Former Hobbsan Ryan Miller spent most of the last month as part of a long line of volunteers pushing shopping carts filled with relief supplies across the border between Poland and Ukraine.
That wasn’t all he did as one of thousands of private citizens from around the world who flocked to the area to do what they could to help some of the millions displaced by war after Russia invaded the Eastern European country on Feb. 24.
“As far as the big aide agencies go, to be honest I didn’t really see a huge presence,” Miller told the News-Sun this week, just hours after returning to the United States. “Mostly it’s just private individuals forming groups whenever they showed up. Those people seemed to be giving the most aide.”
Another of those private individuals flocking to the eastern European country was Duwane Billings of Denver City. Billings, who farms cotton and peanuts between Denver City and Seagrave, Texas, said he was watching events as they unfolded on his television and was moved to do anything he could. So he bought a plane ticket and flew half way around the world to help.
“I just felt the need to go,” Billings told the News-Sun. “I just felt I could make a difference.
“I headed there with no plan,” he said. “I just knew where I wanted to go and that’s where I ended up. I was able to sign up as a volunteer and they put me to work.”
Billings ended up in the refugee center in Przemysl, Poland, working with the group World Central Kitchen, a not-for-profit based in Washington, D.C., that provides meals to victims of disasters. He spent the week in Ukraine serving meals to the 1,500 or so refugees at the center, he said.
“As they would come in, they would be hungry,” Billing said. “We were their only source of food.”
As he watched the mostly women and children file through his serving line, what he saw most was dis-pair.
“When you looked at them, they’d have a couple of suitcases that that was just all they had at that moment in their lives,” Billings said. “Right now, most of them have a look of hopelessness in their eyes.”
This was Billings’ first trip to Ukraine, but it wasn’t his first experience with volunteerism. Though his previous efforts somewhat pale in comparison — helping provide food for Denver City schools at track meets and volleyball tournaments, for example.
“It was a little bit different going to Ukraine,” he said. “But it was a blessing for me to go.”
The invasion is the latest chapter in an eight-year war between the former allies; one Miller is all too familiar with. In 2019, he was embedded with the Ukrainian army, on the front lines of that chapter in the conflict.
Miller’s interest in the country and people of Ukraine started almost by accident, he said. After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 2018, he enrolled in college. Within just a few weeks he’d been assigned to pen a paper on the Ukraine-Russian war.
At the time, he’d signed up to take a Chinese language class but, through an administrative error, was put in a class to learn Russian instead, Miller recalled. That one paperwork snafu only served to deepen his interest in Ukraine and its people, he said.
“Once I learned a little bit, I just wanted to learn everything about it,” Miller said. “I had no interest in Eastern Europe before that. I probably couldn’t have pointed to Ukraine on a map.
“I’ve had lots of contact — I have a lot of friends in Ukraine from the time I’ve spent there before,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of contact with people in various (Ukrainian) cities.”
THOUGH HE WAS mostly isolated from the fighting during his latest trip, there were a few times explosions could heard in the distance from where he was based in Przemysl, Poland, Miller said. But the hardest part of his stay this time was seeing the faces of the thousands of refugees flocking to the border daily, mostly women and children, as the men of fighting age — from about 18 to 60 years old — were not being allowed to leave, being pressed into service to defend their homeland.
There wasn’t really what could be called a “typical day” during Miller’s volunteer service, he said. About the only consistency to his stay was he would do “a million things every day,” from helping transfer supplies to using his Russian language skills to act as translator between refugees and those trying to help them.
“Our most prevalent job was we’d get up, hitch a ride to the border, then run supplies into Ukraine one to three times per day,” Miller said. “We’d get 10 or so guys together, load up shopping carts, push it across (the border) and load up a van on the other side. One time, me and my friends helped a lady carry her four cats” from Ukraine to the relative safety of the border crossing near Medyka, Poland, to the refugee center in Przemysl.
“We’d make several supply runs into Ukraine every day, then help people bring their stuff back,” he said. “That’s what I’d do during the day and usually part of the night.”
And the work didn’t end at sundown, Miller said. After a day of ferrying relief materials, he’d return to the refugee center in a converted department store similar to a Walmart, where he would assist volunteer medics as they treated the refugees, he said.
“I had a cot set up in the medical center. I’d lay down, go to sleep and wake up and do it again the next day,” Miller said. “The days were pretty long. Once it started, it didn’t end. It was probably close to 18-hour days.
“Nobody was demanding that of me,” he said. “It just seemed there was more than one area I could help out in. I worked with more than one crew.”
Walking was definitely the quickest way to get across the border, both for volunteer aide workers and for refugees, he said. It still took refugees hours waiting in line sometimes to make the crossing due to the sheer volume of people. From there, it was about a one-quarter mile walk to where Ukrainians would board busses to take them to the refugee center. During that trek, the refugees would pass through a gauntlet of people who would give them water, food, hot chocolate, toys for the children and more, Miller said.
“That seemed to be quite overwhelming for a lot of people,” he said. “They were definitely not expecting what they got. It was like being bombarded by goodness, I guess.”
Most of the Ukrainians who Miller encountered had trouble looking the volunteers in the eye, he said. Once in a safe place with time to think about what they’d experienced, being forced to flee their homes, the refugees finally had moments of peace to contemplate what they’d just been through, he said.
“I think that’s when the reality kind of set in for them,” Miller said. “I think a lot of them felt shame. The Ukrainians are a very proud people. And there was a lot of shock when people realized what was going on.
“THE STATE OF MIND for a lot of people just wasn’t good,” he said. “How would you feel if you were forced out of your home, if you couldn’t leave with your husband and son because they had to go and fight?”
The Ukrainians and Poles alike were also dealing with a long-time enmity between their two countries. But now, that deep-seated conflict and mistrust is melting away as the Poles open their country to their neighbors, Miller said.
“It seems (Poland) has gone out of its way as much as possible to do everything they can for the Ukrainians,” he said. “There’s almost an overwhelming sense among the Polish people I talked to, if we don’t stop the Russians here, take care of the Ukrainians now, we could be next.”
And, as with any event of this type, there are people who only want to take advantage of the situation. Miller and a group of fellow aide workers were able to, in part, put a stop to one of the potentially most disturbing aspects of that number of displaced people all in one place — the potential for human trafficking.
They’d noticed a group of men “of fighting age” lurking around both sides of the border. They’d be taking photographs of women and children as they crossed, Miller believed, identifying potential victims.
They notified Polish authorities, who stepped in and eventually began reducing the numbers of the suspected traffickers threatening the refugees, Miller said. Security around the border crossing, the buses taking refugees to the processing center and the center itself was increased by the time Miller left Poland late last week to the point the suspected traffickers were virtually banned from the area, he said.
“I think that would have happened on its own; I’m not trying to take credit,” Miller said. “The problem that’s really come up as an issue with the Polish authorities. But it’s weird the rest of the world isn’t talking about that.
“You’re not hearing about this on the news,” he said. “I don’t know why but it’s something people need to know about.”
By and large though, groups and people who want to help, Miller said, vastly outnumber the individuals who want to potentially hurt the refugees or take advantage of them. That outpouring of support was a great thing to see, and be a part of, he said.
“You have people flying in from every corner of the world to lend a hand in any way they could,” Miller said. “A lot of people — most people, really — did go out of their way to make these people coming across the border feel as welcome as possible, to let them know the rest of the world has their back.”
Billings agreed: “Some of these people jusut need a hand and a smile and a glimmer of hope. It was a worthwhile trip. We helped a lot of people.”
Andy Brosig may be reached at reporter1@.