UTAH (ABC4) — A Utah man recently returned after spending three weeks in Poland helping Ukrainian refugees and is already planning to return later this month.
American Fork’s Bob McGee said when he saw what was happening in Ukraine he felt he had to find a way to help, so he bought himself a plane ticket to Krakow, Poland.
“As I watched the atrocities unfold and the terrible things that were happening in Ukraine, I just had this growing feeling that I had to be able to do something,” McGee said.
With his personal funds, community donations, and medical and dental supplies donated by Intermountain Hospital in Provo and Hill Family Dental in Orem, McGee left for Poland in early April. He originally planned to stay only two weeks, but decided to add another week once he arrived and witnessed the real situation first hand.
“The Ukrainian people have an abominable spirit,” McGee said. “They all want to believe that it will soon be over, that they will be victorious and that they can go home. And in the meantime, they are going through so much hardship and have lost so much.
McGee drove refugees from the Ukrainian border to Krakow, helping with food and shelter along the way until he could help them get to where they needed to go.
The first people he helped were Anya and her family, who had already traveled 900 miles from their home when he first met them at the border. McGee helped them stay in hotel rooms until they were finally sent on a bus to Hungary, where they boarded a second bus to reunite with their families in France.
“For them and for many others we help, it’s the first time in days that they’ve slept in a bed,” McGee said.
Anya had to leave her husband and son in Ukraine to fight in the army. McGee recently received an update from a family member:
“She says it’s fine, but I want to go home, and that’s what they all want to do, they all want to go home, but some of them don’t have a home to go back to.”
McGee also helped Nikolai, who was traveling with his wife who was on crutches, as well as his older sister and 14-year-old nephew. Nikolai’s brother was too young to leave and his wife didn’t want to leave without him, but they asked Nikolai to bring their son.
“I picked them up one night from a refugee center, it was around 10 p.m.,” McGee recalls. “Nikolai really looked like he had lost the will to live. They have been traveling for 17 days from their home in Kharkiv.
They were eventually put on a bus to stay with Nikolai’s brother in Germany.
“You know, a man in his 60s with a wife of the same age who was on crutches and an older sister who could barely walk too, had been traveling for 17 days,” he said. “They spent about 12 in a school basement, sleeping on the floor, waiting to find a way to get to Poland. And it was also a recurring story, of people sleeping in basements, while the outside was bombed and their homes were destroyed.
He also remembers the story of Irina, a 23-year-old woman who was traveling with her mother after their house was destroyed by a bomb while they were away. Her uncle and family members did not have the correct papers with them and were unable to accompany Irina.
“His family was kind of left behind, but they told Irina and her mom, get out while you can,” McGee said.
While waiting at the train station to send Irina and her mother to Austria, McGee asked if Irina needed anything else, and she admitted that the clothes she was wearing were all she had.
“For me, I have nieces, young women I know in the area who are 23 years old, and to think of one of them in a situation where everything she has, she can carry to the times broke my heart,” he said.
McGee was able to buy her new clothes to take with her before leaving on the train.
McGee says he was inspired by seeing what other volunteers were doing, recalling seven volunteers from South America who he says put their lives aside to come and help in any way they could, not knowing how or when they returned home.
“Other people are doing what they can do, and it’s starting to kind of restore your faith in humanity, which can be shattered when you see the terrible things happening to these people in Ukraine,” McGee said.
McGee encourages others to help in any way they can, whether that’s by traveling themselves or donating to credible organizations.