Medicines, gasoline, baby food: the Berliner brings aid to the Ukrainian border

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Alan Meyer, left.

While Berlin has taken in thousands of refugees every day since the war in Ukraine spiraled so tragically out of control, a small town on the other Polish border, Przemyśl, has been completely transformed beyond recognition. Some 10,000 Ukrainians pass through it every day, supported by 200 volunteers. We caught up with one of them, Alan Meyer, in Berlin just before he left with another shipment of humanitarian aid. When not on the refugee front, the St. Petersburg-born Berliner is an artist and art teacher. He has been helping Ukrainian refugees since 2014.

Where were you when you heard the news of Putin’s invasion?

It surprised me. I was following the media coverage closely, but I didn’t think they would actually attack. I was about to go to Ukraine on Monday February 21, but I kept putting it off. I volunteer there with the Heart for Ukraine association as part of my children’s camp project. In 2014, together with Marina Bondar, we launched humanitarian projects and a camp for children in the bombed regions of Donbass and Luhansk. I also do art projects and run an art residency there. I’ve been involved in the area since 2014. I didn’t think there would be an invasion. I had rescheduled the trip to Lviv for Thursday. I was awakened that morning by a WhatsApp message from a distant acquaintance in New York: “Fuck Russia. Nothing changes.” It was immediately clear.

What was your first reaction?

I started calling everyone. I wanted to know what was going on. There was still the shock of disbelief. I took part in the first protest demonstration in Berlin on Friday, but that wasn’t enough for me. I couldn’t sit and watch. History was being made at that time. I took a vacation and started getting involved.

How did you figure out what to do and how to do it?

I have a close connection with Ukraine and a network of contacts on the ground. Thanks to these interviews, I understood that a wave of refugees was about to arrive. A lot of people immediately realized it was war – and there was an outpouring of people wanting to help. Friends called, saying they were on their way. I found a car that needed a second driver to go to the Polish border. Our cars were already full of humanitarian aid, food, medicine and clothing from our association. For us, the war started in 2014 and – although we were taken by surprise by its scale – we were somewhat prepared. As a volunteer, you don’t expect an invitation and a red carpet.

Where did you go? What were your first impressions?

In the early hours of Saturday February 26, we arrived in Medyka near Przemyśl at the Polish border crossing with Ukraine. There were already hundreds of volunteers. They came from everywhere: Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, other nationalities. The Germans were coming all the time to offer accommodation. But most of the volunteers are Ukrainians, who were in Poland for work. For a volunteer, everything is very simple. You organize yourself. You come, ask for what is needed, and you do it.

So what did you actually do?

A driver was needed on the first day to bring humanitarian aid to the gray zone, the neutral zone between the Polish and Ukrainian borders. As a volunteer, you do whatever is necessary. I prefer to work with children and families as much as possible. There, the most important thing is emotional support and information. I was able to tell people what awaits them, what is crucial. Many do not fully understand their situation and do not know whether or not they will be left homeless.

The very day we arrived we realized we needed more help. With a German, I offered to return to Berlin to pick up a second load. We brought a family with two children to Germany – but it was ironic, the family was made up of refugees from Afghanistan. They had settled in Kiev three years ago. Now they had to go to Hamburg, live with relatives of the woman.

What are the conditions?

It is very, very cold. The temperature is around zero and there are no special rooms, no heating, no showers, just a few rooms with bare mattresses arranged in a small station. You can’t sleep there. It is impossible to stay long. Refugees from Ukraine leave within 24 hours. Then there are German and Polish free trains to the west. The only ticket they need is their Ukrainian passport.

What is the emotional state of people crossing the border?

It varies. I especially try to help women who travel with children. They might be in deep shock, frantic and confused. Emotionally, they are still on the run. Their speech is erratic. Instead of worrying about where they are going, they might suddenly start worrying about schools.

There was a 75 year old lady with her 15 year old grandchildren. She was clearly in a very nervous state, standing there lost, not knowing what to do. I approached her and offered her a lift to Germany, a place to stay. Basically to solve all his pressing problems. This made her suspicious, she was almost frightened by the offer. I had to step back and stop insisting.

What is needed at the border?

Food and medicine arrive regularly in trucks from Poland, Germany. Once I heard some Hebrew and saw two Israelis motionless, not knowing where to go. They were religious Israelis. One of Ethiopian descent, one from Manchester. They delivered kosher food from Poznan. But a constant flow of aid is needed, especially from the other side of the border: medicine, gasoline, porridge.

How is the reception of these refugees in Poland?

The Poles receive them so warmly, with such empathy. I have never seen anything like it. There are Ukrainian flags hanging everywhere. Probably, they see this conflict in the light of their own history: they see the fate of Ukraine like that of Poland in 1939. They understand very well what is happening.

Putin’s doctrine wants to send us back to the beginning of the last century with its dangerous and senseless geopolitical games. This is very strongly felt on the Polish-Ukrainian border. It’s so important to get involved.

Are you going back to the border now?

No, right now I’m leaving for Lviv. I need to establish contacts and logistics to help establish a safe route for unaccompanied minors. I have worked with children for so long. It is rare that parents want to send their children alone, but it does happen. For example, if the mother is a doctor and the father is of draft age, what about the children? Our organization, Hilfe für Ukraine eV has credibility and many years of experience.

When are you leaving?

Pretty much now. A car with a second driver, a young man from Kharkiv, is already waiting for me. We will exchange the driving. At the border I will find another lift over the border to Lviv. It’s only 1,000 kilometers.

You can also donate, purchase or simply enjoy the art of Alan and 20 other artists at an “Artist support Ukraine” fundraising exhibition. It will continue until March 20 at the Radio Station bar, Seumestraße 2.

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