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Natalie Massa's Ukrainian refugee cousin Marina and her daughter in Poland
Ukraine crisis

I Helped My Refugee Cousin to Safety in Poland

Ten million Ukrainians have been driven out of their homes by the Russian invasion. Four million have escaped the country, most to Poland. Read our chairwoman's first hand story of hope and inspiration.

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On February 27, three days after the Russians dropped missiles on her local military base in Khmelnitskiy, Ukraine, my Ukrainian cousin, Marina, got a call from her friend Mila. Mila just bought a car and it was downstairs now. Did Marina and her daughter Vika want a ride to Poland leaving in twenty minutes?

Marina thought about money. She didn't have any. Emergency bank cash withdrawal restrictions prevented her from taking more than the few hryvnia in her pocket. She didn't want to leave her life savings and her apartment behind.

Marina asked, how much room was in the car and learned that there was no room for her to bring a suitcase. The compact car with five seats would carry seven passengers, including a newborn baby. The trunk had already been packed with all of Mila's belongings. Marina was sad to leave her cat behind.

Marina told Mila that yes she and Vika would be in the car in twenty minutes.

Marina hung up the phone. Outside it looked like a regular day. You couldn't tell that missiles from the Black Sea and Belarus fly overhead every few hours, triggering deafening sirens on their way to bigger cities. She saw the new car parked downstairs. She knew that Mila had never driven a car before and wondered what's more dangerous, the missiles or Mila?

Marina told her sixteen year old daughter, Vika that they were evacuating now, put on two pairs of clothes and pack your pocket book with jewelry, water and dry sausage. Marina packed her own pocketbook first with two passports.

She packed the key to her apartment in case she ever went back, a photo of her parents with serious faces on their wedding day.

She put on her best two pairs of clothes. She grabbed another pair of jeans and a sweater. She told Vika time to go. Vika wouldn't leave without the cat so they took him in a bag over Vika's shoulder. They met downstairs where Mila was already there waiting with the others in the car. Marina told me that Mila looked at the cat for a long time but didn't say anything as Marina and Vika go in the car. Mila pulled the car slowly out of the housing complex.

Mila only drove thirty kilometers per hour but she was all over the road. Marina had driven a few times before and thought she could do better but was afraid to say anything at a time like this and thanked God that they were in the car and wondered what Poland is like.

It was hot in the car with 7 people and a cat and two pairs of clothes. The baby was crying the whole way and they were all miserable. It did not really matter that Mila was a slow driver because the road to Poland was crowded. The nine hour drive took twenty-one and Marina got her chance at the wheel. Even Vika drove a bit. It was almost fun for a while if you didn't think too much.

Five miles from Poland,the Ukrainian military stopped their car, looked inside, and searched the trunk for men of fighting age, eigteen to sixty years old. The infantry man waved them on. He said the line is about 2 days long but don't worry you will make it.

I had been in daily touch with Marina before she left and called her while she was waiting at the border. She said she might never get through with a crowd so big.

She said every few minutes they saw a new man would pull up with a car full of women and kids, drop them off at the border and then drive back alone. One time she got out of her car to stretch her legs. A compact car pulled up and a man driver, dropped off nine women and turned back.

I told Marina to hold on and she would make it. I promised to find help. I called all my friends trying to find out if they know someone Polish. One friend knew somebody but they were already taking in a Ukrainian family. Then I remembered my friend Agnes from ten years ago is Polish and called her to ask about my cousin. Agnes by the grace of God had distant relatives near the polish border, at exactly the right town no less. I gave my cousin Marina's number to Agnes and Agnes passed it on to her relatives.

I called my cousin Marina back and told her she could look for a call from Agnes's relatives. She was super thankful but worried how she would keep her phone charged for two days at the border and what if it was three days or four.

Agnes’ relatives met my cousin Marina at the border and took her in for a few days--a miracle of kindness. Now Marina and Vika are in Italy, having filed for asylum there. When I called her she cried. She said the Italians are so nice they gave her a small studio to stay in and met her with chocolates and a bouquet.

I couldn't be more grateful to Agnes and her family for helping my cousin and to the people of Poland and Italy for helping all the Ukrainian refugees. They are all so lucky to get out of the Russian cross hairs. I'm still praying for my father who remains back in Ukraine.

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