A few weeks after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Nadya Tkachenko ’00 felt a pull to travel to Poland and help Ukrainian refugees at the border.
“I couldn’t sit and watch the news while doing nothing,” Tkachenko told The Campus. Tkachenko’s father is from Ukraine and she spent her childhood summers there. She also studied in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol during high school.
Tkachenko and a few friends decided to work with World Central Kitchen on the Poland-Ukraine border in a town called Medyka. For the first few days she was there, Tkachenko cut hundreds of pounds of potatoes, carrots and onions and packaged crates of baby food.
“The work was amazing,” she said. “The spirit of volunteers was so uplifting.”
After working at World Central Kitchen, Tkachenko moved closer to the border. Her ability to speak both Ukrainian and Russian made her a valuable asset where refugees were entering Poland.
“People would just relax when they heard me greet them in their language,” Tkachenko said. She was the first person who many of the refugees spoke to when they arrived in Poland, and she helped people carry heavy luggage, aided them in finding food and held their children so they could have a chance to use the bathroom after their long journey. Many of the refugees Tkachenko was working with didn’t know what was next for them.
“These people had escaped war and were in the hands of fate and volunteers,” she said. Tkachenko was there to help direct them where to go next.
Tkachenko also handed out cash stipends to refugees and worked to find them housing.
“Poland opened up their hearts and doors to refugees,” Tkachenko said. However, there came a point where there simply wasn’t room for any more refugees to stay in shelters or train stations any more. Tkachenko raised funds through friends before embarking on her journey to Poland, and she used the money to pay for hotel rooms for refugees.
Tkachenko also used her funds to support her personal contacts on the ground in Ukraine. She bought rescue supplies and vans for people driving refugees to the border from Mariopul, food and tactical gear for people on the front lines and uniforms for soldiers. Tkachenko also helped coordinate delivery of supplies based on soldiers' needs.
Tkachenko explained that the emotions she felt while working were intense.
“I felt like I had to be strong for these people,” she said. “I had to be strong on one hand, but on the other I think it was just humans connecting and empathizing. I tried not to hide my emotions too much.”
Although she felt great sadness and grief, Tkachenko did not describe feeling any fear. “I was not really afraid to be there,” she said. “Especially compared with what these people have gone through.”
Tkachenko is returning to Poland and Ukraine in a few weeks with a new goal. Her mission this time is twofold: providing cash and supplies to refugees and helping them rebuild their lives. She said that many refugees are feeling desperate and stuck without homes and jobs. Tkachenko is hoping to start laying groundwork in Ukraine for construction of housing for displaced people. She is going to meet with town officials and eventually with higher-level donors that can help fund construction of new housing.
According to Tkachenko, the best way to support refugees at this time is through fundraising, donating and increasing awareness. “There are many organizations that are doing the work that is needed,” she said. When the active war eventually ends, Tkachenko expects there to be opportunities for volunteers to be on the ground in Ukraine helping to rebuild the lives of displaced people.