While Berlin has been welcoming thousands of refugees each day since the war in Ukraine spilled so tragically out of control, a small town on the other Polish border, Przemyśl, has been entirely transformed beyond recognition. Some 10,000 Ukrainians transit here each day, handled by 200 volunteers. We met one of them, Alan Meyer, in Berlin, just before he dashed off with a new load of humanitarian aid. When not on the refugee front, the St Petersburg-born Berliner is an artist and an art teacher. He’s been helping Ukrainian refugees since 2014.
Where were you when you heard the news of Putin’s invasion?
It caught me off guard. I was closely following the news coverage, but I didn’t believe 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 in connection with my children’s camp project. In 2014, together with Marina Bondar, we initiated humanitarian projects and a camp for children from the shelled Donbass and Luhansk regions. I also do art projects and run an art residency there. I’ve been involved with the region since 2014. I did not think there would be an invasion. I’d rescheduled the trip to Lviv for Thursday. I was woken up that morning with a WhatsApp message from a distant acquaintance in New York: “Fucking Russia. Nothing changes.” It was immediately clear.
What was your first reaction?
I started calling everybody. I wanted to find out 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 was not enough for me. I could not sit and watch. History was being made at that moment. I took holiday leave and started to get involved.
How did you understand what to do and how to do it?
I have a tight connection to Ukraine and a network of contacts on the ground. Through those talks, I understood a wave of refugees was about to come. Lots of people realised straight away that this was war – and there was a wave of people wanting to help. Friends called, saying they were on their way. I found a car that needed a second chauffeur to go to the Polish border. Our cars were already packed with humanitarian aid, food, medicine and clothes from our association. For us, the war started back in 2014 and – while we were caught unaware by the scale of this – we were somewhat prepared. As a volunteer, you don’t wait for an invitation and a red carpet.
Where did you go? What were your first impressions?
In the early hours of Saturday, 26th of February, 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. Germans were arriving all the time to offer accommodation. But mostly the volunteers are Ukrainians, who happened to be in Poland for work. For a volunteer, it is all very simple. You get organised. You come, ask 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 grey zone, the neutral zone between the Polish and Ukrainian borders. As a volunteer you do whatever is necessary. I prefer working with kids and families whenever possible. There, the most important thing is emotional support and providing information. I was able to tell people what awaits them, which is crucial. Many do not fully understand their situation and whether or not they will be left on the street.
On the same day we arrived we realised we needed more aid. Together with a German guy, I offered to return to Berlin to fetch a second load. We brought a family with two children to Germany – but it was ironic, the family were refugees from Afghanistan. They had settled in Kyiv three years ago. Now they had to go on to Hamburg, to live with some relatives of the wife.
What are the conditions like?
It is very, very cold. The temperature is around zero and there are no special premises, no heating, no showers, just some rooms with bare mattresses laid out at a small railway station. You can’t sleep there. It is impossible to stay long. The refugees from Ukraine leave within 24 hours. Then there are free German and Polish trains west. The only ticket they need is their Ukrainian passport.
What is the emotional state of the people making it over the border?
It varies. I mostly try to help women who are travelling with children. They might be in deep shock, frantic and confused. Emotionally they are still on the run. Their talk 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 a lift to Germany, a place to stay. Basically to solve all her urgent problems. That made her suspicious, she was almost frightened by the offer. I had to back off and stopped insisting.
What is needed at the border?
Food and medicine come regularly in trucks from Poland, from Germany. Once I heard Hebrew and saw two Israelis standing frozen, not knowing where to go. These were religious Israelis. One of Ethiopian origin, one from Manchester. They delivered kosher food from Poznan. But a constant stream of aid is needed, more so on the other side of the border: medicine, petrol, baby food.
What is the reception of these refugees like 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 as like that of Poland in 1939. They understand very clearly what is going on.
Putin’s doctrine wants to throw us back to the beginning of the last century with its dangerous and senseless geopolitical games. This is felt very vividly on the Polish-Ukrainian border. It is so important to get involved.
Are you going back to the border now?
No, right now I am leaving for Lviv. I need to make contacts and logistics to help establish a safe route for the unaccompanied minors. I have been working with kids for so long. It’s rare that parents want to send their children away alone, but it happens. For example, if the mother is a medic and the father is of conscription age, what about the children? Our organisation, Hilfe für Ukraine e.V. has credibility and many years of experience.
When are you leaving?
Pretty much now. A car with a second driver, a young lad from Kharkiv, is already waiting for me. We will swap driving. At the border I will find another lift over the border to Lviv. It’s only 1,000 kilometers.
You also can donate, buy or just enjoy Alan’s and other 20 artists’ art at a fundraising exhibition “Artist support Ukraine”. It runs through until March 20 at Radio Station bar, Seumestraße 2.
MORE ON THIS SUBJECT?