A week ago, Lacombe County resident Heidi Baumbach arrived in Poland with the mission to work with orphans in Ukraine.
Now, she is staying in a one-bedroom apartment with three families. Her days are spent connecting sponsors and families, and making runs between the border and Warsaw, helping families and individuals get to safety.
“I showed up at the border a few nights ago to pick up the carload of orphans, only to find out that ‘orphans’ came with moms and suddenly I had a group of 11, I think. I’m still unsure how many were in the apartment that first night.
“I thought I was here to work with orphans. However … I held a broken woman who stuffed down sobs as she told me about the choice of leaving her husband, how she never dreamed of raising kids alone and how she was scared she couldn’t do it. Choosing to leave the love of her life and mother in a place where bombs were going off.”
No males between 18 and 60 are allowed to leave Ukraine and must stay and fight.
Baumbach said the falling value of the currency in the country is also leading to problems.
“Yesterday I took the women to the drugstore for some basic toiletries we did not have. They went to exchange their money and the polish man said he could not in good conscience do it because their dollar had crashed so badly.
“We picked up enough groceries today to last for the week and what would usually cost $300 at home is equivalent of $120 Canadian, here.”
“Regardless of how much is in their saving accounts, nothing matters. They will need to be supported for a while. The neat thing is all these families have very nuanced careers that would totally thrive in Canada.”
The family she is currently with is made of three siblings and their families.
Julia Kharebashvili is an artisan cake baker. She is married and her husband, Zaza, drives a truck. They also have a daughter.
“Little Maria is full of sass and reminds me of my friend Cortney and they have this little blonde curly-haired one-year-old that is full of squeals and giggles,” said Baumbach.
Julia’s older brother, Oleksi, is still in Ukraine. Baumbach said that he is shuttling women and children to and from the border.
“His wife Natasha has become a close friend. She is a driving instructor, as is he. Her son Platon, 9, is pretty much the coolest kid alive. He has a twinkle in his eye and is always willing to help and put up with a house full of girls. Sophia is five and kind of reminds me of me as a kid — full of sass and cuddles.”
Oleksi’s wife Anastasiia is with their two-year-old that Baumbach says is lovely, lively, gets into everything and is the absolute life of the household.
“This resonates; seeing kids respond to an adult who can play with them a bit and has a different emotional energy than parents have at this point, and the life and joy it gives back to the parents to see them laugh and giggle.”
Baumbach says that their culture is used to functioning as a multi-generational family unit.
“Removing both husband and extended family is unspeakably difficult. And then when their money is worthless and businesses are gone and this is where we step in.”
She said there are videos of friends and neighbours gathered as if they are around a campfire.
“Their mothers sit together in this circle and listen to bombs drop. Literally. They showed me that video. At least once a day I hear a whole bunch of Ukranian rubble from a corner of a room and someone’s house or business is completely destroyed. Their home is no more,” said Baumbach.
She said that at the moment primary needs here are costs of housing, car rental, and fuel.
“Housing is impossible to get right now and even a small apartment keeps a group or family of 10 comfortable. We need the ability to sustain this for families who are needing somewhere temporary while actively transitioning elsewhere.”
She said there are shelters and a lot of people doing work but there is also the threat of trafficking.
“Even on this side of the border. Although it is usually fine if you are alert and safe, many women come over after six-plus days in a vehicle and are exhausted and distracted after crossing. So if I have a safe place available to put people in, that matters to me. Even if it does cost.”
She is currently renting a car to transport people places, including from the border, but her car rental expires on March 12 and she needs to renew it.
Poland’s ability to continue to take refugees is not sustainable. The country lacks the resources, as most families survive merely at the subsistence level and the sheer influx of refugees is not a number they are able to accommodate. Even with the help of international aid, it can only keep up with so much before Poland would have to close its borders.
She said that many people do not realize there are limited border crossings into Poland.
“This bottlenecks things, slows down the process, and also disproportionally distributes refugees in localized areas (especially) cities close to these borders.
“At this point, the consensus is that there will either be a takeover that continues to attempt to protect infrastructure and if this fails the country will be taken by any means necessary. As much as everyone wishes it was not true and hopes for a different outcome, Ukraine as these people know it is gone. And that is heartbreaking.” said Baumbach.
“We are aware that in Poland, being a neighbouring nation, we are immediately at risk should things escalate to a European conflict. For these reasons, I refuse to have families in my charge sitting here for weeks on end awaiting paperwork to be processed. Those seeking asylum in Canada need to be processed as soon as possible, both for their own safety and for those who come behind them. I wish I could afford idealism here, so I hope and pray, but with a tank full of gas and a drive less than two to three hours from an airport,” said Baumbach.
She said that at this point she only mentions sponsorship and coming to Canada when the individual specifically reaches out to her asking for help.
“Only when they approach me. I deeply respect that this is a personal journey and there is much to consider for these families.”
Baumbach said that anyone interested in sponsoring or hosting a family or individual can email Debbie York. York is a friend of Baumbach and has stepped up to assist.
York and Onsy Tawadrous, a friend of Baumbach, are coordinating efforts to get sponsors connected with families and individuals.
“Onsy and his family fled persecution and sought asylum in Canada, and since arriving, he himself has become both politically active and helped organize communities to bring over refugees seven at a time.”
Baumbach admitted that politics is not her area of expertise but she is learning as she goes, with the help of those around her.
“The more awareness that is raised, the more that people are able to connect to how they can help and the more this allows us to put pressure on our government officials who are fully able to expedite the process. Most families who have crossed over have all the necessary paperwork as it was just required to get into Poland and also every important document they own they have taken with them when fleeing.”
She said that residents can contact their local MPs or contact her directly at email@example.com.
“We were told, ‘Work your political connections. Your MP has the power to override the red tape and expedite the emigration process.’ It is our greatest fear that these people be ‘lost’ in a sea of refugees applying to come to Canada. While we are ‘safe-ish,’ this is not a part of the world you want to hang out in right now. Not indefinitely. Not for the months and months emigration usually takes.”
York hit the ground running but learned that until the federal government officially releases some sort of organized framework to specifically offer asylum to Ukranian refugees, there is nothing Alberta provincial officials can do to “create” this process.
“We have documentation. We have sponsors. We just need our government to expedite this process to move these people out of harm’s way,” said Baumbach.
“Anyone in government understands Poland’s situation and the safety risk posed by staying here, so do not be afraid to strongly leverage the fact that Poland is not safe for them long-term, or an economically viable place to start a new life amid what will soon become a refugee crisis for the country. Our government officials will likely not be able to comment on this fact, but arming ourselves with that knowledge is powerful for leverage,” she Baumbach.
“Those of you willing to help put pressure politically, please reply with the subject heading ‘politics’ and we will be in touch. Or just go out there and constructively make some noise. Our government has a responsibility to move towards removing whatever red tape necessary, which an MP has the power to do and get these families to safety,” said Baumbach.
York and Tawadrous are hoping to organize an information session or package for interested sponsors.
In the meantime, those interested can email York at firstname.lastname@example.org with “sponsor” in the subject line. Include your full name, city, province, phone number, how many people you could host, for how long and if you would require financial assistance to do so.
Applicants are also asked to include a brief one-paragraph summary about themselves, their family and a photo.
Donations can be sent to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.