Magdalena Kwiecień, Isabella Kocher, Manuel Wolfsberger and Jacob Hensler, all students of the 4th semester of the Bachelor's program Business & Management, went to the Polish-Ukrainian border in mid-March as volunteers to help cope with the flow of refugees.
We had a chat with them.
How did you get the idea to help out so spontaneously? What was your motivation?
Since the shocking news of Russia's declaration of war on Ukraine reached us, I've been sitting in front of all the media outlets, stunned, sad, angry, and helpless. The topic touches me personally, and since then, I have often asked myself how I can make my contribution in a meaningful and, above all, active way. Luckily, Magdalena was our detonator! Her outstanding commitment made her start a fundraiser at the MCI, which I naturally wanted to support. A few days later, together with Manuel and Jacob, we decided that we wanted to go further and actively offer our help. Since Magdalena's Polish family keeps her up to date with information daily, we quickly got an idea of what is currently needed and where we can go.
How did you get to the Polish-Ukrainian border, as private persons or through an organisation?
Since the decision to go to Poland was made very spontaneously, we organised the trip on our own within a short time. I'm lucky enough to work for a vehicle rental company while studying, which provided us with a car very flexibly and spontaneously. So, we started the approximately 12-hour drive and arrived in Poland at night. Later, we went to the Polish-Ukrainian border, where we went from organisation to organisation to offer our support. We quickly made friends with people of different nationalities to lend a hand where we could. It was particularly inspiring to see how long and arduous people’s journeys must have been only to pursue a common goal: to stand together on a front line and reach out to those who need it most.
Do you have any experience in taking care of refugees?
I had no previous experience of looking after refugees, which made this project exciting on the one hand, and uncertain and uneasy on the other.
What did you take away from your mission at the Polish-Ukrainian border?
First and foremost, I became painfully aware of how tangible this war suddenly seemed. When I saw people from young to old crossing the border, it became even more apparent how similar we all are. The Ukrainian people live (or lived) in comparable circumstances or prosperity as we do. A job, a home that provides security, a nice car - a life that wants to be lived in peace with your loved ones. The current wave of refugees consists of people who do not influence the most stupid decisions of this war. People, who are forced to leave their hard-earned life in one fell swoop. People, who must see their belongings in ruins and, in the worst cases, people, who will never be able to hug and see their loved ones again.
The only momentary difference between the 10-year-old girl from Kharkiv and me is luck. Luck that allows me to live in a currently safe country. But this girl probably thought the same way some time ago, and, suddenly, everything changed.
What were the most moving moments?
For me, a touching moment was when a Ukrainian lady, who could hardly speak English, came up to us and thanked us from the bottom of her heart on behalf of the Ukrainian people for our work and energy. She didn't have to express herself much with words because during this time, I learned once again that there is a language that we can all speak: empathy, gratitude that can be seen in their eyes, relief that one has finally arrived safely and a smile that tries to offer temporary comfort.
Do you know what will happen to the refugees? Where will they go?
We were at the second most minor border crossing on the Polish-Ukrainian border in a slightly smaller place called Zosin. This is the first stop that fleeing people make if they must cross the border here. On the one hand, refugees could come to our tents to warm up, have something to eat and drink, and on the other hand, to wait for their onward transport. This is provided by the local volunteer fire brigade, among others, if no one else (relatives, acquaintances, friends, ...) picked them up from the border point. If fleeing people could not organize their transport, they were taken to the next, larger town called Hrubieszow. The city is making an enormous sports hall available there, which acts as a hub for organising transport to various destinations. Large buses go to Warsaw, for example, and Germany or Italy. Of course, there is also the chance to warm up in Hrubieszow, sleep there at night, eat something, and of course, countless volunteers who make all this possible.
Do you have any good advice for people who, like you, want to help in this challenging crisis? What is the most important thing right now?
On the one hand, it is vital to find out what people need most during this time. It makes no sense to muck out the attic because you "don't need it anymore anyway". There needs to be a general understanding that this is a wave of refugees made up of 'normally' wealthy people. People whose homes, routines, and even lives were stolen from one day to the next.
If you decide to volunteer in border areas actively, it makes sense to join an organisation with at least English-speaking volunteers. In our case, only a few Ukrainians spoke English and to make sure where you are needed and what the tasks are, a translating party is essential.
It is also essential not to face people with pity and a sad face in such a situation. This wave of refugees needs hope and a friendly and coordinated haven to steer toward now.
In closing, we were extremely grateful to have each other. It is not a crime in such a situation to talk to each other about what has happened and distract yourself after work with entirely different topics and laughter. It is essential to regain strength for the next day.
Dear Magdalena, dear Isabella, dear Manuel and dear Jacob, thank you for the interview and we are really very impressed and very proud that you are part of our department!
Students of the MCI Bachelor's program Business & Management as volunteers in action ©Magdalena Kwiecień