Associated volunteers meet with Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Mark and Robin Neumann in Warsaw
Mark and Robin Neumann in Warsaw (Courtesy of Robin and Mark Neumann)

On a recent mission to Poland to meet with Ukrainian refugees, Robin Neumann, a volunteer with The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, recalled hearing of one woman’s scramble to find shelter for her 15-year-old daughter and dog when the bombs started dropping. Many of the shelters the woman found were already filled up or had been illegally locked up, so she resorted to breaking open the lock of a shelter.

“There was no bathroom; there was no electricity; they stayed there for three days,” Robin Neumann said of the woman’s experience. Her husband Mark added that they resorted to cooking over an open flame.

Robin and Mark Neumann recently went to Poland on a humanitarian mission with The Jewish Federations of North America to observe the ongoing Ukrainian refugee crisis. The mission included around 20 participants; the Neumanns were the only ones from Baltimore. Both are residents of Owings Mills and members of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.

After landing in Warsaw on March 21, the mission traveled first to the city of Lublin and then to Medyka, near the Ukrainian border. The mission returned to the U.S. late on March 23.

Mark Neumann emphasized that the mission “was to bring relief supplies, but was also so we could bear witness, be eyes on the ground, about what’s going on, and be able to come back and tell people what is going on and how the oversees partners of the Associated are responding.”

In Warsaw, Robin Neumann recalled seeing tents set up near the local train station, where refugees could receive food, water and other essentials like baby supplies.

Mark Neumann reported seeing hundreds of refugees during the mission, though he emphasized that it was not in the context of a “tent city.” In Warsaw, for example, the Jewish Agency for Israel, one of The Associated’s overseas partners, had rented a hotel to house incoming refugees, he said. He added that many of these refugees were looking to make aliyah to Israel, and that the Jewish Agency had begun processing their applications.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has also been working to find temporary housing for the refugees, Robin Neumann said.

Ukrainian refugees in the border community of Medyka, Poland.
Ukrainian refugees in the border community of Medyka, Poland (Courtesy of Robin and Mark Neumann)

“At the border, we saw hundreds of refugees who were crossing or had crossed into Poland. Most made the final crossing using shopping carts to carry their limited belongings, and volunteers were helping them push the shopping carts,” Robin Neumann said. “So these people, they’re exclusively women and children and older men, because the men over 18 cannot leave Ukraine and it appears that even younger, the teenage sons, are staying so that they can fight.

“That part was devastating,” Robin Neumann continued, “to hear about how mothers and children left their sons, left their fathers, left their husbands, to bring their children to safety, but meanwhile the men are still there and they’re in danger.”

Robin Neumann recalled how, during her discussion with the woman, the teenage daughter spent most of her time looking down, despondent. “Then someone asked her a question, and she started talking to us about her love of art,” Robin Neumann said. “And she said one of the only things she brought with her were her paints, because they were so important to her. And then, she brightened up, and she said, ‘I want to show you my artwork.’ And she went and got it and showed it to us. That was the only thing that caused her to light up during these incredibly stressful times.”

When asked what the refugees needed most, Mark Neumann said it was their old lives, while acknowledging they may never get those back.

“The problems are multilayered and deep, and going to be long lasting,” Mark Neumann said.

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