As Russian tanks roll across Ukraine, many Americans have looked for ways to contribute assistance to the Ukrainians. Five American medics, including some from Massachusetts, went beyond donations: they traveled to the region this week and created a pop-up medical station for refugees in a former mall near the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Alexander Smirnov, a paramedic from Medway, took a leave of absence from his job and launched a nonprofit, Global Disaster Relief Team, recruiting friends Olga Pavleyeva, a nurse practitioner of Sharon, and crisis manager and veteran Alexander Zharov, of Lynn. They arrived in Poland on Monday.
With just five days of planning, they raised tens of thousands of dollars, and put together suitcases full of medical supplies. Now they’re based out of an old mall in Przemyśl, a Polish city close to the Ukrainian city of Lviv. It serves as a transit center where local Polish organizations requested the most help.
“None of this was planned. They never expected to get thousands of people going through them in the matter of days,” said Smirnov in an exclusive interview with GBH News.
Nurses Iryna Sharlaieva and Sasha Sakurets of North Carolina and Minnesota joined the effort after hearing about it through the Ukrainian community on Facebook. The team of ex-Soviet immigrants and first-generation Americans are among hundreds of international and Polish medical and mutual aid volunteers working long shifts to help Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.
GBH News talked to Smirnov over Zoom, where the noise and chaos of the environment were clearly evident. Every few minutes, a voice speaking Ukrainian read the soonest bus departures for Krakow on a loudspeaker. The cries of children and infants rang out distantly from another part of the mall.
Smirnov was working with Zharov in a makeshift pharmacy near the storefront they took over as a medical station.
Medics there are giving out over-the-counter medications to the sick. The American group is working on buying products like insulin through local suppliers, and figuring out what to do for people with long term medical conditions. “When people left their homes so quickly, they forgot their blood sugar meters. So we were able to get a supply of those and are giving those to them for monitoring,” Smirnov said.
“I’ll be frank, it’s hell here. It’s a real hell on earth,” he said. The first days of volunteering, there weren’t enough cots so many refugees were sleeping on the floor of the mall.
If people have a medical need that can’t be addressed by first aid, they’re connected to Polish teams for transport to hospitals, or other groups with medical devices like heart monitors.
Everything is a joint effort: one minute the American team can be working in the pharmacy, the next they’re at the station, and some of them are deployed twenty minutes away to the village of Medyka to a border crossing.
The goal is to provide medical triage, first aid, and use their connections in Poland to gather and move medical supplies and other aid, as well as supporting other organizations there with them.
Wednesday night, team members relieved an Israeli border team that had volunteered for many days straight. “They literally begged us to give them eight hours so they could sleep,” he said. The medics are some of the few that can speak several languages — Russian, Ukrainian, Polish. Pavleyeva is a psychiatric nurse, so she also helps people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
They’re seeing people — mostly women, children, and the elderly — suffering from hypothermia from days of walking to the border during the Ukrainian winter.
More than anything, the refugees crossing are stunned by the sudden violence and upheaval. One man approached Smirnov in first aid and said his hand hurt. “When he removed his jacket, all of us were like 'wow.' Not only was the hand broken, but it was dislocated,” said Smirnov, who had him transported to the hospital by Polish medics. The man fell as his family fled their home during shelling. He traveled four days with luggage.
‘“He had been in shock. It’s not something out of the ordinary. These people were literally leaving during bombardment,” said Smirnov.
The team members aren’t strangers to the strains of disaster relief. Smirnov is a Russian-speaking immigrant and a licensed EMT who served as a first responder during 9/11. Zharov was also a first responder to 9/11 and a veteran of the Iraq War. They slept in the makeshift pharmacy for a few days on cots under fluorescent lights.
Pavleyeva is documenting the journey.
“The night is bitterly cold again, and the pedestrian refugees are coming to the Polish side after many hours of walking on foot and standing in long lines,” she wrote on her Facebook profile. “Many of them, especially seniors, are worn out to the bone, so we're expecting cardiac issues, dehydration, hypothermia, etc.”
Before leaving Massachusetts, she and local Ukrainians collected over $20,000 for medical supplies.
Everything is free for the refugees. “No one is charging them any money. People get offended if someone is offering them money. It’s like ‘just please take everything that you need,’” said Smirnov.
Sasha Grebenyuk is the executive director at the Jookender Community Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that serves refugee families with children from the former Soviet Union and “post Soviet” countries. She’s raised $78,750 for the Global Disaster Relief Team through Jookender.
“I believe that everybody in our community cares about the situation in Ukraine,” said Grebenyuk, who is Jewish and has family from Russia and Ukraine. “We all may have friends or relatives from Ukraine. A lot of [the] Russian-speaking community and Jewish community and our ancestors came from Ukraine. Everyone hurts right now.”
Funds will go directly towards buying medical supplies, travel, and board for team members.
More volunteers are heading out to join the Global Disaster Relief Team this weekend. Smirnov is leaving it to his U.S. team to vet and arrange their arrival, but says he’s expecting two doctors, one nurse, and a paramedic. They’ll be rotating three-week shifts.
Alice Feldman, a volunteer for the team and longtime friend of Smirnov with family ties to Ukraine, is helping to coordinate volunteers. “We're just collecting contacts of people that are medics, or have medical experience that are available in the next three to six weeks,” she said. Over 100 people have reached out to help since the group launched.
Smirnov said the U.S. Ukrainian community is essential to organizing the effort, and he’s astounded to meet people, like a new acquaintance who is an Italian lawyer volunteering as a translator and driver for refugees.
“It’s a whole world of good guys working against one bad guy, this is not just [a] Poland operation, this is really an international operation,” he said. “We have a common goal. Everything else does not matter right now.”