Family Volunteers Say: “Ukrainians Ask Only That We Don’t Look Away”
When the war broke out in Ukraine, Adam and Amy Robinson of Virginia knew they wanted to do something to help Ukrainians. Having served in Ecuador in 2017 with their two sons, Reed (now age 14) and Clayton (age 12), they say they knew that Global Volunteers’ service program in Poland would provide a meaningful way to work with Ukrainians there. Adam, the founder of Govplace, a systems integrator and IT contractor, learned from Global Volunteers staff that there was a need for laptops for Ukrainian children to do their homework and attend virtual classes. Inspired to help, Adam reached out to his corporate contacts and secured donations of 15 laptops, which the family reformatted and set up for Ukrainian children to use. The dedicated family of four brought the laptops and other donations to Poland on their service program in June. Poland Country Manager Dorota Wierzbicka said, “Some kids had tears in their eyes when they got laptops so that moved the Robinsons a lot. None of these children had computers before.” Beyond the donations, the Robinsons worked with Poles and Ukrainians during their week of service. Read the poignant account of their time of service below.
by Adam and Amy Robinson
“Tell them we are dying”, says Konstantin, a professional Ukrainian soldier on leave for his daughter’s birthday. We sit on the back patio of a farmhouse in rural Poland with his wife Iryna, four daughters, and two nieces, invited over for kompot, a tea made by boiling fruit and sernik, a cream-cheese-based coffeecake.
In a week of volunteer work, we taught English, set up donated laptop computers, painted bathrooms and hosted dinners, played pickup soccer and basketball games, went to movies, and visited a planetarium, science center, water park and, of course, McDonalds.
In Poland, the Ukrainians are called guests, not refugees. Most live in Polish homes, in spare bedrooms, in kitchens, and on the floor. While the Polish economy struggles to absorb three million guests, Poles say only positive things about their guests. They want to work, pull their weight, and go home were the consistent refrains.
Proud, resourceful, and gracious, the Ukrainians’ stories stop your heart. Anna, a kitchen staff member at Reymontówka, the 100-year-old manor house turned retreat center which was our home for the week, owns a beauty salon in Kiev. A striking brunette with dark features and a cosmetologist’s complexion, she fled to Poland with her two-year-old daughter in February. Her husband, a military officer, was captured when Mariupol fell. Anna received a letter from the Russian government informing her that her husband is alive and eligible for a prisoner swap. With dry eyes, she shares pictures of him, in uniform, and describes spending her days scouring the news for scraps of information, while trying to care for her daughter, live as a guest in a stranger’s house, learn a new language, and work to make ends meet.
“Proud, resourceful, and gracious, the Ukrainians’ stories stop your heart.”– Adam Robinson, Poland volunteer
Ukrainians speak primarily their own language and Russian. With few translators, it is difficult for teenagers to integrate into Polish school. Many have the option to distance-learn in Ukrainian, but very few have computers. We decided to focus our help here, so we collected used systems, donated by businesses and individuals which our sons spent many hours preparing. Every afternoon in Poland the American teenagers meet with a new group of Ukrainian peers and set these systems up for them.
“Why are you here?”, 15-year-old Vika asks my sons Reed and Clayton as they play Uno on the patio, understandably curious what brought us half-way around the world. We just finished setting Vika and her sister Julia up with donated MacBooks. Five months earlier their lives had been much like our sons’, filled with school, friends, social media, and music. On February 24th, air raid sirens sent them to bomb shelters and a harrowing 72-hour escape, leaving behind homes, parents, friends, belongings, and any sense of childhood. They are tough kids. Only in the moment they realized the computers were theirs to keep, do they drop their guard and give us a glimpse of the war’s emotional toll.
The sisters fled with their aunt, her four young daughters, and two of her friend’s children. In the chaotic first days of the war, Iryna, a gracious, friendly woman, whose warm smile belies superhuman determination, led all eight kids safely out of the war zone and pieced together a new life. They live in a small concrete house on a sheep farm. The kids are enrolled in Polish schools while she continues to telework full time as an accountant.
“Let’s do a song,” says Toby, when Reed and I, teaching English to a class of 8th graders, give the option of a song or a game. As a tribute to their very-hip teacher Kamila, we all belt out Green Day’s “Good Riddance”. Our third day of teaching, now comfortable with each other, our classes turn more into freeform cultural exchanges, singing popular music, playing games and discussions covering important topics like “what is your favorite season of Stranger Things” and “in Poland, why are the light switches on the outside of the bathrooms”.
We see firsthand many Ukrainian kids’ struggles with school. In addition to the language barrier, several kids have undiagnosed learning difficulties. While the parents are often too consumed with survival to navigate the school system and get resources, the Polish teachers do their best to help these kids both academically and socially, but their struggle and frustration is apparent, even to our untrained western eyes.
With Polish homes full, some refugees live in repurposed facilities. Our team repainted the bathrooms in a Soviet-era school, clearly abandoned a decade ago, which now houses seven families in 3,000 square feet, sharing three bedrooms, three bathrooms, one kitchen, and a four-by-eight plywood sheet to keep the toddler from tumbling down the stairs. We painted during the day, while the families were away at work and school, kept company by an elderly grandmother and her two-year-old grandson. Unable to communicate or navigate the stairs, she is effectively stuck inside, leaving us to imagine the life she left behind and the stories she could tell.
Some of the trip’s best parts were just having fun with our new friends. We took a bus with forty guests to the Kopernik Science Center in Warsaw, a movie, and a local water park. On these ventures, we just played together, giving these war-weary people a reason to smile. In the evenings we hosted activities and dinners at Reymontówka, with volunteers playing with the little kids, hip-hop dance classes, guided meditations and energy healing sessions for the mothers, and the American and Ukrainian teenagers doing whatever it is teenagers do.
Our accommodations were modest. The four of us, in one room, our lives spilling out of suitcases and across the floor. We made things work and joked about the “hardships” but then we came home. Back to our comfortable homes, cars, zoom meetings and video games, and now we hear our sons on video calls and WhatsApp talking to their Ukrainian and Polish friends. We trade text messages and Facebook posts with the adults and every time we read the newspaper and watch the news, we think about these amazing people, stuck in limbo, wondering when they can go back to their homes and families, if their homes and families will be there and if Ukraine will still exist.
History is being made today. This battle may determine, for generations to come, if the world becomes more democratic or more autocratic and these people, on the very front lines, ask only that we don’t look away.
“Tell them, we are dying,” says Konstantin and I think of the words of John Bradford: “there, but for the grace of god, go I”.
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