Barbara Bistram was visiting her mother in her home town of Wejherowo, Poland, on Feb. 24 when word came Russia had invaded neighboring Ukraine.
Wejherowo is about 800 miles from the nearest border with Ukraine, on the Baltic Sea in northern Poland. But that didn’t stop several of Barbara’s childhood friend from loading up vans and trucks with food and personal items to take to the border for the refugees.
“I can tell you just from my family and friends, there was just a general mobilization of people,” Barbara said. “Just regular citizens wanting to help.”
She was only in Poland for a couple of weeks but, within days of Barbara’s return to southeast New Mexico, refugees started pouring into the town she grew up in. And her extended family was there to help, opening their doors to eventually about 20 Ukrainian refugees, including three women who are now living in the apartment Barbara and her husband, Hayden Andrews, call home when they’re visiting.
But the couple want to do more, so they’ve started a GoFundMe account (Gofund.me/cf6fdb45), titled The survival of Ukraines in Poland, to get money for everyday items not provided by the Polish government into the hands of the refugees in their family’s care.
Barbara and Hayden’s extended family are letting the women live in the apartment free of rent. They’re providing electrical and gas service, telephone and internet. But those are tangibles — the things needed to keep body and soul together and a roof over their heads. The GoFundMe account hopes to raise not only money, but increase the intangible these women have lost.
“It’s just to regain some of their human dignity,” Hayden said. “Everything was taken from them.”
Most of the estimated two million refugees who sought asylum in Poland are women and children. The arrived at the border with Ukraine and spread across Poland, some choosing to stay with family or friends, but many relying on the kindness of strangers who had apartments, like Barbara’s family, spare rooms — anyplace that would put a roof over their heads.
“At first, the first locations they hit in Poland were closer to the boarder, which is far away from where I lived,” Barbara said. “However, it was just a matter of time before they started moving away from the boarder because there weren’t facilities to care for them.”
Barbara said she wasn’t surprised at the openness and willingness to help show by the Polish people. Websites quickly developed in the days after the invasion where people could advertise rooms where the refugees could go. Barbara said one of her friends invited nine refugees into one room of their home, “just so they could have a roof over their heads.
“These (refugee) women are in two situation,” Barbara said. “There’s a group of women who stayed with my friend. She’d tell me that, at first, all they wanted to do was go into their room and cry. They were still in so much pain.”
The second situation the refugees find themselves in is acceptance. They haven’t given up hope they’ll see their homes and families again, Barbara said. But they’re trying to adapt and make the best of the situation as they can.
“They’ve focused on moving on and making a life for themselves as best they can for the time being,” she said.
The money raised in the GoFundMe will go directly to the women staying with Barbara and Hayden’s family and friends. It’s all about the women being able to buy their own undergarments, a new skirt, or a toy or ice cream for their children, they said. And the account is Barbara’s way of maybe helping the women plan a little bit for the future.
“They’re secure for now,” she said. “But they will need the extra money when hopefully this war ends.
“If they can take some extra money with them when they go back,” Barbara said. “Give them some extra money so they had a feeling of security, so when they go back home they have something to start with.”
“Everything was taken from them. They lost their homes, their lifestyle, their culture. If you can give them a little bit of dignity, just give them something that is theirs, that builds that human spirit and keeps them from going into those dark places,” he said.