“The war is here”: stories and images of conflicts in Europe [column] | Local voices

In April I went to Poland and received more than a T-shirt.

It was a trip of a lifetime, but not exactly a vacation. As the red-haired woman in a store in Krakow told me, I was on a “mission.” A very nice mission.

This mission: to feed the people displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In early April, I signed up to volunteer with World Central Kitchen, the non-profit organization founded by chef Jose Andres and known for its immediate food response to humanitarian crises around the world.

Three weeks later I was on my way to Krakow. From there, I took a train to Przemysl, a medieval river town in southeastern Poland, where World Central Kitchen had transformed a warehouse into a huge country kitchen.

To date, Poland has hosted more than 3.1 million displaced Ukrainians, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many of them pass through Przemysl (pronounced Shemish-l), about 8 miles from the Ukrainian border. Before the war, the population of Przemysl was around 60,000, about the same size as the city of Lancaster. But in the past 100 days, its population has doubled.

The seven-day volunteer shift began on a Monday. There were over 30 newbies like me battling jet lag, mixed in with a loyal group of long-time volunteers showing us the ropes.

About half of us were on the front line, serving refugees coming off trains from Ukraine or crossing the Polish border. And some of us worked behind the scenes in the kitchen, cooking hot meals, baking snack cakes and making 3,000 sandwiches a day.

Our team was multi-generational, ranging in age from 25 to 79. Back home, we’ve worked as accountants, technicians, musicians, airline pilots, judges, directors, pastors, and automotive engineers. And yes, some of us cooked for a living.

The days were long, between eight and ten hours, but shorter than in the first weeks of the war, my longtime volunteer buddies told me, when the need was particularly acute. (That was when they made up to 10,000 sandwiches.)

When there were no sandwiches to make, we peeled potatoes. We gathered around gigantic paella pans and massaged 400 pounds of bananas into a pulp, preparing them for banana bread. We mixed shredded cabbage, beets and carrots into the coleslaw. Those of us who knew how to use a chef’s knife halved cucumbers and onions, cut zucchini into half moons.

We swept, we disinfected, we took out the trash. Anything to keep busy and not think about the obvious – that millions of people were in limbo, with maybe just a shopping bag of their stuff. That 95% of these people were women and children. That there was no end in sight.

Real-time history

After work we often met at the town center pub for a pint (or three) and some Polish pizza. We all smelled like onions. We had back pain. Nobody cared, because we all gave each other a little hope, the people were good and it was the best of humanity.

I left the group before it was too late and returned to my studio, where I took off my taped kitchen clothes, rinsed them and wrote. I was writing about the day, I was writing about my feelings, I was writing about living history in real time. And I’ll write about the amazing humans I’ve had the privilege of meeting over the past week – the humans who gave up what they were doing, coughed up (or fundraised) a few thousand dollars to come to Poland and help however they could.

My friend Clint, who worked 12-hour shifts at the Przemysl station for a few weeks at a stretch, told me he was tired of yelling at the television from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. So he came to Poland.

This kind of volunteering is not for everyone. The work is physically demanding. The proximity to a war zone is sobering. The need for a sandwich, a pair of flip flops and a suitcase runs deep.

So it’s hard to hear people here at home complaining about gas prices when the reason is indelibly linked to the suffering of the people I served sandwiches to.

Dogs and cats too

I have another thumbnail to share, which you can read in full on my blog, kimodonnel.substack.com.

It’s 4:30 in the morning. I’m at Krakow airport, not yet caffeinated and second in line to check in for my three-flight trip to Lancaster. In front of me is a man, probably in his twenties. He is standing at the counter with a large white dog lying at his feet, and two crates of animals, one of which contains a cat.

The trio head for Dublin, via Amsterdam. The airline agent asks him for all kinds of papers. He is visibly stressed, rummaging through his bag for the required documents. He pulls out a dog bowl and a bag of dog food.

The agent announces that she must go away and make a photocopy of one of her documents. The impatient spoiled American in me rolls my eyes and starts to worry.

The agent returns a few minutes later. She needs more documentation.

They have words.

“But I come from Ukraine,” he said.

But it’s from Ukraine, I tell myself, and that’s why it’s not an ordinary recording.

For this young man, it is war pouring into Krakow airport like driving rain rushing into a gutter. It is war that accompanies him wherever he goes, just like the aphorism of Jon Kabat-Zinn, wearing his heart on the sleeve of his jacket covered in dog hair, with no other possession than this dog bowl in the backpack. This is the war that never sleeps and lives until someone stops it.

Another agent points me to the adjacent office. As she checks me in, I walk over to the man from Ukraine and see all the dog hair up close.

I wish you the best.

Thanks. I will need it.

His eyes fled.

I went back to my regular schedule of being an American with preferred seats and my only concern was having time for a cup of coffee before boarding.

I’m in 3F, a window seat on the right side of the plane, on the same side as the cargo hold. I watch the porters load the bags. A few minutes later, a break arrives. The dispatcher opens the tailgate and loads two crates of animals onto the mat. It’s the big white dog and his feline companion. The dog is visibly shaking.

At the beginning of my journey, my Polish friend Marek taught me that “the war is here”. As I put on my earplugs and prepare for my trip home, I hear Marek’s words.

The war is here.

In a hold.

In this pressurized cabin about to take off for Amsterdam. And in Dublin, where this young man and his companions will disembark for who knows how long.

By the time you read this, the war in Ukraine will last over 100 days. If you don’t have the money to donate to World Central Kitchen or another relief agency helping Ukraine, that’s okay.

But there is something you can do: you can keep this man and his four-legged friends close to your heart. You can keep these images of Poland near the vest. You can pray for their safety and well-being. You can pray for peace.

We must not forget, even when we tire of headlines. We have to keep the space as long as it takes.

Kim O’Donnel is a former writer for LNP | Lancasters online. Subscribe to her blog at kimodonnel.substack.com.

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