Grave concerns for young children of Ukraine 

9 August 2022

Article from July 2022 edition of INPractice

An Adelaide woman bears witness to the atrocities being committed against humanity and how the goodwill of neighbouring countries is being stretched to unsustainable limits.

South Australian Justyna Rosa spent four weeks in April and May volunteering in her former Polish hometown of Krakow, located 200km from the Ukraine border, working to help feed and shelter the tens of thousands of refugees who flooded into the city.

By mid-May an estimated 3.2 million displaced Ukrainian refugees had fled to Poland. Krakow's population swelled by 20 per cent (150,000) little more than a month after the invasion began. 

Ms Rosa - who works in Suicide Prevention with Wellbeing SA - made the journey without her husband and two young children. 

"It was not a decision we made lightly to leave my family behind," she said. 

"I feel it in me to act on my own values and to use my privilege in a way which can assist others. 

"When I asked my nine-year-old son what he thought about me going to Poland to help he said: 'Mummy, go pack your bags and go, you need to help others’. So that was fine, I know my kids are safe and loved".

Ms Rosa's trip was entirely self-funded, and she has launched a GoFundMe site with 100 per cent of the proceeds going directly to support the Ukraine refugees in Poland (she had raised nearly $58,000 as of May 20). 

Her volunteering effort is extremely admirable, but not an isolated example of humanitarian compassion. 

"The community activation here, from Polish people and the international volunteers has been phenomenal," she said via Zoom, adding that some volunteers had even brought their children along to help out including a 13-year-old girl who regaled the Ukrainian refugees with a "beautiful" violin rendition of their national anthem.

“We’ve got a girl from the National Health Service in the UK, she's just joined us today, she'll be doing health checks, and they're (volunteers) just doing it on their annual leave, coming over, doing what they can. We had a hairdresser come over from Spain, she's offering free haircuts."

The grassroots response shines. Local everyday people and volunteers from across the world have built up networks to be agile and responsive. "We've got people from all over the world, the US, Canada, France, Holland, coming together to help as much as they can”. 

Ms Rosa's base was located near the main train station in Krakow where the Ukrainian refugees arrive. From there they get taken to stadiums or to shopping centres which have been converted to shelters. Where possible many are housed by Polish families. 

"In the morning we run a fruit bar, making sure people have access to fresh fruit. Daily we'll spend about $700 on fruit, we supply the fruit to about 1,000 people. Afterwards we would supply essential supplies: toothpaste, toothbrushes. female hygiene products, so when people arrive, they can pick up the basics because a lot of people when they arrive have absolutely nothing.

"Additionally, we send items to the Ukraine, mostly trauma kits, medical supplies and even body bags". 

"Our tents usually feed about 4,500 people a day, let alone all the other stadiums where they deal with hundreds of thousands. 

"Imagine Adelaide Oval having beds everywhere. It's not perfect but it's safe," Ms Rosa said. 

"We have three tents; one tent for clothing, one tent for sleeping, one tent for food. You're in a shelter surrounded by numerous people. The lack of hygiene, you've got everything here from COVID to tuberculosis and other infectious diseases". 

Ms Rosa says the legacy of the war on Ukraine would take generations "at least" for the national psyche to overcome, with the impact of Russia's invasion on the children beyond heart-breaking. 

"What these little brains must be thinking, it's absolutely horrific. People are being butchered next door." she said. 

"Just seeing the little people trying to make sense of what's happening. You've got kids telling you about burning bodies in cars as they are trying to escape". 

Ukrainian refugees arrive with just a small bag and the clothes on their backs. They are required to stand in line for clothes, essentials, food, the pure desperation often makes people try to push in, in hope they don't miss out. This is particularly hard for children and the elderly. 

"Even more challenging for children with disabilities. Children with autism in crowds, they're just frozen, it's horrendous. We do prioritise the more vulnerable, however at times they get lost in the crowds,” Ms Rosa said. 

"You're like in a bubble, a world away from a world. If you can picture there's three million people who crossed the border. I guess what's really concerning is although the UN is here, they are utilising existing resources. There isn't actually an influx of additional resources. Even if it's coordinated by an organisation, they're still relying on volunteers. 

"There's only so many Polish people that can volunteer because, rightfully so, people have got their own jobs and their own lives. Poland has received no additional resources in the form of peacekeeping relief, apart from the goodwill of people, so it's not sustainable.” 

The vast bulk of the refugees are women and children. In a call to arms, most Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 were banned from leaving their homeland and compelled to defend their country. 

"You've got mothers and fathers, wives, siblings that sit here on their phones and watch the war unfold live. Air siren alarms are activated on their phones and as missiles strike over the border, they watch everything happen," Ms Rosa said.

“I sat down for a moment to listen to a man who shared his story, with tears streaming down his face as he spoke of leaving his son behind who was mandated to fight. His eyes were swollen and the deepest shade of blue. I just sat, listened and hugged him as there is nothing else one can do.

“As I listened to him I saw this gorgeous little girl sitting across from me. She was just like any child, the difference is what she has seen and experienced with the horrors of the war. She kept looking over at me and our eyes connected many times. I wondered what was behind those eyes. I gave her a little koala and a hug. I thought of all of our children back in Australia and the opposites of life. 

"What's also happening too is there's an increase in concern in Poland around where this war's going and the possibility of Poland being attacked, especially with additional firearms, munitions, being supplied by the rest of the world, which is clearly aggravating the Russians. 

"There's a lot of unrest. People are coming over fleeing the war, you've got people who are trying to help as much as possible, a war that's into almost a third month (at the time of writing) and now the uncertainty about where this is going to end and if it's going to end". 

Another insidious consequence of the war is the vulnerability of migrating women and children to human traffickers. 

"It's confronting," Ms Rosa said. “I was talking to this woman with three children, she was trying to communicate with a male who was coming to pick her up. She's never met him before. You just wonder, you do hope they' re going to be OK, but you just really don't know where they're going to end up. 

"Ukrainian women have been told not to communicate with people around transitions to other countries unless it's done formally. 

"This is going to be a marathon effort.

"We all have a role to play". 

Ms Rosa works in Suicide Prevention with Wellbeing SA, as the Principal Project Officer Suicide Prevention and Capacity Building overseeing the state's Suicide Prevention Networks, "a community-led approach to suicide prevention, raising awareness, stigma reduction, community-led activities to ensure people know that you don't have to be an expert to have a conversation with somebody in distress”.

Below: Adelaide woman Justyna Rosa handing out supplies to Ukraine refugees. A young Ukrainian refugee shows a message of hope.

Justyna Rosa, a guest speaker at our Annual Professional Conference on August 4, is continuing her fundraising activities on her return to South Australia.

Click here to read the July 2022 edition of INPractice.