Lakebay resident Siu-May “Sil” Wong-Underwood, 44, returned home March 12 from an 11-day mission to the Polish border with Ukraine to assess needs and provide resources for the nearly 135,000 refugees pouring into Poland each day since Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24.
Wong-Underwood is a volunteer logistics team leader for Empact Northwest, a Kingston-based nonprofit that provides rescue, support and training to disaster zones around the world.
“We do urban search and rescue, but we also do medical work,” she said. “We were working in the reception centers, where the refugees come once they get through the border into Poland.”
Wong-Underwood was based near Przemyśl, the easternmost rail station in Poland. “When they come through the border, they get bused to these reception centers. When you have 8,000 people in a reception center, that’s huge. There’s always a need for medical work, for passing things out, and just helping with the chaos.”
At press time, the United Nations refugee agency said more than 3.5 million people, including more than 1.5 million children, had left Ukraine in the largest exodus in Europe since World War II.
“It’s not just images you see on TV; these are real lives,” Wong-Underwood said. “I was talking to this elderly couple. They had their little dog with them. You’ll see everyone with their pets. He and his wife were sent to Poland by his son and daughter-in-law. Their daughter-in-law was going to go stay at their farm (to care for the animals) between Lviv and Kyiv while their son goes and fights.”
“These are people I can relate to,” she said. “They have a farm; we have a farm. He said they didn’t know if they were ever going home, or if they were ever going to see their son again, their family again, but his son and daughter-in-law insisted that they come.”
Almost all the people fleeing Ukraine are elderly or are the women and children of separated families, Wong-Underwood said. “Most of the time it’s leaving husbands, fathers, sons. But there are plenty of women who are staying as well, like that elderly couple’s daughter-in-law.”
The first wave to cross the border were mostly people with means or who left Ukraine right away, she said. “But now we’re starting to see refugees directly from the war zones, where their towns and homes are being bombed. We’re starting to see more of the injured and everyone is anticipating that will be only more so in the days, weeks, months to come.”
The U.N. has worked very hard with the Polish government to make it a smoother process, she said. “Every day we had briefings with the border guards about how the crossings were going and so that we could do our own operations, go back and forth across the border providing aid and medical services to the towns on the Ukraine side. They were fantastic to work with.”
Another Empact team went to the region in mid-March, and Wong-Underwood said she would likely return every month, rotating with other leaders of the organization for at least six months.
Back at home, Wong-Underwood works as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines and is married to a Key Peninsula firefighter. They have a 10-year-old son who attends Evergreen Elementary School.
“I get a lot of support from my supervisors; they are as helpful as they can be, but it’s really my amazing co-workers who are very gracious to pick-up my flights so that I’m able to go,” she said.
Her family supports her too, but also misses her.
“Explaining to my son why I’m going, I say that there are boys and girls out there and I’ve seen them, I’ve talked to them, I’ve handed out candy to them; that they are having to say goodbye to their dads and may not see them again; they’re having to say goodbye to their homes and might not ever get the chance to go home. I say by him allowing me to go, it’s him helping them. We talk about how our family are good people-helpers and we make sure that all of us are able to give in one way or another.”
For more information, go to empactnorthwest.org.
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