The Ukrainian refugee crisis – through the eyes of Slovakia’s volunteers

Helpers at borders speak of powerful encounters with Ukrainians fleeing war.

Martin Michlik volunteered at the border on March 10-12. (Source: Martin Michlik)

After his initial shock at Russia invading neighbouring Ukraine, Peter Gavlák’s thoughts quickly turned to helping the thousands of people fleeing their homeland and coming to Slovakia every day.

He and his wife registered with the #WhoWillHelpUkraine initiative, offering accommodation to refugees, and soon after he teamed up with a friend and organised aid donations, taking what people had given them to a refugee camp in Humenné, a town in eastern Slovakia.

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As the war continued, more opportunities to help came. Among them was a request from Fight For Right, an organisation advocating for the rights of disabled people in Ukraine, to help transport disabled people from Ukraine to Slovakia and other EU countries. He did not hesitate, and together with his friend he immediately bought a van.

“These experiences are really strong – the fact you’re transporting a family so desperate that it gets in a car with strangers and lets them take them to an unknown place with all their property packed into six bags, in the hope of a better life, fills me with sadness but joy too because we can help improve their situation, at least a little bit,” Gavlák told The Slovak Spectator.

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The pair has travelled to Ukraine and back three times already, with one journey taking 24-36 hours. At the start of each trip, they have little information of who or where they are meeting – for security reasons they are only given full details during the journey.

Powerful individual stories

Both Gavlák and his friend are entrepreneurs so they can organise their time to fit in the volunteering they do. Still, he admits these activities often come at the expense of their businesses or families.

Many other volunteers helping Ukrainian refugees say they are making the same sacrifices.

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