Vancouver man helps refugees flee war zone with van in Poland


From a tech board room in Vancouver to driving a van for people fleeing a war zone.

Most Weeks Peter Lukomskyj is a Vancouver-based technology executive who works in the field of transportation.

Right now, he still works in transportation, but he’s in a very different place than an office building in Vancouver. On Saturday, March 26, he and his uncle, Lee Kryvitsky, landed in Poland, with the intention of helping refugees from Ukraine upon their arrival at the border of the two countries. It was a journey inspired by the help offered to by Lukomskyj father by unknown persons, including a Cossack, almost 80 years ago.

Then they rented a van (and organize a fundraiser).

The scene at the border

“So what’s happening here is that people fleeing Ukraine will come to the border and line up trying to get through to Poland,” he explains. “They know Poland is in the EU, they know Poland is protected by NATO.”

Lukomskyj and Kryvitsky help those crossing the border to get to Krakow, Poland’s second largest city and an important hub for those fleeing war. Every day they make the trip, which he describes as similar to the trip from Vancouver to Seattle. From there, transportation is much easier, with planes, trains and more.

“They have been leaking for days sometimes,” he explains. “You know, we’ve met people whose homes have now been completely destroyed. We’ve met so many mothers with children who have left their husbands behind because husbands stay to defend the country.”

At the border, there is a processing space that enters Poland and the EU, which allows free passage between member countries. Lukomskyj describes it as a huge big-box store-like building filled with a variety of services and supplies.

“They can probably take the first deep breath and decelerate from that fight or flight they’ve had, for sometimes weeks,” he explains. “Psychologically it’s often difficult even for them to do that. They just feel like they have to keep running.”

It’s there that Lukomskyj and Kryvitsky meet people first; being able to speak Ukrainian helps. Many other volunteers who have come to help in the border area from around the world do not.

“To me, I feel like that’s a superpower for me, because I feel like not only maybe I have a comforting voice, but I’m also someone who knows how to what the next steps look like,” he explains.

Although buses are on hand to help transport people back and forth, they are not enough to meet the demand, and that is where Lukomskyj and his uncle come in, much like how the strangers helped by Lukomskyj dad.

Returning the favor 80 years later

Much of the reason Lukomskyj and Kryvitsky made the trip is their Ukrainian heritage, but there’s a more specific reason than having four Ukrainian grandparents.

by Lukomskyj father was himself a refugee from Ukraine at one time.

“He, my grandparents and my aunt fled,” he explains. “My father was 10 at the time, and my aunt was seven at the time. They left Ukraine in 1945 as refugees fleeing a conflict, and at that time the conflict was between the Russians and Germans.”

The young family decided to flee to the west. In his memoirs by Lukomskyj The father wrote of the perilous journey, including machine gun fire at night and bombs falling within yards of the family as they walked down the road.

Lukomskyj read these memoirs and when war broke out again in Ukraine, he was inspired by them. A common theme in his father’s stories was help from strangers.

“The story that really impressed me was that there was a horse-drawn wagon that someone was driving and the person just picked up the two kids and put them in the back of the wagon. . My dad said ‘I fell asleep instantly because I was about to die of exhaustion'” by Lukomskyj said.

The parents walked behind while the children slept. months later by Lukomskyj father asked his mother about the man.

“She said, ‘You know, he was a Cossack,’ he’s a very strong type of Ukrainian horseman who is very proud to be Ukrainian,” explains Lukomskyj. “He said, ‘Why did they take us?’ And she said, “You know, when that Cossack saw you, that was the only thing he could do, just pick you up and take you away. And I read that and when I read those stories, it was very, very emotional.”

Ultimately, by Lukomskyj father arrived in Canada, where he married by Lukomskyj mother, a Canadian-born woman of Ukrainian parents. It was his mother’s brother who joined Lukomskyj Poland.

“I don’t have a horse or a wagon, but I can rent a nine-passenger van. And if I can help someone through some really critical stages of the journey, I feel like I’m giving back and giving back. favor it.”

Refugee stories

During the week they were there, the two helped dozens of people: by driving them out of the border town of Przemysl at Krakow station, talk to them when they arrive at the border, give them suitcases.

During these moments Lukomskyj heard many heartbreaking stories.

“I wake up five times a day,” he says. “We drove a woman to the station yesterday and she was very stoic and kind of very quiet. Once we gave her the ticket she absolutely lost it in tears.

“And I said, ‘What happened? And she said, ‘Overnight, my apartment at home was bombed and my mother was killed.’ And she had just held on just to get to the station, and then she completely broke down because her mother died that night.”

In the story of another refugee, Lukomskyj saw the reflection of his own family.

“We had a mother, she had, I guess, kind of an eight-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son and for me it was very close to home because my dad was 10 and my aunt was seven. à It was like watching my grandmother,” he explains.

They had arrived from Mariupol, where the fighting was brutal. The mother said they sheltered for days, even weeks, and waited for the shelling to stop long enough to flee.

“It was basically my dad’s story of being bombed on one side, being bombed on the other and not knowing if you’re ever going to make it,” Lukomskyj said.

Not everyone’s story is a heartbreaking one, however. On Wednesday, they helped a young woman in her twenties who was trying to keep a positive attitude.

“She understood the visa application process for one of the visas that Canada now offers. And she said, ‘You know, I know where I’m going. I’m taking a train to Krakow tomorrow, I’m going to The Hague in the Netherlands. And I’ll get my biometrics made for Canadian visa,'” Lukomskyj said.

She promised to find Lukomskyj once she arrived in Canada and went for coffee. At the same time, she was leaving behind her husband, whom she had just married two weeks ago, so that once the war was over, it would be easier for her to join her in Canada.

The value of a suitcase

Every morning, the couple arrives from Krakow with 26 suitcases – that’s the number of suitcases that fit in the van.

“We have found [that] these people cross the border with everything they have in mostly plastic bags that rip at the seams and burrow into their hands; they hold them for hours and hours,” he says. “Just having the dignity of a suitcase rather than a plastic bag with all your stuff is a huge psychological lift.”

It’s more than just a utility, Lukomskyj points out. It makes a difference to their self-image and worth, he explains, transforming them from someone so desperate to flee a war zone that they only had time to grab bags and what who was close at hand into a traveler unlike anyone else at the station.

“And so they change the dynamic of how the world sees certain events, going from a ragged homeless person to someone with a nice brand new suitcase and that little bit of dignity is something that we are really happy to provide,” he explains.

With hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees constantly crossing the border – an estimated 2.3 million people have sought refuge in Poland since the start of the war – the need is constant.

“They’ve been gone for 15 minutes, and people in tears come up to us and say, ‘Can we buy one?’ and when we give it to them, they just don’t believe us,” he says.

“As horrible as their life has been, they don’t want to impose on people,” he adds. “And so when you give them a suitcase, they burst into tears.”

Help when possible

The couple soon return home. They return to Canada on Saturday April 2 and Lukomskyj returns to the Vancouver office on Monday morning. But that doesn’t mean their efforts are over.

It is launched a fundraiser to support the UN refugee agency, UNHCR; so far he has raised over $8,000 and he hopes others will be encouraged to donate or find their own way to help see his story. He chose them after seeing their work first-hand in Poland, describing them as the most effective group there.

“Feel free to step up and follow through on this crazy idea that you need to help,” he says. “For me, it was flying to Europe and doing that.”

“Anything anyone can do to help, use your own superpower to try to develop a way to sustain this disaster,” he adds.

It’s these acts of kindness from strangers that can really resonate with people for years or even decades later.

“Try to help at some point, just like the Cossack who picked up my father and my sister and drove them for, you know, maybe 10 kilometers”, Lukomskyj urge. “We’re just offering a stage on this journey and hopefully giving them a sense of welcome, a sense of confidence that there’s something better here.”

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