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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

A drop in the ocean

April 4, 2022

Courthouse News' Scandinavian correspondent and her boyfriend rented a minivan, packed it with donated items and drove to the Poland-Ukraine border. This is their story.

Mie Olsen

By Mie Olsen

Mie Olsen is the Scandinavian reporter for Courthouse News Service. She has her own company and writes in-depth content on everything from sustainable technologies to European macropolitics.

We had discussed it back and forth. Would it make a difference? Who were we doing it for? Was it even feasible or had the situation at the border changed too much?

Before answering any of the above questions, my boyfriend Eoin and I found ourselves departing from Copenhagen in a rented minivan jam-packed with aid collected by a newly founded nonprofit at Amager.  

Sleeping bags. Jackets in military colors. Bandages and insulin. Dehydrated food and cans. Crutches, pads and diapers. Danish honey with cheery little notes. Clothes for kids. Soap and sanitizer. And energy drinks labeled “for the soldiers”. 

Packing aid for Ukrainian refugees into a rented minivan headed for the Poland-Ukraine border. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

After a few hours of driving through Germany, I realized I had been on the phone with — hitherto unknown — people every 20 minutes. A communication best described as a series of constant check-ins:  

With Kent from the nonprofit. Agnieszka from the school in Brwinów. Yulia and others from the Facebook groups.  

(Somewhere between, 24 hours passed, and we spent the night in Poznań.)  

Morten from a joint private Danish delegation. Dorota from the school in Zamość. Adele in the border town Przemyśl.  

Beds ready for tired Ukrainian refugees pack classrooms at a school in Zamość, Poland. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

(“Damn it,” Eoin exclaimed as he took the wrong motorway exit. Meanwhile, I kept texting in the passenger seat.) 

Keith in the refugee camp at Hrebenne. And Christine, constantly.  

An exceptionally committed Danish volunteer, who helped with everything from arranging a host family over updates on entry rules to searching for refugees. Not to mention the occasional late-hour encouragements.  

“Christine says the situation has changed,” I updated Eoin.  

“Last week, it was possible to make arrangements in advance. Now, the arriving Ukrainians are too traumatized and scared. So they jump on the first bus they see, just desperate to get away.” 

We paused a six-episode BBC podcast series delving deep into the tactics of a scam psychic back in the 1970s, leaving the car mute for a while. Then discussed the possibility that our 2.500+ kilometer trip wouldn´t have the outcome we hoped. 

Can you even say “hoped” when you talk about helping refugees?  

Our confusion was put on hold during our brief encounters with Polish aid volunteers. They gave us renewed energy and a sense of purpose and plenty of sweets, chocolate and quick carbs in the shape of white bread.   

Suddenly, Christine arranged for us to pick up a young woman outside of Warsaw the day after.  

And soon after, a message checked in that a family of five had just arrived in Hrebenne. They wanted to go to Denmark, and the dad had agreed to take most of the journey via train or bus, considering our space limitation of five seats.  

We were back on track! 

A Ukrainian family poses with relief workers before the trip to Denmark. (Photo courtesy Mie Olsen)

After dark, we drove into the oddest parking lot.  

Ukrainian refugees were piling in front of buses, music came from two big barbecue tents nearby, and Polish border controls patrolled a school transformed into primitive and overly lit barracks. 

Keith stepped out of nowhere, gave us a heartfelt welcome and proclaimed that people like us restored his faith in humanity. While Eoin had a little one-on-one with the officers, I introduced myself to the family.  

The father had brown, worried eyes and a gentle smile. The mum radiated a tired optimism. The teenage daughter was curious. The son enjoyed saying hello. The youngest had a fluffy black bucket hat and a stuffed rabbit with an oversized head.  

They had fled from their home town Vuhledar, known for its mining industry and situated in the area between Mariupol and Donetsk. While all conked out in the back, Eoin put on Bob Dylan´s greatest hits and tried to stay awake.  

Before midnight, we reached our motel in Warsaw. I had managed to book a double room and a family room on short notice. But we declined the breakfast buffet, which I felt cheap-skate about.  

Ukrainian refugees and aid tents pack the train station in Warsaw, Poland. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

The following day, we got a last-minute Flixbus ticket for the dad with only one stop in Wroclaw on its way to Aarhus, Denmark's second-biggest city. Thank the lord. The train would have six or seven stops, and the family had never traveled outside of Ukraine before.  

I recall the dad´s brave posture as he stood with a little plastic bag at the station in Warsaw. And how I worried about his trip and the prospect of something going wrong.   

Then we picked up our last passenger, a young girl called Tanja, who had red hair, weary eyes and the warmest smile.  

I can say so much and yet so little about our drive home. I had inner stress about the difficult communication with the host family back in Denmark, while I tried to radiate complete calmness in the car.  

Helpful phrases written in English and Ukrainian. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

There were fine moments.  

Like when we had a late lunch at McDonald's, the oldest daughter showed me a little book with handwritten one-liners in English.  

“Don’t worry about it." “What’s going on." “Please speak more slowly," it read.  

Before boarding the ferry at 11 p.m., an old man wearing shabby clothes and a melancholic expression asked me where to find the entrance for foot passengers. I answered him and then went to the nearest restroom to burst into excessive tears.  

Like if I was the one having a tough journey… 

I took the kids, the mum and Tanja to the ferry's upper deck as we departed. They touched their face in amazement and took photos while moving excitedly from one end to the other — first time on a boat. 

“Mie," said the little one and gave me a pretty bracelet with orange and green pearls, as we finally all hugged goodbye in the small suburban town Virum outside of Copenhagen at 3 a.m. Normally, I don´t wear jewelry, but I will hold on to this one. 

I took a few phone calls the morning after, groggy and half asleep.  

No news on the dad´s arrival. Quickly, I called the host mum in one part of the country. Fortunately, she had picked him up. I called back to the temporary host and connected the two, so the mum and dad could have a proper talk. 

Word has it that there were tears of joy.  

Later, I cooked a meal for Eoin and me. Beef, potato salad, chile/lemon butter and corn cobs. We ate slowly, while staring into empty space across the table. 

Afterwards, I posted our trip on Facebook. “Maybe it feels like a drop in the ocean when you try to make a difference,” I wrote.

”The ocean consists of drops," one of my friends commented.  

I agree. It’s just that these days, the ocean seems too big for me to grasp.  

Categories / International, Op-Ed

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