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How to help refugees when you've become one yourself

Refugees fleeing Ukraine receive food from the International Red Cross and other organizations at the Vysne Nemecke border crossing in Slovakia on Sunday.
Christopher Furlong
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Refugees fleeing Ukraine receive food from the International Red Cross and other organizations at the Vysne Nemecke border crossing in Slovakia on Sunday.

Updated March 15, 2022 at 11:09 AM ET

Nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded late last month, and the situation is growing increasingly dire for those who remain in the country.

Many international organizations are turning their focus and support towards the exodus of refugees. But what can the humanitarian aid groups that are based in Ukraine do to help at this time?

Morning Edition's A Martínez posed that question to Sasha Galkin. He's the director of Right to Protection, a Ukrainian refugee assistance organization that was forced to abandon its offices in Kyiv in recent days and has many staff members who are now refugees themselves.

"We've been working, I don't know, 16 hours, 18 hours now a day to restructure what we are doing," he says. "And actually, plus, of course, we are stressed out and having some people still stuck somewhere in the places that are quite unsafe."

Galkin says the organization has worked to help refugees from abroad since 2003 and displaced populations inside of the country since 2014, and calls its current position "an irony of fate."

He said the majority of staff members — about 100 people — have been able to relocate to safer areas. It took some people a week to relocate from eastern regions like Luhansk, while others are still trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol.

Staff members like Galkin are also worried about the well-being of their loved ones.

He described his own experience as having to "split into two parts," and says he's OK to assist other people only now that he knows his own parents are safe. He had to go to their apartment in Kyiv to convince them to leave, and they are now en route to the Netherlands.

Helping ordinary Ukrainians flee to safety is an especially complicated task, both because of the organization's scattered state and because of the considerable infrastructure damage throughout the country.

As Galkin describes it, the organization collects information on how people can reach safer locations and disseminates it through their social media and hotline. People have questions about things like how to actually leave an area, and what to expect if they cross the border to a country like Poland.

Staffers collect answers from both sides — Poland and Ukraine, in this example — to provide people with "full-fledged information," Galkin says. But they may not be able to do much more than that.

"And of course, [there are] those who want to escape," he adds. "Sometimes we can do nothing. This is devastating, because we cannot help all people."

What do Ukrainians need most at this moment?

Galkin points to three basics: peace, rest and humanitarian corridors to allow people to escape from the most dangerous areas, like Mariupol.

While freedom of movement is essential to getting vulnerable civilians out, he says, there should also be consideration for the people in western Ukraine and elsewhere who are receiving them.

"People are so generous, but also ... their coping mechanism[s] also are able to be exhausted," he says.

The audio version of this story was edited by Mohamad ElBardicy.


The digital version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.