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Day 4: Traveling Into Ukraine

Luksaz opened the van door so we could all see how much he and a team of packers had fit inside. It looked like young children had haphazardly stuffed the van with no regard to order. Things of all sizes were packed next to unrelated things of all sizes.

No doubt this is the only way to get everything into the van.

I could make out cases of milk, cases of canned goods, computers, rehab equipment for soldiers, refrigerators, washing machines, water tanks, chocolate bars and so much more.

Fitting this much stuff into the van defeated the laws of physics: I was surprised it didn't all come tumbling out when he opened the door.

Luksaz pointed to a pile of stuff on the ground: boxes and packages of mail, more supplies, dog food, cat food and more. He said it all needed to fit into the van.

The author stands in front of a very packed van.
I dub this van FULL.

As far as I could tell, the only thing we could add to that van was—air, and even that would barely fit.

I let the masterminds step forward to figure it out.

We were taking 3 vehicles into Ukraine packed with humanitarian supplies for orphans, refugees, displaced children, abused women, people living close to the front lines of the war, soldiers and pets.

Three people look at a pile of supplies sitting on the ground.
Andrew, Luksaz and Rosie try to figure out how to add more supplies to the already full van. Yes, all of those boxes needed to be added.

Figuring out the logistics of having one or two drivers per vehicle and then 6 more aid workers was like one of those unsolvable math problems from long ago:

“If two trains are speeding towards each other in opposite directions, which one is most likely to serve chicken? Remember to show your work.”

I was mostly sure that the pile of things on the ground would not be coming with us.

Rosie, Greg and I squeezed into the back seat of Luksaz’s 2007 Toyota Avensis. Our feet rested on giant bags of dogfood. Next to our feet we fit our backpacks. Large boxes with Ukrainian addresses were placed on our laps.

We all smiled and said it would be no problem for the four hour—plus border crossing—trip. After all, we were there to help. And getting supplies into the country was an important first step in offering aid.

Luksaz looks on as the drivers try to reorganize the van.

The packers kept puzzling the supplies. In the end the dogfood and boxes fit somewhere else, and we squeezed our backpacks between our feet.

No problem at all.

I crossed my fingers that they wouldn't make us unpack the van at the border.


Humanitarian Aid Workers on this trip:

The guide on this 4-day trip was Luksaz, a man who got involved in humanitarian aid after Izium was liberated; he worried that the people living there had zero electricity.

So he did something.

Last fall he started a candle collection program where he got Krakow, the communities surrounding Krakow and even school children to donate candles. He collected over 50,000 candles, hired drivers and vans and delivered them to the people who were Ukrainians once again.

He has since made over 40 trips into all parts of Ukraine to deliver more aid. He works with a group of about 80 volunteers who insist on helping the people of Ukraine by sharing contact information, supplies and helping to fundraise for each other’s trips.

Luksaz lives in Krakow with his two teenage children and works in government. He has over 100 contacts he had made in Ukraine so when one of our vehicles got a flat tire in a parking lot on this trip, he called connection after connection to get it fixed; the rest of us didn’t know the tire needed air until hours after it had been fixed.


Besides Luksaz and I, three more people were on this trip.

Rosie is a woman from South Africa who moved to Poland with her partner so he could be closer to his job. She spent her down time on the trip answering questions about her country and telling stories about growing up amidst intense corruption, how to tell if an elephant is angry (he wiggles his ears) and my favorite story I ever heard from a new friend:

She was chased at gunpoint for trying to expose seal clubbing in Namibia, Africa and she and the rest of her group escaped by turning off their headlights and driving with night vision goggles into the desert and hiding behind a sand dune for hours.


Andrew lives in South Carolina, USA with his wife and two children and has been to Ukraine several times before and talked about Crimea before the invasion, his trip into Ukraine with Luksaz last year, his travels to South Africa to work at a lodge when he was younger, traveling with his family through Europe and running a large landscaping company in Charleston. He ignored the slipped disk in his back and was always the first one to lift heavy materials, buy another round of coffee and help figure out logistics.


Greg: (Name changed at his request) is an artist from the USA who lives with his girlfriend and her daughter in Krakow. His drawings and paintings have been collected in museums around the world. He kept us laughing at his jokes, informed us with information about the places we visited – this man does his homework and entertained us with stories about his earlier military career. His journals are also collected in museums.


Oksana is a woman from Ukraine and lives in Poland with her husband and spends a lot of time with her adult children and young grandchildren, but appears to be twenty-five years younger than I am.


This woman speaks both Ukrainian and Polish. She was our essential link to the Ukrainian culture and language. She befriended strangers, then told us their stories.

She translated the stories and information into Polish and then Luksaz translated them into English. (Luksaz can understand most of what people say to him in Ukrainian and they can understand his Polish in the same way, but for precise information we needed Oksana’s help)

Talk about lost in translation.

Oksana and her friends wanted to help the soldiers, so they taught themselves how to sew everything from stretchers to ghillie suits that are gifted to the army.


After hours of driving, we made it to the border. We waited. And waited some more. Through some feat of luck, we didn't have to unpack the van.


We continued driving; I was in Ukraine. Many road signs had been covered with black paint, so an invading army might get lost. Sure they would have GPS, but they wouldn't have street signs.

We drove to a warehouse in L’viv where we unpacked the van into piles on the ground. This pile is for soldiers. This pile is for children. This pile is for pets. This pile is going east.

We rearranged piles, packed things into vans, rearranged them, moved them to a different van, then moved them some more.

I kept thinking that this would be the last time I moved a case of milk, but milk is such a commodity here that we kept evening out the cases. At one point I said to Rosie, that I was happy to move things as long as I didn't have to move the milk, again.

She whispered back, "Looks like we have to move the milk again."


Then the six of us got into a van with a Ukrainian driver from L'viv and were on our way.

L'viv is far from the front lines and has suffered less than ten attacks since the start of the war. At first my eyes watched the skies, ready to report incoming artillery. But after a while, I was able to focus on the city.

Signs with Ukrainian lettering including upside down Ms and backwards Rs. It must be tough to teach children how to read with this alphabet. The city appeared to be modern with old trams. People walked. Children rode bikes. Restaurants were open. Cafes were populated with people sipping coffee.

All of the monuments were covered and protected with metal cases to help save them from attacks. Churches looked closed since all of the windows were boarded up, again to save them from attacks, but services continued.

It felt almost peaceful in L'viv. I wished I had a few hours to explore the city, but there wasn't time. We had supplies to deliver.


Humanitarian Aid Stop #1: Orphanage

A group of children in an orphanage meet aid workers.
Our group from left: Greg, Luksaz, Holly Winter Huppert -- the author, Oksana, Andrew, Rosie

The six of us arrived at the orphanage and stacked our gifts, treats and supplies along the front hall. We were invited into a room with about twenty children of different ages.

I looked around and wondered for the first time in my life if I might adopt a child.

Here were twenty children who no longer had anyone to love them. Where would they live? War was hard on all children, but to think that these children had to deal with the pressures of their crumbling country without any family love made my heart sad.

The children watched us suspiciously; they weren’t used to meeting strangers at the center.

I sat on a small chair and said “Hello” to the group. Two boys yelled, “Hello” back to me.

I nodded eagerly, encouraging them to practice any more words they knew, but the attention was too much for them; they backed away.

I put a half smile on my face, so I might appear to be friendly. The children were from 6-months-old to sixteen-years-old. Several of the teenagers scowled and I knew enough about kids to know that they were scowling at the world, not at us.

A girl in a pink dress who may have been four-years-old approached me. I knew she could only understand the tone of my voice, but that was all I had. “So glad to meet you. This looks like a fun place.”

The girl moved closer.

I smiled. “I live in a fun place, too, but it’s far away. Do you like to sing or dance?”

The girl smiled up at me and said something. A question?

I pointed to my mouth. “I only can say these words and can’t understand your words. But we can still be friends.”

She pulled me into a long hug and nestled her head against my shoulder.

I wrapped my arm around her back and said, “Happy to hug, my friend.”

I turned towards the woman in charge to be sure it was okay to hug a child. She smiled and nodded her permission.

I wondered what the girl’s story was. Where were her parents? Why wasn’t there someone else in her family who could take her in? Was she displaced due to the war? Was L’viv her home city, or was she moved here from around the country, as many of the children in this center were.

I patted the girl’s head and said, “I like your pink dress. Have you always been a fan of pink?”

I wish there was a ball I could throw to her or a doll I could hand to her, or something. But this room had only a few tables and chairs: no toys, no art supplies.

The woman in charge gathered us all together and took a few photos. Kids threw piece signs, the significance of which was not lost on me, wrapped arms around us and smiled their biggest smiles. Even the teens lightened up for the photos.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

Luksaz spoke in Polish and told the children that we had some treats for them.

The children followed him to the hallway.

I handed out candy bars to children who were so surprised to get an entire bar of chocolate that they froze, waiting for permission to accept this gift. The girl in the pink dress held her prize close to her body.

We handed out tiny lollypops and enormous Danishes. We stacked the supplies—including several cases of chocolate milk, diapers in various sizes and food in a back room.

I know. We were sugaring them up late in the day when most children need to slow down,

but these gifts were so uncommon for the children that the staff thanked us and said that it was unusual for anyone to care about unwanted children.

The girl with the pink dress approached Rosie and gave her one of her tiny pink lollypops.

Rosie leaned down. “Are you sure? You want me to have this.” She handed it back to the girl.

The girl took the lollypop out of Rosie’s hand and then handed it to her again, this time pushing her hand towards Rosie’s mouth.

Rosie hid the tears in her eyes as she hugged the girl, then turned to me and said, “She just gave me half of her candy. Half.”

No, I didn't adopt a child, but the memory of these children would travel with all of us as we continued our trip.


Humanitarian Aid Stop #2: Woman’s Shelter

We were greeted outside the shelter by the woman in charge. She said that the building was planned, approved and built right after the war started. The need for helping women was so great that the building was built in three months.

Three months.

I guess that good impossibilities happen during war times, also.

She led us into the kitchen where women were cooking with their children. I wasn’t sure if the teens cooking dinners were themselves mothers with young children or if the teens were helping their own mothers cook dinner.

As to not disturb them, we handed out large bags of supplies for the mothers and gift bags that Oksana and her friends put together for the children.

The children held their bags in their hands, waiting for permission to open them.

Oksana turned to a girl next to her and said something in Ukrainian. Children around her peeked inside their giftbags.

We heard happy exclamations from around the kitchen.

We wanted to stay but had a train to catch.

The woman in charge thanked us again and again for caring and then wished us luck in Zaporizhzhia and Donietck regions which were both close to the front lines.


The train station in L'viv.
The train station in L'viv.

We had just enough time to get to the train station and grab a snack at the snack bar on the platform. The rest of the group bought piles of small doughy treats, some had meat inside and some had potatoes.

I am celiac and must eat a gluten-free diet or suffer feeling sick. Luckily, I packed a few snacks.

We got onto the train. Luksaz and the guys had one compartment with four beds, Rosie and I would share a compartment with two, unfriendly Ukrainian woman who ignored us for most of the trip. Oksana had a bed in another compartment.

It had been years since I slept in a sleeper car on a train on a top bunk in a country where I did not speak the language.

I asked Rosie how I was supposed to climb up onto the top bunk when it was the level of my chin.

She stopped and considered the situation. “I don’t rightly know.”

I nodded. Years ago the trains I traveled on had little ladders. I didn’t see a ladder.

Neither did Rosie.

The Ukrainian woman with the long hair stood up with an annoyed sigh, walked to the end of my bed and released a small ladder from the wall. The ladder had three narrow steps on it.

Rosie and I laughed and thanked her.

She turned her back to us and returned to her seat without responding in any way.

I released Rosie’s ladder and we laughed again.

It was a good thing that Rosie didn’t know me well enough to film me climbing onto that bunk, shifting my luggage onto a ledge near the foot of the bed, and then making the bed.

Yes, I might have made the bed while standing on the floor, but now that I was all the way up there, I tried to move forward. Have you ever tried to make a bed while you’re sitting on it?

Go and try it.

Now try it while riding on a train that’s rocking in every which direction like some kind of balancing trick.

#harder than it sounds.

There were two bundles for me to make my bed. One was a large mat that unrolled to the length of the bunk, the second was bag that held sheets and a pillowcase.

I unrolled the mat—without falling off the bed and tucked the first sheet under it. I put the pillowcase onto the pillow.

They ought to give out awards to people who put a pillowcase onto a pillow while riding on a speeding train.

People sit squeezed into a compartment on a train.
People from left to right: Luksaz, Rosie, Andrew, Greg, Oksana, Holly Winter Huppert -- the author.

After joining Rosie and the guys in the other compartment while they ate their dinners and I slowly nibbled a gluten-free beef stick, I decided it was time for bed.

I returned to our compartment to find that my pillow no longer had a cover. The two women on the bottom bunks were either sleeping or pretending to sleep.

Which one stole my pillowcase?

How do you alert authorities in Ukraine that someone has stolen your pillowcase?


I stole Rosie’s pillowcase and stretched out on the bed. Not bad. I could sleep here.

I wondered if the Russians ever attacked passenger trains. I thought about every train wreck I had heard about in recent years. I wondered about sleeping in a moving vehicle without a seatbelt. I wondered how safe we would be as we traveled closer to the front lines.

When Rosie popped in, I sent her to grab the extra pillowcase in the guy’s compartment. Then we giggled quietly as she tried to figure out how to close and lock the door. If there were a secret way of doing it, the directions were not written in English.

She finally figured it out and then made the same mistake I made and climbed up onto her bunk to make the bed.

We giggled for a while, then turned out the light.

When I closed my eyes, I couldn’t fall sleep. My body thought that it was only four o’clock in the afternoon: oh, jet lag, you dog.

So I decided to take a short nap and then slept hard the rest of the night.




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