NJ Teen Spends Month Near War Zone Documenting ‘Cost of War’ for Ukrainian Refugees


When Peter Ren saw reports of the devastation causing families to flee war in Ukraine, he knew he had to do something.

But how could he help? What could he bring at 17? He asked.

After some thought, the high school filmmaker decided he could go to Poland, make a documentary and share it for everyone to see. So in March, that’s what he did.

Ren asked his parents and his school to accept his trip, withdrew money from his savings and borrowed some from his mother and father to cover the 5,000 airfare, hotel and of food for the month-long trip.

Then he packed his bags, headed to JFK airport, and made the 10-hour flight alone to Rzeszow, Poland, where he created an hour-long documentary, The cost of war.

“Documentary films have a huge effect in raising awareness for so many people around the world,” said Ren, from Millburn. I wanted to “capture the rawest, most honest portrayal of what’s happening in Poland and make sure viewers feel it.”

Ren says his “nerves started pounding the first few days of his stay in Poland. I had to adapt to a completely new environment,” he recalls.

“I heard bombs exploding one night when rockets hit LVIV, the Ukrainian town closest to the Polish border,” he added. “There was a large influx of refugees that night and the next morning.”

Russia invaded Ukraine in February under the false pretense of liberating the country from the Nazis. The war has taken the lives of countless citizens and soldiers. According to The United Nations, as of July 12, more than 9 million people had fled Ukraine to neighboring countries such as Russia, Romania and Hungary. Another five million people have been displaced inside Ukraine.

Ren’s film, which will screen at the Chicago Indie Film Festival, takes viewers on a journey from Przemysl to Medyka, where he documents the stories of those who escaped the war in Ukraine and interviews volunteers around the world. who traveled to Poland to help with relief efforts.

One of the most chilling conversations was with a Ukrainian refugee teenager named Julia Korol. She and her mother had traveled from their home in Chernihiv to Lviv.

“I was terrified,” said Korol, who traveled from Lviv to Przemysl. “I couldn’t stop crying because I was worried about when this would all end and if I would be alive at the end.”

Victor Herlinsky, a Ukrainian-American lawyer, viewed Ren’s film and said it “tells the inspiring story of the Ukrainian people fighting for their daily freedoms in a disrupted world.”

Ren says he shared the documentary with his family, friends and those who helped create the project. He hopes people will see it and donate to relief efforts for Ukrainian refugees.

Before traveling to Poland, Ren, an only child, said, “I asked my parents if they would agree to me going to the Polish-Ukrainian border to create a documentary film. They thought it was a good idea for me to use my skills to help deal with one of the many crises in the world, but they were also a little nervous about the trip.

His parents, Wei Zhang and Wao Ren, said they were really proud that he was able to complete his journey with minimal help, even though the war was on, and that he spread the word about what was happening. was going on with the refugees in Poland.

Ren left Millburn High at the start of his freshman year due to COVID-related issues and switched to virtual learning at Acellus Academy. He said the school administrators there had agreed to his trip – on the understanding that he had completed his schoolwork ahead of time to make up for missed time at school.

In September, Ren begins his senior year at Millburn High School and plans to find a college that focuses on filmmaking or international relations.

Millburn manager William Miron is delighted with the documentary and the impact it can have.

“I am beyond proud of the work done by Peter,” said Miron. “He’s such a disciplined student and I’m very impressed with what he’s achieved so far in making this documentary.

Harvard sociology professor Daniel Mandic was doing research in Ukraine during Ren’s visit to Poland and sat down for an interview for the project.

Mandic said he met Ukrainians who were hiding in Ukraine. They had been living there for a month and a half, he said, and ate, slept and defecated in the train stations to escape the shelling.

“Through Ren’s documentary and similar documentaries, we want to give people a window into something they physically can’t see with their own eyes,” Mandic said. “Imagine what it’s like to feel the ground shaking under Russian artillery.”

To donate to Ukrainian relief efforts, go to the websites of the American Red Cross, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF.

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Deion Johnson can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DeionRJohnson.

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