‘People were surprised that I was Russian. And I was surprised that they didn't throw their fists at me’

At the end of March, Yulia Pleskanovskaya, a Russian citizen living in Great Britain, decided to travel to the Polish border with Ukraine after spending her savings on humanitarian supplies. Pleskanovskaya worked at a refugee centre as an interpreter and also delivered  humanitarian aid to Ivano-Frankivsk. She told Geneva Solutions’s partner Holod, an independent Russian publication, how the volunteering system works, what surprised her in talking with refugees, and why she did not want to leave the help centre.

The day before my volunteer trip, I turned 36. I have long had a little dream: I wanted to buy a machine for processing precious and semi-precious stones. My hobby is cutting opals. I was terribly tired of using a drill. But in the end, I decided to spend the money I had saved not on a present for myself, but on buying humanitarian supplies  and volunteering at the border with Poland.

It’s impossible to work now anyway: you can't concentrate even for five minutes. There is a feeling of powerlessness, and I know for a fact that one of the best ways to deal with powerlessness is to take control of at least something. My husband and I talked, and we had a plan to buy all the things we needed, go to the border with Ukraine, and see what I could do to help.

An acquaintance of mine from university days gave me the contacts of a good friend of hers. He is one of the founders of the WOT Foundation, a Polish NGO, and was able to rent a house in Poland right on the border and easily accommodate volunteers. He is an amazing man and has connections to everyone and everywhere. He's been working there since the beginning of the war – I don't know how he can stand it.

We found contacts of people who worked with him on the border at that time, called them, started asking what exactly was needed – and got contradictory answers.

In the end, when I decided what to buy, I relied on my experience and common sense. I know for a fact that in a situation where a lot of people move from one place to another, you need sleeping bags, mats, gas burners to warm up at least tea.

My final stop was the village of Medyka, where there is a house rented by the owner of the foundation. I got there by car, stopping through Walderslade, Strasbourg, Prague, and Warsaw along the way. I had acquaintances in each of these cities who I could stay with. I calculated the route so that I wouldn't drive more than eight hours a day, because otherwise I would fall asleep at the wheel and wouldn't make it.

In the house I stayed in Medyk, they gave me a boiler room - I felt like the famous Russian rock star Victor Tsoi. [Editor’s note: Tsoi worked in a boiler house in St Petersburg that has since been immortalised and converted into a museum-club].  I think when I arrived, there were six of us volunteers in all.

The next day we went to the town of Przemysl where there is a large reception and distribution centre for refugees. It used to be a Tesco supermarket and the owner of that building made it available to refugees. There are Germans, Italians – all of Europe – sitting at the tables, looking for options for refugees to leave. And, if required, overnight accommodation and food, but many are already going to someone they know.

First days of volunteering

When I arrived, I was told that the flow of refugees had dried up, that almost no one was there. However, on some of the first days I worked at the centre as an interpreter for six hours straight, with only a coffee break, and I needed someone to take my place. Then I realised that the guys had been working in hellish conditions for the previous couple of weeks: since there weren't many volunteers, shifts lasted 12 hours each.

On Sunday, my first day at the centre, I walked up to the counter, where the German guys were sitting and registering refugees. They spoke English, and not all refugees understood them, so I translated from English into Russian and back. I saw that people were surprised that I was Russian. And I was surprised that they didn't throw their fists at me. On the contrary, they said, “Thank you guys, you organised everything fantastically”.

I hadn't felt Russian for years before the war. I left Russia in 2008, lived in Australia for six years, got my citizenship, then decided to return to Russia. I stayed for about a year: I worked and realised that I didn't fit into the professional environment anymore. I started out as an auditor and in recent years I've been investigating financial frauds in consulting. So, as soon as the opportunity arose to leave, I left, and since 2016 I have been living in Britain.

But when the war started, I felt very Russian again. Because there is some incredible injustice in trying to take away your language, what you grew up with. It's like other people start to own it.

They say to you, “You're Russian, it’s your fault.” What the hell, guys? I'm not going to stop being Russian, I’m not going to give it up; I'm not going to say, “Oh no, look, I have an Australian passport.” No, I'm Russian, and that's one of the reasons why I'm standing in this centre and I'm going to help refugees.

Those Ukrainians who made it to our centre were mostly very happy to see Russians, oddly enough. I think to see a Russian helping and doing what a normal person should do is a kind of step toward normality back from hell.

In my group of volunteers almost all were Russians, a few Poles and someone from Ukraine. It's amazing in general: people who fled Russia and Ukraine a couple of weeks ago are now at the border helping people who fled Ukraine. So refugees are helping refugees. The only problem that really upsets me is that Russian refugees are now treated even more suspiciously than before.

It seems to me that we should still talk about this problem, because we are not measuring our suffering. This war has struck both peoples. Those who are now fleeing Russia because they are at risk of going to jail for 15 years should also be helped.

Feeling normal

It was my first experience volunteering, so I was fumbling for the right behaviour based on my other experiences. And it always seemed to me that people who were in a difficult situation should be treated as if this situation – not that it didn't happen –  but it doesn't define them.

When I was sitting at the front desk at the centre, a man in his seventies said: “I want to go to Germany, I have no one there, no money either. There are two of us.” I asked, “With your wife?” He said: “No, that's my neighbour.”

The German volunteer asked if they would be comfortable in the same room. I said, “Would it be okay to share a room with your roommate?” He said, “Yes, we've known each other all our lives. What do you expect at that age?” I said, “Don't sin against yourself, you've got a bright eye, you’ll come over now, trim your beard, freshen up, and that’s it – watch out, girls!” He smiled and said it was the first time in days he had done so.

I think it’s very important to give that sense of normality. Because if you jump around people and hold them in your arms and say, “How do you feel?”, then you're focusing on what happened to them. And you need to focus on them.

There are a lot of difficult situations that arise when a person is inadequate. I mean, we’re talking about millions of people. Among a million, there will be some number of people with dementia. This needs to be picked up right away, noticed, and said, “Guys, the man has dementia, let’s look for options for him to be accompanied,” so we don't spend hours trying to figure out, for example, if he really has a wife or if he’s imagining it.

Or sometimes it happens that the person is obviously in shock and starts behaving strangely, for example, demanding that you immediately provide transportation to Paris, preferably with an escort. You can calm him down, or you can say: “Okay, let's sit here now, have a  tea, we will now deal with those who do not require an escort, and then we will definitely talk to you.”

I don't know how to explain it properly, but I think you need a certain degree of detachment in order not to burn yourself out and to help as many people as possible.

All hands are needed. Any hands at all. There is a lot of work, it's varied, at any moment you can go up to any volunteer and ask if you need help. And for sure you will be needed somewhere. For example, the centre has a playroom for children. Parents who have taken their children out of Ukraine are tired as dogs. Because the excitement for the children is unbelievable,  Meanwhile young children do not understand what is going on and want to play. The parents, of course – after escaping  and getting their children to safety,  – no longer have the strength.

A sense of togetherness

I left Kent (a county in the United Kingdom) in a pretty bad emotional state, but as I drove up to the border, I felt myself getting better. The emotional peak for me was when we were loading blankets with an international team of people I had never seen in my life and will probably never see again.

We stood in a line and threw these blankets under the heavy rain. And I suddenly realised that, for the first time in a while, I felt good and easy. I belonged to a community, a pack, I didn't have to think about whether I belonged rightly or wrongly, I was physically involved, after all. I didn't want to leave because this work provides an incredible emotional boost.

I'm still sitting in all the chats, and soon I'll be sending a second shipment - I still have a surplus of money I can spend on charity. But I'm not going to drive it myself, or I'm afraid I'll get fired. Now I'm looking for options: either through regular mail or by making arrangements with local volunteer groups.

A full version of this article was originally published in Holod Media in Russian. It is shared here as part of Geneva Solutions' collaboration with Holod for our project “Ukraine Stories”.