University
Waiting at the Polish-Ukrainian border

Anneke picked up refugees

‘I had to do something’

Waiting at the Polish-Ukrainian border
Twice now Anneke Elzinga, front office employee at the Faculty of Arts, has driven to the Ukrainian border to pick up refugees. ‘We just watched this endless stream of sadness pass us by.’
22 March om 17:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 March 2022
om 17:09 uur.
March 22 at 17:09 PM.
Last modified on March 22, 2022
at 17:09 PM.
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Door Rob van der Wal

22 March om 17:09 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 March 2022
om 17:09 uur.
Avatar photo

By Rob van der Wal

March 22 at 17:09 PM.
Last modified on March 22, 2022
at 17:09 PM.
Avatar photo

Rob van der Wal

Facebook was full of them: posts in which Ukrainian refugees were asking for help. People who hadn’t made it across the border into Poland. Public transport was unable to cope with the number of refugees, and many people didn’t have anyone in the area that could host them.

Some refugees asked for help themselves, but some of the requests were posted by family members or acquaintances elsewhere in Europe. 

‘We felt this kind of helplessness come over us’, says Anneke Elzinga, front office employee at the Faculty of Arts. She used to work as security in the refugee accommodation centre in Ter Apel, where she witnessed ‘the other side of society’. She felt she needed to help people. ‘My boyfriend and I looked at each other. Surely there was something we could do?’

Vulnerable

The answer soon presented itself. Elzinga and her boyfriend found a Facebook post by Ukrainian Igor, who had been living in Belgium for years. His best friend, called ‘grandpa’ by Elzinga, still lives in Ukraine. ‘Grandpa had his friend in Belgium ask if anyone could take his daughter Kseniia and his four-year-old grandson Yan and bring them to safety’, says Elzinga. ‘Grandpa himself had to stay behind in Ukraine; men are no longer allowed to leave the country.’

Old people and women with children, often with just a backpack

The post included a phone number, and Elzinga’s boyfriend dialled it. ‘I knew I had to respond, especially because it involved a young woman with a child’, says Elzinga. ‘Of course we’d also take men if they were allowed to leave the country. But women and children first. They’re the most vulnerable.’

A day later, on March 4, Elzinga and her boyfriend drove a car loaded up with hastily gathered medical supplies, and spent fifteen hours driving from Groningen to the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing in Budomierz. They found themselves at the closed barrier at eleven thirty at night. 

‘What’s happening there is indescribably’, she says. ‘Thousands of people, walking or driving by. Fortunately, there were some very nice police officers making sure we got through the chaos.’

Catastrophe

The pair dropped their supplies with one of the aid organisations, but after that, all that was left to do was wait for Kseniia and Yan.

‘Igor had told us they were on the other side of the border, but no one knew how long it would take them to arrive’, says Elzinga. ‘There was just this big piece of no man’s land on the other side of the barrier. It was cold and we just stood there as an endless stream of sadness passed us by. Families, old people, women with children. Usually with nothing more than a backpack. It finally hit us that this was a genuine catastrophe, and there was nothing we could do.’

The situation at train stations along the Polish border is also catastrophic, says Elzinga. ‘Human traffickers are working the stations and there have been quite a few awful incidents. That’s why no one’s allowed at the train stations, not even aid organisations. People have absolutely no faith left, and I understand why.’

Elzinga is doing everything she can to win that faith back, she says. ‘My boyfriend and I joined a few Facebook groups: Oekraïne voor Nederland and Taxi drive for peace. They know that we drive to the border here and we post our appeals in the group. They also know what kind of van we drive, what our licence plate number is. We also uploaded pictures of our driving licences.’

Flashing light

It wasn’t until five in the morning, more than five hours after they’d arrived, they finally got a message from Igor: Kseniia and Yan had crossed the border. ‘We were the only car with a yellow licence plate, so I made sure to pass that on. And we put a flashing light on our coats so we would stand out. That way, we could find each other.’

People have absolutely no faith left

Thanks to her connection with Igor, first contact went well, says Elzinga. ‘I was constantly talking to him on the phone, to let Kseniia and her son know that they could trust me. They were so grateful that we were there to pick them up.’

Elzinga decided that the first thing they should do was go to Krakow, so the exhausted refugees could rest. But after an hour, she and her boyfriend decided to respond to another cry for help. ‘There was an old man at the border, who’d lost sight of his daughter and grandson while they were fleeing. The daughter and grandson were already in Hillegom.’ After a three-hour drive, father and daughter were finally able to talk on the phone, says Elzinga. ‘They were so happy.’ 

A few days later, they delivered Kseniia and Yan to Igor. They’ve stayed in touch. ‘They’re doing really well. Kseniia is learning how to ride a bike.’

Second drive

Elzinga is well aware that she can’t save everyone. ‘You have to make a decision beforehand about what you’re going to do. Sure, I could pick up everyone who’s waiting at the border, but what am I going to do with them then? I might have to drop them off in Ter Apel. I worked at that place as security for years. I know what it’s like there, and I would never do that to those people.’

But Elzinga didn’t stop after her first trip. This past weekend, she once again drove to the Polish border. She handed out stuffed animals, drove one couple to Berlin, and picked up a few more refugees to take back to the Netherlands. She’s also joined several Dutch WhatsApp groups in which people offer to house Ukrainian refugees.

Everyone’s doing something to help us out

Back in the Netherlands, she’s also had to take care of twenty French bulldogs. The dogs belong to two Ukrainian women whose partners are both of Syrian-Palestinian descent. ‘That means the men are officially stateless, and they don’t have a passport’, Elzinga explains. Unlike Ukrainians, who do have a passport, they had to apply for asylum in Ter Apel, and they weren’t allowed to bring their dogs. The animals have since found a home elsewhere.

Costs

Elzinga has been getting great feedback, she says. At the archaeology department where she works, there’s a little collection basket that colleagues fill with personal care products, something which is sorely lacking at the Ukrainian border. ‘But we decided we wouldn’t approach any newspapers about what we were doing. We figured this is our project. We’ll see how it goes.’

People are also helping her with the costs of the project; renting cars, paying for hotels, petrol, and toll, is expensive. ‘After our first trip, friends started a fundraiser for the next one. When we went to pay our bill at the hotel, they told us the food was free. Everyone is doing something to help us out.’

Elzinga is sure this isn’t going to be her last trip to the Ukrainian border. But how often she and her friend will be driving over depends on their finances. ‘We almost always have to put in some of our own money. We won’t be able to keep that up forever. That might be a good excuse to set something up right here, or just across the border. But I don’t want to think about it just yet. What we’ve been doing so far has been an incredibly enriching experience.’

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