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Aid group assists refugees with basic needs at Polish-Ukraine border

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to talk about what is likely to be one of the many heartbreaking results of the war in Ukraine, the likely needs of the millions of people who had to leave their homes on short notice. A majority of the refugees are women and children, as most adult men have been required to stay behind to defend the country. Project HOPE has been providing mental health services to refugees on the Polish-Ukrainian border. Chris Skopec is the executive vice president. He recently returned from the Polish border, and he's with us now to tell us more. Chris Skopec, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

CHRIS SKOPEC: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a little bit about your time on the Polish-Ukrainian border? Where were you operating? And just tell us about some of the things that you saw. What were some of the immediate needs of the people that you and your team received?

SKOPEC: Well, I was in a number of different locations along the border. There's multiple border crossings between Poland and Ukraine. I spent a few days in Lviv in a western part of Ukraine and otherwise was in a city called Rzeszow in Poland. And really, what we're seeing is just a massive, massive influx of refugees coming across the border. And as you noted, most of them are coming without men. Certainly, Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 are not being allowed to leave the country. So you're seeing families that are trying to carry their lives' possessions in suitcases with children in tow, sometimes elderly in tow. The travel to the border is arduous. It's a massive, massive outmigration. So the - it's many days in a car, in a bus, sometimes by train, in parts by foot, trying to get across the border. And then it's been a really long wait at the border. But in those cold conditions, it's very trying.

MARTIN: Now, your organization has been operating for - what? - some 60 years now. And you've offered a variety of services in that time - I mean, different kinds of health services. What can you actually do in this situation to help people when, you know, as you're saying, the trip is arduous? It's cold. Oftentimes, people don't have time to pack enough food. There's no way to get enough food or water, and then they're not staying at the border very long. I mean, the idea is to quickly kind of move people into other places. So what can you realistically do to support people in that situation?

SKOPEC: Well, it does present an interesting challenge, just how quickly this population is on the move. They're moving by choice to different cities and throughout those cities and to different countries across the continent, and we really don't have good visibility into where they're moving. But one of the things I try to inform people about is it's not like other refugee settings where there is a large concentration of refugees in a specific location or in tent camps. Sometimes you might have that image. That's not what's happening here.

So our interactions with the Ukrainian refugees are brief. Sometimes they're staying over for a couple days in a shelter before moving on. But our point of interaction really has to be focused on their immediate needs, helping them understand where they can go for resources, how to get shelter, how to get access to health care, how to get access to food and clean drinking water and just basic services.

And this is really what they need at this point in time. The level of anxiety and stress that they've been under, the traumatic experiences that they've gone through just to get there - it's a scary time in their lives. And they really - none of them had planned for this. None of them had any plans for how to respond to this. So they're trying to figure out these solutions even as they are dealing with the separation of their family and the loss of their homes and all of their possessions, really.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that people are likely to be experiencing? And I'm thinking about the fact that people had to break up their families in a short period of time. I mean, you know, they were making difficult decisions. Do I stay? Do I go? Could you just talk a little bit about what people will be experiencing who have been through this?

SKOPEC: Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, worry about what's next. I - you know, every point of interaction I had with the Ukrainians, whether it was at the train station where they're looking for where their next destination's going to be, whether it was in line with them at the border or at the reception points at the border - you're listening to these almost surreal conversations between themselves and, in some cases, with me, thinking about where they're going to go and no clue of how they're going to get there or what is going to be there waiting for them - talking about, well, this man is offering me a ride to Germany, but this bus here is going to Norway. Should we go here? Should we go there?

They're making these really critical life decisions on behalf of their families and their children with no knowledge, no information as to what lies ahead and no idea what options may be out there for them. So our job really is to help them understand where they're at, help them ensure that if they are in a place of security, that they do have access to the immediate needs that their family has and help them understand what options may be out there for them and guide them through that.

MARTIN: There are people who have passed through some of these places who are not from Ukraine, who are still experiencing the consequences of earlier conflicts. So if you are listening to this conversation and you happen to be in community with somebody who has experienced this, what do you recommend?

SKOPEC: Well, people - there's a huge number of people that have been offering rides, have been offering transportation, have been offering their homes for people to live in. What is really critical is that they do so through formal mechanisms - registering with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, working with the local governments in the host countries - because we really do worry tremendously about the protection issues of this population and the ability to exploit what is a highly vulnerable population. We're extremely concerned about the potential for trafficking and other exploitative measures. And so working within the context of the existing, you know, infrastructure and the authorities that provide guidance and support and protection for this population, anybody ready to step up and help should do so through those mechanisms.

MARTIN: That's Chris Skopec, the executive vice president of Project HOPE, which serves mental health and other needs for Ukrainian refugees in Poland and elsewhere around the world. It has to be said. Chris Skopec, thanks so much for joining us.

SKOPEC: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.