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Hi, friends. 
Last Wednesday afternoon, I stood at the border fence in the small town of Medyka, Poland, a main entry point for those fleeing Ukraine. All day long, an endless stream of women and children walk through the green metal gate separating the two countries, pulling roller bags and carrying school backpacks and blue IKEA bags and stuffed animals. In many cases, their husbands, partners, brothers, and fathers have accompanied them to the border, where they say goodbye, not knowing for how long, not knowing if “how long” will actually mean “forever.” With very few exceptions, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave the country; they must stay and fight.
At the border, there were women of all ages, elementary school kids, toddlers. Some had dogs on leashes or cats in carriers. I saw one young woman carrying her cat in her arms, wrapped inside her coat. Many people had traveled multiple days to get there, by bus, train, and on foot. There were tents, like festival tents, lining the path, representing aid organizations from around the world: Poland, Hungary, India, France, Scotland, the United States. Workers handed out coffee and slices of pizza, crepes, water.
There were donated clothes and diapers and things lying around, but nobody was taking them because they were already carrying all they could manage. There was a French mime, for some reason, and a guy playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on an old piano that had been wheeled out onto the frozen earth. It was cold; the sky was gray; the grass was brown and matted. 
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At the border in Medyka, Poland.
The story of how I ended up at the Poland/Ukraine border last week is not particularly important. My friend Shelly Tygielski is the founder of the mutual aid organization Pandemic of Love, which has mobilized to provide aid to those fleeing, and remaining, in Ukraine, in partnership with the disaster relief nonprofit Global Empowerment Mission / bstrong (a.k.a. GEM). When I asked Shelly if there was anything I could do to support her beyond donating money and amplifying their message on social media, she said, “Can you come to Poland with me for a few days?”
Because I don’t have kids or people I am responsible for caring for, and I do have resources and airline miles and flexibility in my schedule and the ability to sit on planes for long periods of time, I was able to say “sure.” We were on the ground for less than 48 hours.
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This is AJ and Salman, with Shelly in the middle. AJ and Salman are medical students from Nigeria and Bangladesh, 22 and 23 years old, who were studying at university in Ukraine when the war broke out. I took this photo last Thursday night, in the lobby of the Warsaw airport hotel. When I posted it on Instagram, it got one-tenth of the engagement of my previous post, which was a selfie I took at the border. In hindsight, I should have posted this picture with a hand-lettered inspirational quote about failure or burnout or spiritual growth as the first slide, because then more people would have seen it or maybe engaged with it. In case you’ve been living on Mars: the algorithm is actively invested in making this world a worse place. 
[aside: what does it do to our brains, to our nervous systems, to open our phones day after day, hour after hour, and scroll through this: Jeans haul / buy this coaching program / Black man murdered by police / French bulldog on a skateboard / school hit by bombs / this dance is trending -- I have observed that it both numbs and overwhelms me, and it flattens the meaning of everything into a low hum of consumption. It is almost impossible to pay attention in a medium that has been carefully designed to train us to do the opposite.] 
As the Russian troops came in, AJ and Salman knew it was safer to leave than to stay put, despite having no idea where they were headed, no money, no visas. So, together with some of their classmates, they packed up the essentials: warm clothes; laptops; Salman’s prized PS4; and headed in the direction of Poland by bus and on foot. 
After making it to the border, they were forced to wait outside in the snow for two days before being allowed into Poland, while they watched Ukrainian citizens be welcomed across. They had no tents, no shelter, no food. There were tents set up, but their group was not allowed inside. Some of the students burned their clothes to stay warm. Two of their classmates fainted. Their laptops and the PS4 were stolen in the chaos; their phones died on the first day. They couldn’t leave, because that would mean losing their place in line. After two days, they were finally let in, with no explanation. AJ and Salman told us this story in a matter-of-fact way, which is the way people talk about trauma when they are not able to rest and feel the weight of the trauma – and when they are accustomed to the trauma; when it no longer shocks them. 
The racism and discrimination at the Polish border against refugees of color has been well-documented. In many cases, non-Ukrainian nationals fleeing Ukraine also don't qualify for aid. Pandemic of Love, GEM, and Grassroots Law have partnered to create a separate fund (fully administered by GEM) that's designated to provide both short and long-term support to African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian students fleeing Ukraine. AJ and Salman are now in temporary housing – apartments funded by GEM – but they are very much still in survival mode; the details of their futures are unknown. 
Donations to the GEM African Student Fund are paying for stable housing, food, and essentials for students like AJ and Salman, legal assistance, and relocation, including to universities in safe countries so they can continue their studies. There are over 16,000 of these students; thousands of them are still trapped in the war zone of the Mariupol area with no electricity, heat, food, or water. The GEM African Student Fund is also funding extraction missions to get them out.

People keep asking me, “How was Poland?” I can’t really answer this question. I definitely can’t answer it with a word or a sentence, other than to say that I very briefly bore witness to both the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. 
We live in an endless churn of a news cycle with so many things to care about – locally, nationally, internationally, existentially. Compassion fatigue is a real thing. So is the paralysis and shutting down that happens when we feel like everything is chaos and the world is on fire and the problems are too big; so often, this leads to an overall place of “fuck it, I can’t deal.” 
Another real thing is that many, many people are struggling to keep their own heads above water, and there is little bandwidth to think about anything beyond their own family, their own survival, one day at a time. All of these things are true. I am not here to tell you what to care about or how to do it; I am not the Care Police. 
What I will say is that in Poland, there are a lot of people who desperately need help, and a lot of people doing a lot of good and necessary helping. The GEM team on the ground is composed of volunteers, locals, and Ukrainian refugees being paid a living wage, including five African students, to help make sure their voices and needs are heard in operations meetings. 
In the 30 days since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, GEM has opened four warehouses in Rzeszow, Warsaw, and Hungary, which serve as staging grounds for aid being shipped in: medical supplies, phone battery charges, essential goods. Working with many local nonprofits and churches, GEM then distributes these donations where they’re most needed. You can read more about their work here. If you would like to support their efforts, here are six ways to do that, both financially and not.
Things Involving Money:
1. Donate to the GEM African Student Fund here.
2. Donate to GEM’s general Ukraine aid effort here.
3. Make a purchase from my Amazon wishlist. These essential items have been requested by folks on the ground in Ukraine and Poland. Purchases from this list will be shipped to GEM’s warehouse in Miami, consolidated into containers, and delivered to one of GEM’s warehouses in Poland or Hungary. They are working on a partnership with Amazon Germany that will allow goods to be shipped directly from Germany to arrive in Poland in 48 hours, but for now, sending containers from the US is the best way to deliver large shipments in an organized and efficient way.
Things Not Involving Money:
1. Create your own Amazon wishlist: Create your own list and share it with your network. Pandemic of Love has compiled a list of the most requested items from their network of humanitarian aid organizations, and they’re updating the list constantly. To get started, email with the subject line “Ambassador” and someone will email you with instructions to create your own Amazon wish list and what to put on it. 
2. Cards of Hope: Are you a teacher or a parent? Handmade cards from kids, with messages of love and hope, are being displayed as murals and distributed alongside aid at refugee shelters. For more information and instructions, email with the subject line “Love Notes.”
3. Connections with brands and manufacturers: Do you work for, or have a direct connection to, a company that manufactures or distributes essential goods? (Food, warm clothing, hygiene products, etc.) These donations are badly needed. Inventory that can’t be sold due to damaged packaging? Overstock in your warehouse? Email with the subject line “Product Donation” and include details of the supplies in your email.
Please note: GEM does not have roles for individual in-person volunteers in Poland, but if you're located in the Miami area, you can apply to volunteer in their Miami warehouse here
Thanks for reading. Take care of yourselves and each other.
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