CWY-JCM Alumni for Ukraine
“We, the volunteers, we don’t have anything from the government right now, so we are all alone,” said Marta Bielak. She has been at the Polish/ Ukrainian border, helping refugees who are crossing into Poland.
Along with many other volunteers, Marta is helping to provide transportation, food, information, and shelter to Ukrainian people as they flee bombing in their cities and towns. She said that often, when people reach the border, “They have only one small bag with sometimes only documentation about something, or visas, and they don’t have anything with them, so volunteers, we are giving [them] everything they need.”
Marta lived in Ukraine for three months during her CWY-JCM / NetCore exchange in 2003 and 2004. We reached her in Poland a few weeks ago, along with her counterpart from Canada, Krista Mullaney, and some of their fellow group members. They shared what they are doing to support their friends in Ukraine, and how the news is affecting them.
“For me, this is the first time in my life that a place that I lived is in war,” said Krista.
“It’s not that if we didn’t have that experience we wouldn’t care, but we care in a different way. If I didn’t have this experience and this connection with Ukraine, I would care about democracy in the country, about Ukrainians in the broad sense. Now I care about Taras, Yulia, Olga, Edouard, and Andre, and their families, kids, and communities.”
Adele and Micheal Palmer, both from Canada, met during the exchange and are now married with a family. Following the invasion, they wanted to send money to support Ukraine, but they didn’t know where to direct it.
When the shelling began, they were able to get in touch with another family who formed on the 2003/2004 exchange; Yulia and Taras, who recently fled Kyiv.
“We were able to see them and talk to them and know that they were okay and that they were headed to their families place, which my husband had already been to because that’s what you did, you traveled with your counterpart and their families.”
During their exchange, the group studied at the National University of Ostroh Academy. While there, they were guided through Ukraine by a man named Edouard. He organized trips for them, planned activities, and helped them navigate the University. Following the Russian invasion, Adele and Micheal contacted their old friend Edouard, who still works at the school.
Through him, they were able to find a path to send money to the University Volunteer Centre, via an existing charity account called ‘The International Charitable Foundation for Renaissance of the Ostroh Academy.’
Their GoFundMe, which they started with another group member named Olivia Calayan, has already raised close to $7,000 dollars. “It sprang from a feeling of helplessness and confusion,” said Adele. “CWY is such a huge network, and once you’ve been a part of it, it doesn’t ever leave you. So we thought, okay, we can take this out to other Ukraine exchange groups and other people who have probably had the exact same experiences that we had, and just want to do more, do something.”
The group said the funds will go to supplies such as food, water, diapers, petrol, and anything else the Volunteer Centre might need. “In Ukraine, there is almost nothing,” said Marta.
“When I watch the news stories, my heart breaks when I see some of the things that are happening to these amazing places,” said Reka Sherfoso, the program manager for NetCore with Adele’s group.
“The main reason to have programs like CWY, is that the connections that you make, the people you meet, and the communities you become a part of – they help inform your actions later in life,” said Reka.
It feels so absurd and unfair, added Krista, who returned to Ukraine again a few years after her exchange with CWY. “I mean you can really feel that these are people who, they want their country to develop, they want to move forward. I taught my kids ‘Slava Ukraina,” she said, raising a fist in the air.
“Ukrainians,” said Adele, “they are the strongest, proudest, most stubborn people. There is no other way. It will be victory.”