Border crossings, such as the one on the Ukranian border at Mydeka, Poland, aren’t designed for a mass exodus. This one is a sidewalk, no wider than one found on yours, or my Main Street. This one flows down the gentle slope of Ukranian earth, through the gates then climbs up thirty feet or so to Polish earth. It’s at this gate the women and children finally exhale.
Their faces tell the story of the horrors we’ve all seen two-dimensionally. It’s a story of screeching jets, searing flames, jagged shrapnel, and their friend’s mangled body lying in the street. I’ve fed Americans after their homes were wrecked by hurricanes and they always look haggard, what you would expect after riding out a powerful storm. The look on the faces of these Ukranian women is one I haven’t seen. They’re exhausted from the journey, mourning loved ones, and sick with the grief of their country’s possible demise. It’s a look of humiliation, and relief, from all the charity they’re now exposed to because this sidewalk is full of help. We have an interpreter, Anna, a Ukranian woman that now lives and works in Los Angeles. She shared stories of her childhood home with a sense of pride and hope and reminded me that Ukraine is a very modern country, much like Poland. She’s assuming that I’m creating a vision of Ukraine based on what I’m seeing. “If you love Poland (I do.), you’d also love Ukraine. Our countries are very similar.”
Relief organizations from across the globe line this sidewalk offering everything from cell phone minutes to baby formula, diapers and clothes, juice and coffee. Several of them like World Central Kitchen, offer a plate or bowl of something warm. The women and children have to walk through this UN street fair and the experience must be overwhelming. Several broke down in tears, one fell to her knees and rubbed the dirty concrete, another hugged the Polish police officer. I was told it’s common to see several a day faint as they pass through the gates. We serve hot chocolate and a bowl of stew. And since we’re World Central Kitchen we wouldn’t dream of offering cheap Hershey’s infused milk.. We have real chocolate, from South American cacao beans and we serve a buckwheat and beef stew, I’m told it’s a traditional Ukranian recipe. The kids, laden with dust, some with a fresh facial wound, and often carrying their favorite stuffed animal, always ask for permission from Mom when offered the chocolate or hard candies under our tent. Mom always says yes.
It’s bitter cold on this sidewalk. The wind races down the smooth hills on the Ukranian side and knifes through all five of my layers and I shivered as a woman walked past. Her baby looks five or six months old and someone is helping find more blankets for her little one. Our stew is very hot, it’s stored in industrial stainless steel bins with heavy clasps and thick gaskets and when we ladle out steaming bowls of stew the women quietly gasp and their thank yous are very vivid, yet silent.
When our own relief shows up we head back to the car. Payton, my companion from Charlotte, wiped his eyes and blamed it on the dust. As we passed yet one more bus taking the women and children into Poland, its ramp came down and a very elderly woman in a wheelchair was rolled to the ramp. She lashed out with her cane, pushed up with her hands as the men begged her to sit back down. But she stood up, defied her chaperones, and wobbled into the bus.
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