking for opportunities where we could help.

The station was often the very first destination for Ukrainian refugees who had just escaped the war. By night, incoming trains released floods of Ukrainians arriving, often for the first time, to Poland. For hours each day, we saw hundreds waiting for their train to arrive, enduring the hot summer sun, unsure of where they’d go, when they’d leave Poland or what their futures held.

The train station that Ava Blum and Clio Blum volunteered in. Photos provided by Clio Blum.

There, we met some English-speaking volunteers who brought us to a small booth on a deserted train platform. The booth was run by a grassroots organization named Prze_Misio and served as a pitstop, providing free food rations, drinks and general supplies to refugees between stops on their harrowing journeys.

Soon, we were behind the booth, helping fellow volunteers package snack bags, helping migrants lift their luggage onto arriving trains and playing with children to distract them from the exhaustion and uncertainty.

A stand with supplies for Ukrainian refugees. Photo by Clio Blum.

Two weeks later, we moved deeper into Poland to volunteer at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow. As we packaged food rations for war refugees, we met Ania, a 15-year-old girl who had fled the Russian invasion of her hometown of Irpin just outside the capital of Kyiv. 

Although our lives were unimaginably different, we were still connected by our teenage experiences. We discussed our ambitions for school and wondered what we’d be when we grew up. Regardless of our different cultures and experiences, at the end of the day, we found unity gathered around an assembly line belting Lizzo while stuffing lentils into plastic bags.

Despite how quickly we hit it off, we could have never imagined the horrors Ania had seen. “You can find many butterflies in the field near my old house,” she said, showing us photos that looked like they were straight out of a Disney movie.

“But you can’t go there anymore—there are many bombs, and you could die.” 

Irpin was one of the most heavily targeted areas at the beginning of the war, and Ania told us that her mother and grandmother were forced to flee their home as Russian bombs neared her village. She had to leave her dog with neighbors who stayed, and her father was drafted to serve in the war. She said that many of her classmates fled, too, but she didn’t know where all of them ended up. The life that she had known was gone.

Ania’s new normal was our nightmare. Yet the fear we felt listening to Ania’s stories also reminded us of the power of our connection. Our conversations with Ania allowed us to empathize with the Ukrainian people affected by the war. We realized the invaders who would mercilessly kill children in towns like Ania’s failed to recognize the human connection they shared with their victims. They only saw differences. 

Despite how divergent our life experiences were, our bond with Ania was proof that finding common ground can help us overcome our differences. 

Though our experience occurred overseas, the lesson applies back at home, too. Congress is gridlocked due to party polarization, preventing lawmakers from passing desperately needed legislation. The divisions in our government reflect our nation as a whole—like Putin convinced his supporters to see Ukrainians as enemies, we Americans are letting rhetoric pit us against each other.

Even at GDS, we need to remember our connections are stronger than our differences. We live in a dominantly liberal environment often dubbed “the GDS bubble.” Often, we receive opinions that oppose our own with hostility. While our culture celebrates questioning and challenging people and ideas, we should make sure to do so in a way that respects others and never dehumanizes them, no matter how much we disagree. Because it is dehumanizing people, and viewing them as our enemies, that leads to war. 

In a time when war could mean nuclear annihilation, the ability to resolve issues peacefully is more vital than ever. At GDS, we’re taught to be advocates and changemakers. It’s up to us to apply our valuable perspectives in the real world, remembering that what brings us together is stronger than what tears us apart.