Two women linked to the University of Minnesota are helping lead and coordinate the humanitarian response in Poland.
MINNEAPOLIS — Even those on the front lines of the humanitarian crisis on the Ukraine-Poland border struggle to describe what is happening on a daily basis.
“It’s unfathomable,” said Alexandra Sakurats, who was born in Ukraine but worked at the Masonic Children’s Hospital at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for 24 years.
On Saturday, Sakurats left the comfort of her home in Minnesota to join a global disaster relief team in Poland. Since working with a medical team at a refugee reception center just across the border from Ukraine, she has spent every waking hour.
“It’s a mall, the size of our Ridgedale Mall,” Sakurats said. “The whole shopping center has been converted into a shelter for refugees. People bring mattresses, strollers, blankets and sleeping bags. When (refugees) leave with a baby, they don’t do what to wear the baby.”
Sakurats says many of the people she sees need medical attention.
“Most of them come in sick,” she said. “Their coughs are the worst kind of cough you wanted to hear. We also see injuries from exposure to cold and frostbite. They have to be outside with children for 10 hours to get to the border post.”
In neighboring Warsaw, Dorota Serafin, the executive director of Polish humanitarian action and a former graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, helps coordinate humanitarian convoys that still travel to Kiev, at least for the moment.
Ukraine’s population is 44 million, and she says the vast majority of people remain in the country but could be displaced due to war.
“This is an unprecedented event,” Serafin said. “We are sending food kits for adults, infants and older children as well as hygiene kits.”
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But with each passing day, Poland continues to see more and more women and children crossing the border in search of shelter, so Polish humanitarian action is extending its support there as well. Of the 2.5 million refugees so far, Serafin says 1.3 million have entered Poland.
“When you talk to people at the border, you hear terrible stories, so psychological support has increasingly become the issue we need to focus on,” Serafin said. “Fortunately, we have mental health professionals who can speak the language and provide assistance.”
But the need is growing day by day, she says, they now expect at least five million Ukrainians to flee in the coming weeks, 60% of whom hope to stay in Poland. The main obstacle right now is safe passage.
“People are just terrified of hitting the road,” Serafin said. “And if the humanitarian corridors were opened, I’m sure their number would increase considerably.”
“Exactly,” Sakurats said. “It’s a big deal because they’re bombing the main roads. One of the ladies who came, she said they got in their cars, made white flags and big signs that said ‘kids in those cars” and waved the flags as they drove She said she had never seen anything like it, she said she had seen dead bodies on the side of the road.
“I just think everyone who’s negotiating right now should come here and spend a day here. So maybe…maybe they’ll have a little more compassion for humanity, and not so much hate .”
If you would like to support the Ukrainian aid efforts of Polish Humanitarian Action, you can donate here.
If you would like to support the refugee medical support efforts of Alexandra Sakurats and the Global Disaster Relief Team, you can donate here.
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