Tales from the Front Line – VCU News


This spring, Frank Pichel became a local news item when he traveled to Poland to help Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion.

But it wasn’t the first time that Pichel, who teaches motion graphics in the Department of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, has headed into a war zone as others fled.

The first time was in 1999, at the very end of the Kosovo war. But at the time, he did not leave with the intention of helping displaced people.

“[It’s] a weird thing to say about a war, but I just felt like there were probably some really elegant images that could be made of that destruction that would tell a story about that war,” Pichel said. “And so, I decided over spring break that I was going to go see what happened in that war and I took a lot of cameras to hopefully make some really nice big format pictures. .”

While he managed to capture photos of the devastation, it was secondary to the life-changing connections he said he made with refugees while touring the war landscape.

“My mission has completely changed,” he said. The refugees “wanted to immigrate to the United States and they wanted to return to Kosovo [from Macedonia] say goodbye to their families before immigrating. … I basically drove these refugees back to visit their families one more time before leaving the country forever.

Volunteers distribute supplies, including food and clothing, at the Warsaw train station. (Frank Pichel)

When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Pichel felt a familiar pull. Only this time it wasn’t about capturing the perfect image, but about helping people – in this case Ukrainians – who had lost their homes.

During spring break, he flew to Poland and rented a car. He didn’t know how he was going to help, but he knew he would find out when he hit the ground. He realized fairly quickly that the refugees did not need food, clothing or even medical supplies thanks to the work of humanitarian organizations.

However, Pichel saw a need for transportation for refugees whose destinations were not on a public transit line.

“I realized once there that I could offer people rides,” he said. “I just started driving people.”

On the first day, he took people on short trips from the Warsaw train station to the local houses where people had offered to put them up. On the second day, he decided to go to the Ukrainian border from where people had a lot further to go. Daily trips took about five hours.

Pichel learned a lot during these trips. Here are some of his observations:

Stoicism as the world crumbles

Pichel was unsure whether this was a typically Ukrainian trait or an effect of circumstances, but he was surprised at how unemotional the Ukrainians he met were.

“Everyone was very calm and all the children behaved very well,” he said. “Nobody had any emotional outbursts, which is pretty remarkable to me, but they were all very grateful for everything everyone was doing for them.”

Language was not a barrier

A paper with Ukrainian and Polish writing on it.
Pichel consulted Google Translate to make this sign in Ukrainian and Polish reading that he could take three people and their pets anywhere in Poland. (Frank Pichel)

Communicating with the refugees was not a problem. Pichel looked to Google Translate to sign in Ukrainian and Polish that he could take three people and their pets anywhere in Poland (his car rental contract did not extend to other countries).

“Usually Poles or other international aid workers would see my sign, and they would already know that people need transport,” he said. “They would connect me with these refugees and then we would jump in the car and go where they wanted to go.”

Social rank still exists

Pichel said his first passengers had friends in Poland they could stay with or some other kind of plan and the means to execute it. As the week progressed, people arrived who didn’t have as many resources, if any, which is why it took longer for them to reach the border. They “didn’t have a plan. They just knew they had to get out. I’m sure it got worse [since] then.”

The last family Pichel transported were Georgian nationals who had been expelled from their homeland during Putin’s 2008 invasion. They had immigrated to Ukraine to escape Russian forces and were on the run again.

The surprising role of social networks

A friend of Pichel posted his Venmo account on his Facebook page, which ended up raising around $10,000 in donations for the Ukrainians. Another put him in touch with a friend who spoke Georgian, so during the seven-hour drive with his last family, they communicated on WhatsApp.

A child playing near a fire
A child plays at the Hrebenne transfer station. (Frank Pichel)

“I had two phones at the time,” he said. “So they were talking on WhatsApp – and I learned a lot from that conversation – but at the same time I was using Google Maps on my phone to figure out where to go. And then, at the same time, Venmo donations were coming in from all these people in Richmond, so my phone was doing this cash register tone — cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching — as we drove through Poland.

“I was just struck by the technology and how I could never have done this solo trip without all of this technology. Social media can be very damaging to our community and our culture, [but] we can also derive very great benefits from it. »

It was also a stark contrast to his experience in Kosovo, where he had to rely on paper maps and a Serbian/Croatian-English dictionary.

Pichel said he was “grateful” to have the means and resources to help when needed.

“When you feel like you’re doing the right thing morally, it’s really easy,” he said. ” There is no doubt. … When you’re in a situation like that, you feel like there’s the right thing to do and you go into that flow.

people crossing a road
Ukrainians entering Poland at Budomierz. (Frank Pichel)

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