Katrina Lee, News Editor
VCU professor Frank Pichel used Google Translate, a pen and paper to create a handwritten sign to inform Ukrainian refugees that he could transport three people and their pets to any destination within Poland.
“I just spent every day doing these big cross-country trips like seven hours, five hours, two hours, to take refugees to specific places in Poland where they could either get another ride or to where they were being housed,” Pichel said.
Since Russian President Vladamir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, 6.7 million people have been displaced, according to UNrefugees. Of those, over 4 million people have crossed into bordering countries surrounding Ukraine, including Poland and Moldova.
Pichel said he has experience with helping refugees during the 1999 Serbian War in Kosovo. He said he felt a “similarity” between the two conflicts and wanted to help.
“I just decided that I was in a fortunate enough position, where I had spring break and I didn’t have any other obligations. So I had the money to go for a week and help there. So I went,” Pichel said.
After finding that transportation for refugees was in high demand, Pichel said he would go to the border crossings where refugees were being dropped off. Pichel said at the beginning of the week, it seemed like most people had a plan and had chosen a friend somewhere in Western Europe to stay with.
“Everyday it just got more desperate. The people in the last couple days when I was transporting, just had no idea what was going to happen or where they were gonna go. They just had to leave,” Pichel said.
The Polish government was still “ramping” up to see what the refugee’s needs were, so it was mainly volunteers providing aid at the border, according to Pichel.
“There was one in particular that was run by journalists. People had come to report on the war and then just decided to stop reporting and help people. So there were photojournalists and print journalists who were running a camp basically,” Pichel said.
Pichel said he recommended people donate to ReEstablish Richmond, an organization that works with refugees, for anyone who also wants to provide assistance locally.
“It’s super rewarding, like I find this kind of stuff like it helps the person helping so much like to do this. It changes your attitude about stuff and in a really good way,” Pichel said. “I feel really lucky actually to have been able to do this but also just working locally. It’s the same sort of feeling.”
Director of Finance and Administration at ReEstablish Richmond, Robin Seagraves, said the organization’s mission is to connect refugees and new immigrants to the resources needed to establish roots, build community, and become self-sufficient.
“We are committed to creating greater opportunities for refugees and new immigrants in Richmond by enabling access to services that benefit their future. The ‘we’ here includes all of us — staff, volunteers, community partners and donors,” Seagraves said.
Judy Twigg, a political science professor who teaches international relations with a specialization in Eurasian relations, said Putin had become progressively more nationalist and authoritarian over the last couple of decades. Putin views this attack on Ukraine as a way to assert Russia’s power status, according to Twigg.
“It’s bringing back into Russia some lands and territory and some people that he [Putin] views as legitimately part of Russia,” Twigg said. “That is completely wrong. Ukraine is a sovereign country. Its own state. It’s a liberal democracy and it absolutely is not part of Russia. So Putin attacking Russia was completely unfounded, completely unjustifiable.”
Twigg said a quarter of a million people have been displaced from their homes, and they are mostly women and children. However, due to the Ukrainian war efforts, the needs for these refugees are changing.
“For the last week or so, there have been traffic jams going back into Kyiv, because the Ukrainian military has liberated all the suburbs around Kyiv. People can go home, and they’re doing that as soon as they can,” Twigg said. “The need for assistance to these refugees is huge. But it’s changing a lot over time as people move from different places. It’s still the case that a lot of the need that we’re seeing is for rides.”
Currently, Russia is withdrawing its forces from Kyiv after around two months of fighting with Ukraine. Twigg said Russian troops are probably going to Belarus or Russia to “get their act together.”
“We think what they’re planning to do is redeploy to the eastern part of Ukraine,” Twigg said “They want to just consolidate around the eastern parts of the country that already had been partially under occupation. My suspicion is that Putin is going to just do that, and then sell it as a win.”