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Ukraine Report #7: Refugees and Aid Workers

| S:1 E:69

Today’s episode consists of two interviews. First we’re joined by Anna, a Ukrainian student who was supposed to be finishing her senior year of high school. On the first day of the invasion, her city was targeted, and she fled to Poland. She was helped by our second guest, Nico Marseillan, a volunteer aid worker who has been assisting refugees at the border.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Burn the Boats. Before we start this episode, I want to acknowledge the occasionally rough audio quality. In our coverage of the war in Ukraine, we’re working hard to bring you first-hand accounts, from those who have experienced the war close up. Both of our guests today are half-way around the world, and sometimes, that means a less-than-perfect connection. But it’s worth it – I’m confident you’ll appreciate their perspectives on the war and the massive relief effort it has required.

As always, we’ve included a transcript of this interview on our website.

Thanks.

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation's largest and most impactful progressive Veterans organization, to learn more or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. As the invasion of Ukraine unfolds, we want to provide timely insights from the experts, so we've launched a series of special unedited episodes separate from our normal content.

Today's episode will consist of two interviews. I'm joined first by Anna, a Ukrainian civilian who was forced to flee to Poland to escape the war, she was helped there by our second guest, Nico Marseillian, a volunteer aid worker who has been assisting refugees at the border.

Anna, this is Ken Harbaugh, the host of the program. Thank you so much for joining us today. You're in Krakow, Poland, is that correct?

Anna:

Yes. Thank you for inviting me. I am right now staying in Krakow, and in a special center for Ukraine and refugees.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I am very glad that you are safe, but I cannot imagine what it must have been like to flee your home. Can you tell us a little bit about where you lived in Ukraine? Tell us about your town.

Anna:

Well, I came from Chernihiv, it's a beautiful town located in the north of Ukraine, near the border of Belarus and Russia. We have a really great and beautiful theater with the historical past, there are a lot of tourist attractions and there are a lot of places to visit, so every year a lot of people came to us to see these historical views, and before the war started, there was living like around 300,000 people, but for now, there are only around 90,000 people who are around there, and unfortunately our city isn't that beautiful as was before, but we still like it, and we really hope that we will rebuild it.

Ken Harbaugh:

What was your life there like Anna? Were you a student? Were you working? What were your favorite things to do in Chernihiv?

Anna:

I was still studying at school, it was my senior year. I was planning to graduate and enter university the next year, but it didn't happen unfortunately, and also it was my hobby modeling, so I was working sometimes as well.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you tell us what you were doing the day before the invasion?

Anna:

Well, the day before the invasion I was doing... I skipped my school classes for a photo shoot for some brand clothing, and we were planning to cooperate the next time, the next week, and I also was studying and preparing really hard for my exams the next day, I was supposed to go to school, so I went to be really late and I was really nervous that day, but everything became different.

Ken Harbaugh:

So Chernihiv is right on the border with Belarus on the front lines, did you believe that Russia would actually invade?

Anna:

Well, I remember how everyone suddenly started talking about the invasion, of course I didn't believe it, and I read a post on the internet where the American government said about it, I was like, "Come on, how could this happen in our days? Why are people so panicking about it?" It didn't sound crazy, and we never believed that, and even before the invasion started, in our school, we had lectures about, what we should do if the explosion started or how we can help people, so it was a bit crazy for us, and we even made jokes about this and no one expected as something serious.

Ken Harbaugh:

Did you, or your friends, or family have any plans to escape or was it just a complete shock?

Anna:

We never thought before about leaving our hometown and after the last minute, we didn't plan to do this, so it was a sudden decision because we already made a lot of plan for graduation and the next summer and how the situation suddenly changed, it ruined almost everything, but I still believe I can meet some of my friends really soon.

Ken Harbaugh:

Anna, where were you when you learned that the invasion was actually happening? When you learned that the Russians were crossing the border?

Anna:

Well, the invasion happened at 5:00 AM, so everyone was peacefully sleeping at that time, and it was a complete shock when I woke up at 5:00 AM because my friends were constantly calling me saying, "Wake up, you should get your stuff ready." And I was just like, "What are you telling me? It's not truth." So then I went to check out the internet and when I realized it was actually happening, we would just stay at home, everyone was in the town, there were explosions around that no one still didn't realize it until a certain moment in the morning.

Ken Harbaugh:

Was there a particular moment or something that happened that made you realize you had to leave?

Anna:

Yes. I remember the picture of this morning very clearly, and I remember I had to wake up my mother and my little brother and saying that the invasion just began, and then we was looking at the window and heard an alarm that saying that explosion are really nearly, and it was a really scary moment because it was still a bit dark, and the moon was outside at streets and suddenly this really was noise that made us realize that everything is happening for real, and it was really tough when you have to call your grandmother saying, "Hi, don't be scared. The war has just begun. Take your stuff." It's a really horrific moment, I guess.

Ken Harbaugh:

Was everyone close to you able to get out or did you have to leave family members and close friends behind?

Anna:

At first, when we decided to leave, almost everyone left in our city, because there was no ability to do this, because constant explosions were everywhere, and it was that we didn't move through the city, but in the next few weeks, most of our relatives and friends left our city. I'm really thankful for God, for that they are making this because it was really scary to call them and check up on these horrible news and realize that they are in a really bad situation now and you can't help in any way.

Ken Harbaugh:

What were they telling you about conditions inside Chernihiv after you had already made it to safety?

Anna:

The condition in our city was really bad because 70% of our buildings and infrastructure in our city have been destroyed, people were run out of basic supplies like food and waters, they don't have any gas, electricity, water supplies in their homes, they were constantly sitting in a basement, and they were making their food outside the street because they just can't do it home, so they remember the day when we said the last week we connected our city with another was [inaudible] and people were literally trapped there without anything but [inaudible] registration became better last days.

Ken Harbaugh:

So the Russian army has left Chernihiv now and has pulled back, is that right?

Anna:

Yes. The last 10 days, I guess there was a concentration in Chernihiv, the city starts to rebuild itself, so people start to get their basic supplies and it's really relief for us, and we even thinking about coming back here some days, but unfortunately for now it's just a dream.

Ken Harbaugh:

You say it's just a dream, is that because of how unsafe things are? Is it because of the destruction that Chernihiv has experienced? How do you think about going home?

Anna:

Chernihiv has been really destroyed and it's really hard to say when the normal life will be back there because as a lot of people say there, they will need few years to rebuild everything, and even the next year people wont get a heat when it's going to be winter, so there are just no conditions to go back and it would be a really hard to get there something or build your life there, but if they [inaudible / poor connection] I guess we [inaudible] of [inaudible] in really soon time.

Ken Harbaugh:

Chernihiv was not a military target, it was close to the border, but the destruction you've described is against civilians, it's against civilian apartment buildings, why do you think Putin's army chose to wage war this way?

Anna:

Well, I guess, one of the main targets for Russians was to get to Kyiv, and our city was near the borders and near our capital city, so it was just the next stage in their plan to get to the Kyiv, but thanks to our militaries, I guess we spoke that this won't be that easy, and as military targets they just want to scare some people there, so they would get through the city a bit easier, but it once happened.

Ken Harbaugh:

Anna, do you know people serving in the Ukrainian military or the territorial defense forces? Are they telling you what they are experiencing?

Anna:

Yes, actually a lot of my friends came to military forces when the war begun and even my father, he is a military man, so I've been talking to people like this for a long time and they are just saying that no one expected that hard situation, but thanks to all the people who are helping, they are really in a better situation that it could be because like in the city, there are a lot of volunteers who help our militaries and the situation isn't that bad for them, they are feeling very proud to be in our militaries and saying that they will do everything to protect our country.

Ken Harbaugh:

You must be extremely worried about them, are they able to stay in touch with you and tell you how they're doing?

Anna:

Well, yes. Some of them, there are lots of troubles with connections right now, so we get in touch with them for like once in a week or two weeks, so it's a really worrying situation when you can't even check on people, how they are feeling? If they are good or if they are even alive, it's really scary sometimes, but for now everything is great, and we are just happy that everyone is here with us and we can know that everything is good.

Ken Harbaugh:

You said you are in a center for Ukrainian refugees, have you felt welcomed in Poland and supported with what you need?

Anna:

Yes, actually, when we came to Poland, we were really surprised of how people are nice to everyone, how they support each other, how we were welcomed there because it was really hard for sometimes because after our city, we were still in a really bad thoughts, we were constantly running and came there, it was just a calm life where even one man in the board, they gave us a hug, so we were like, "Oh my God, this can't be real." And sometimes we even can't believe at this because we get everything we need, and we were worried the first time that we will came there and get nothing to do, like where to live or what to eat, but we have everything and even more, and we are really thankful for that.

Ken Harbaugh:

What can people in America do to help? Is there anything that our audience can do?

Anna:

Well, actually, yes, unfortunately now many people are thinking like, what can my person do? And it can change anything, but in the real situation, it's completely opposite, so everyone can help by just simply sharing these what horrible things are happening in Ukraine now so that everyone can know that the war is real, that people are suffering, they are dying, the big cities, like Mariupol, Bucha, they are just destroyed and right out of earth, and many people just have to leave with them and still suffering. And if you can just share or involve some famous people, some people in the government or the people just demand really big actions because we really need world support now, and it's really important for us. Also, if you can donate just $1 to a local charity organizations, it would help a lot because a lot of people now in Ukraine don't have any basic supplies, so volunteering organizations are helping the most right now, and even $1 in Ukraine, you can buy a bread for this, so it means that one people won't be hungry the next day and it's really can save someone's life, so everyone's action is important and we are really hope that people will support us.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, thank you so much, Anna, for joining us today, is there anything else that you would like to share about your experience and about the situation in Ukraine?

Anna:

I just want to say that people in Ukraine are now really thankful for everyone for their support, for of their actions, we can feel your kindness and we can feel that everything will be all right, we are really hoping for that, for this, we believe in our victory and first praying for all the people who are still in a really bad situation there.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank you so much, Anna. We appreciate your time.

Anna:

Thank you so much.

Ken Harbaugh:

So Nico, would love to just get an idea of what drew you to this, what were you doing before you decided to get yourself to Poland, to be on the front lines of this volunteer effort?

Nico:

Yeah, I'm originally from Argentina, but I have been living in London the last two years, I'm studying a masters there, and to be honest, since the war started, I found myself several times thinking about how to help. But I didn't know what to do exactly. Should I just help a local charity? Should I, I don't know, donate money to one of the agencies that are working on the territory. Living in London and having friends from Russia and from Ukraine made this war feel different for me being so close and of course a lot of people talking about it and just could feel the feelings of my Ukrainian and Russian friends just pushed me to try to help.

And one day I received a phone call from my sister who lives in Barcelona, and she was like, "Nico, we should go, there's a lot of help needed at the border." So I didn't hesitate, and 30 minutes later we bought plane tickets to go to Krakow, we didn't go with any organization, it was just the two of us mobilized by the situation, so we got to Krakow, got a car and just drove to the border, and we spent a week there helping in the border in refugee centers.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to learn more about that, but you mentioned the feelings of your Russian and Ukrainian friends, understanding of course that your Russian friends are expats, they're living in London, but how did those conversations go?

Nico:

Yeah, in general, my Russian friends, all of them were against the war, they couldn't believe what was happening, and yeah, to a point they were really embarrassed about what's happening, especially having also in our MBA cohort, a lot of Ukraine friends, but yeah, but they were the first ones to be honest, to start raising funds and start to try to synthesize and make people understand what was happening, and constantly they were saying, it's not a war cause by Russia, it's a war caused by Putin, so it was really interesting to hear both sides of the story, but both of them, both Ukrainian and Russian people thinking the same, thinking that, "This is madness, and just because a crazy guy woke up one morning wanting to invade, now we have 10 million refugees and of course, a lot of people suffering." Like unexplained.

Ken Harbaugh:

What was your first reaction when you got to the border? What were you seeing?

Nico:

The situation is critical, way worse than I expected before going. I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't expect to see so much suffering, just imagine, thousands of people cross the border every day. Men cannot leave the country, so 99% are women and children alone. The first time I got to the border, what I saw was hundreds of children waiting in line at the same time. You will find in a kindergarten if you go early in the morning, if you drive, I don't know, by your city or by your community, just imagine that they have to travel on average three days to get to the border, and there, they have to wait between four and eight hours to cross to Poland, temperatures are super low around minus 10, minus 15 degrees Celsius, and because many of them, especially children have spent days in basements without seeing the light, a lot of them are ill when they get to the refugee centers in Poland, and it was very sad.

I remember when we arrived, I think it was the first day, and I think it was yeah, on a Saturday, we were there at the border and a kid died, a child literally froze to death, so just imagine seeing that and experiencing that like a small kid. Yeah. He couldn't tolerate the cold because of what was happening physically and emotionally, she literally just died. And for someone who is in the USA or in Europe, I think it's hard to imagine the situation, and I think that's what Anna was trying to mention, trying to get people to understand that the war is real, and there's a lot of suffering because imagine for one second, what would you feel if in five minutes you have to say goodbye to your kids because the Russian army is shelling your city most probably is the last time you will see them because he will be fighting in the frontline. And as Anna explained, she only hopes that his father and his friends are alive, but he doesn't know. And yeah, just imagine your kids, they will be days on the move avoiding bombs and sleeping in improvised homes. They will cry every night wondering why you are not there with them? I remember one day in the working center there was a kid crying, it was his birthday, and he told me and my sister, "My father promised me that he will be here with me on this special day." But of course his father was fighting in the front line. So because we live far away, it doesn't mean that all this is not happening.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. You spent time in the refugee centers, has there been an effort yet, now that some of the immediate material needs have been addressed to think about the emotional trauma, especially visited upon these kids that needs to be dealt with, are there counselors in these camps?

Nico:

No, when we were there, it was the first days of the war, so you can imagine agencies and institutions were providing basic needs, like housing, transportation, food, there was no one helping on the emotional side. I think between all of us, all the volunteers we're trying to do that, we're trying to talk with a lot of people, try to understand how they were feeling, try to just be there, silent, listening to them, I think it's super important. And that's how we met Anna. We took her and her family to Krakow, and literally just helping, putting your shoulder.

There's a lot of suffering, of course, like little kids don't understand what's happening. Yeah. So it's very sad to see literally thousands of people, of kids running around just for one second, they think they're okay, but then they realize when they go to sleep, that they're alone, they're only with, I don't know, with their mother, part of their family is not there, and they're not sleeping in their bed, so when I was there, I would say that there was no emotional support, but I guess that changed since the moment I was there.

Ken Harbaugh:

For those thinking about helping, are there organizations that you would recommend working with, organizations that are doing very good work on the ground?

Nico:

Yeah, I was UN Refugees, is the first one trying to coordinate the efforts on the ground in-

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm sorry, can you say the name again?

Nico:

Yeah. UN Refugees?

Ken Harbaugh:

I see. Yes.

Nico:

United Nations. Yeah. The board of the United Nations that deals with refugees and also Intersos, it's an Italian NGO helping, trying to provide doctors and medicines in Poland, but also in Ukraine. So at the beginning, I think that the main challenge was to coordinate the efforts of a lot of people wanting to help, but I think now the most important thing is to try to support refugees when they arrive to different countries, we're talking about four million people are around Europe and also now in the states looking to rebuild their life, and the only way to do it, so that they can do it is vital welcome and support. So, as Anna said, I think everyone should get involved and help refugees integrate to the communities where they're at, especially considering that it's very hard for them after everything that they have been through.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, thank you for stepping up Nico and going to the front lines of that refugee crisis, is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners?

Nico:

No. I think I'll repeat that a little bit, it's a very tough situation that the world is suffering when you're there and you just listen to thousands of stories of people that lost everything that they know, they don't know where to go. Literally, they were asking us like, "Nico..." And my sister, "Should I go to live to France, Spain, Italy?" Uncertainty, it's a hundred percent for them, they don't know what to do? They don't know where to go? They don't know if their fathers, husbands are alive, so I think each of us should try to get involved because the outcome of this crisis depends on us.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank you.

Nico:

Thank you, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Anna and Nico for joining me.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats, if you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter at Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets, their mission is to give a voice to Veterans on matters of national security, veterans care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members and their supporters, to learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman, is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, John Andrews, Michael DeAloia and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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