Ukraine (II): An Interview with Oliver, 30, a Volunteer from Belgium
Oliver is a traveller and former banker from Belgium. We met in Medyka, a village on the Polish-Ukrainian border, where we were volunteering with the humanitarian rescue effort.
OLIVER, 30, Brussels (Belgium)
March 27, 2022
O: “I agree that maybe sometimes we have too much food or too many supplies, but we offer much more than help. We offer human warmth and emotional support, and this is the most meaningful for the people arriving. To feel they are being supported.
Because they just left behind their husband, their home, and they're arriving here with kids and they're like, ‘Why the fuck am I here, I don't want to be here, what the fuck is going on?’ And then they see all these people who carry their bags and are supportive [as they] go through this phase and settle down in a new country where they can be safe and hopefully get a job and have a good life.”
Agreed. When I speak to the people here that have come from Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, they all have something that they truly want to say. I thought I'd come here and they wouldn't want to talk to me, or I'd be value-negative, but almost everybody wants to talk. I feel like that helps too. They want to be heard.
“We see some people, maybe when they arrive it's not the right time for them to talk. They just want to go to the camp, they just want to find a place to sleep. They don't want to sleep in tents. All of them are really grateful.
Last night I was walking on the other side, in Ukraine, and two young guys came up and [started] talking in Ukrainian to us for like five minutes, just saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’, just trying to communicate with us and explain how grateful they were for what we're doing here. It's pretty amazing to see. I've never had anything like that in my life. We were just trying to explain to them that we're very happy to be there too and that we feel what we're doing is completely normal. We're happy to be there. They know that we're there for them and that's it. It's very simple. We want to be there, to be there for them.”
So, you came here on your own? You didn't know these people when you got here, you only just met them?
“I was travelling in Italy, I wanted to see the country for a long time. I did two weeks of vipassana meditation in Italy. Then, in the middle of the retreat, I had no internet. When I got out, someone told me that Russia just attacked Ukraine, so it was a big shock because I was very sensitive from all the meditation and because I didn't check the news or the internet for two weeks.
It took me a few days to calm down and get an understanding of what's going on. Then I thought, well, I'm free. My plan was to go to India to meditate, but I thought I could push that back and just go to help somewhere. So I flew to Budapest and I started helping at the train station there, but a lot of people in Budapest are already helping. So I went to Krakow to be more useful and I was very helpful at the train station. Then it started to become quieter, so I came here [to Medyka], and since I arrived I feel very useful.”
You took a train here from Krakow?
“I flew from Italy to Budapest, then Budapest to Krakow was by bus. Then I took a train from Krakow to here, yeah. I think a few more days and then I need to get going with my life.”
I kind of feel the same, a bit. And then you're going, I suppose, back home to Belgium - or to India?
“A few days in Belgium just to pack and rest, then I have more plans. But I won't stay in Belgium very long. I hope, at max, a week. I also try to explain to people that if they cannot come here, it's fine, because we need help inside a lot of other European countries. People are trying to settle down in Brussels or in Canada or in the UK, I think [we need people] there to help them too.”
I bet it would be good for you to continue travelling, to India or wherever. Because this does take a toll on you whether you know it or not. It's taken a toll on me to see all the kids. It's not easy to be here.
“Well, now I've been exposed to this for three weeks, so I got used to it. Since the beginning, like, nobody needs another person crying here. When I started in Budapest, I was volunteering and crying at the same time, but, you know, [holding in] my tears.
Now I got used to it and I just keep it inside, but sometimes when I sit to take a rest alone behind the tent then I start crying for like 10 seconds. Just, you know, to lift the emotions off my shoulders, and that's it. I keep going.”
That's what I’m trying to do with these candies, these chocolates. Give them out to kids and brighten their day a little bit.
“Yeah, the kids, it's funny, sometimes you give them some Kinder Surprises and…they're just really addicted to Kinders.”
Yeah, they love it, they really love that stuff.
“You give them some Kinders and you see their face, they're like: [makes elated facial expression]. They’re so happy. And then the parents are happy because the kids are happy.”
That's all their parents want.
“There's so much going on. When you walk through the camp there's so much that you miss. When you stay here, you understand better what's going on. You don't see the cooking and preparation that's going on in the tents, you don't see all the people washing the pots and pans and stuff. It's not very easy, it's a lot of work.”
It's the Polish army that's here?
“Yeah, only Polish army, Polish cops, and Polish firefighters. And then you have Médecins Sans Frontières, and then you have Secouristes Sans Frontières, and I think that's it. And a bunch of Israeli [groups] too.”
And it seems everybody's being taken to the [nearby grocery store]?
“I heard that, yeah. A lot of other people also go directly to [nearby train station] and a lot going on to other countries. There are some Ukrainians that arrive here and they know they have some friends in, say, Italy or the Netherlands, and they know where they're going. But you have others who arrive here and don't know nobody. It's their first time in the European Union, and they maybe even lost contact with family members. They arrive here and they don't know what to do.
Sometimes even their family has died, like in Mariupol. We have people here coming from Mariupol and some of their family has died. And they're lost and sometimes they're not sure who is alive among their friends in Mariupol and they can be really lost.
It's heartbreaking to see all the grandmothers and grandfathers arrive, sometimes in wheelchairs, and they're 80+. Sometimes I saw a few, maybe 90 years old, who were in a wheelchair. They deserve to rest. They don't want to be here.”
You're on a break right now?
“Yeah, I'm taking a break. I'm going to go back. If you want I can introduce you [to my tent]?”
Yeah, I'd love that.