March 21, 2022
This post is a personal account shared by ZIPIT’s CEO Itamar Cohen, who along with Ksenia Mordechai, ZIPIT’s Finance Manager, went to Medyka, one of the main control stations on the Polish-Ukrainian border, to assist in the refugee crisis.
I felt that it would be both important and fitting to share with you a taste of what we have experienced and describe firsthand what one of the consequences of the current Russia-Ukraine war looks like.
The first thing Ksenia and I saw when we arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border was dozens of different tents and food trucks from different parts of the world that were spread over the few hundred meters between a parking lot and the border fence. Large buses kept arriving at the parking lot, in perfect order, picking up women and children who all stood in silence.
These people who, in a matter of weeks, became refugees, just crossed the border and got on busses that took them to the various refugee camps located a 30-to-60-minute drive away.
This long line of help organizations included the Polish Scouts, the UN food organization, the Red Cross, as well as many other "private" people who left everything, drove to the border with their food truck or car, built a tent, and started to provide food, blankets, candies, toothbrushes, diapers, and other basic necessities one needs in his/her daily lives.
Trying to digest this strange "happening" atmosphere, we crossed the Polish border and walked over to the Ukrainian side.
The distance between the two borders, which in the next few days we crossed and re-crossed many times on foot, was about one kilometer and it was bordered from both sides by a green, rusty fence.
The atmosphere changed when we started to see thousands of women, children, and old people standing in a long, long line. People with heavy coats, a backpack or plastic bag in their hands, storing everything they could carry with them. For some, this bag or backpack contained their entire belongings in this world.
The line was quiet. No complaining or shouting, only soft-spoken voices of children and women.
We got our passports stamped and entered Ukraine where the line of people continued.
Slowly our eyes met theirs and we started to communicate without saying too much.
Many pairs of tired, concerned eyes; eyes that have seen the evils of war and now asking to get some rest. It was very evident that despite everything they had been through so far, their spirit was not broken.
The next few days were filled with many stories of people whom we tried to help along their journey to the unknown: a mother with her baby that needed help in crossing the border, a 'babushka' (grandmother) who got tired of walking and standing, people that needed advice and assistance.
Ksenia, who speaks Russian, very quickly became our main communication channel with many of the people who did not speak a single word of English. She was able to listen to their stories, to give them a hand or a hug, and I believe these people and their stories will stay with her for many years to come.
I will take from this very intensive experience, which was new for me, three things: two memories and one thought.
The first memory is of Yana, a 20-year-old woman I met in the line. She had one large bag on her back, a backpack in front, a red plastic bag in one hand, and her two-year-old baby girl in the other. I was on my way back from the Ukrainian side to bring more supplies when I saw her standing there, quiet, alone, tired but determined. I asked her if she needed help. She did not speak English, but, again, we communicated with our eyes. I knew she needed help but also that she was too proud to ask. After a few smiles and some words in Gibberish, she was willing to give me her backpack which she carried in front. When I picked it up, I was amazed by its heavy weight. It was at least 20 kg. Realizing that the bag she carried on her back must weigh more, I asked another volunteer to assist. I took her bag and put it on his back. It weighed more than 40 kg. Both he and I were left with no words.
Here she was a young woman with a baby, carrying as much as her entire body weight on her shoulders for days, standing in long lines for hours determined to protect her daughter and we just happened to be there. The amazing power of a woman, the unbeatable power of a mother.
The second memory is the Israeli flag waving on the first tent the eye can see after crossing the Polish border. Our fellow Israelis came in dozens. Many Jewish and Israeli organizations, as well as private individuals, extended help in various ways, reminding the world that the Jewish state remembers and will never forget the meaning of being displaced, uprooted, alone.
The third thing I will take with me is a thought, which the famous Polish poet Wisława Szymborska conveyed best in one of the last poems she ever wrote:
Palm of the Hand
We had the privilege to try and help a little during an historic moment and to witness firsthand what happens when the outcome of evil meets the beauty of pure love and compassion.
May all of us always stay strong and be on the side that comes to one's aid and not vice versa.
May this war come to an end very soon.
We also had the pleasure to hand over hundreds of ZIPIT backpacks and pouches.
It was a real joy to see the children's reaction when they saw us taking out the bags from the carton boxes.