Though many locals feel affected by the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis it has created, Greenpoint local Roman Belopolsky feels it far more personally than most. Roman was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, but came to the United States as a child and grew up on Staten Island. Even before the war broke out, he had been following the conflict closely because he still had family there. The threat of war was impacting both his sleep and his ability to focus. He was even constantly refreshing his news feed looking for new information about the conflict.
When the war broke out, it affected his family, forcing many of them in Ukraine to flee. His cousin and his cousin’s fiancé managed to catch an evacuation train out of Zaporizhzhia, a town with a nuclear power station that was subsequently bombed and which almost led to a nuclear meltdown. They traveled first to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, which was bombed two days after their departure and then they crossed the border to Krakow, Poland.
Belopolsky had already been considering going to Poland, but knowing that his family would be there and needed help was the final straw. “If not me, then who?” kept echoing in his head, but leaving New York was not easy as he had both a job and a marriage here. To his employer’s credit, Wild Alaskan Company permitted him to take a leave of absence and his wife also agreed, so he was on a plane headed to Poland within a week of making his decision.
Belopolsky spent two weeks in Krakow, a city suddenly inundated with thousands of Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children. On his first day, he came upon a makeshift sleeping area of simple cots set up for young mothers and their babies, as well as crowds of families lining up for basic supplies because they had to leave everything. He felt tears well up, but there were no tears in the eyes of the mothers and no tears in the eyes of their kids, so he knew he had to emulate their strength. Many refugees arrived with very few possessions, but thankfully there were tents set up to hand out the basics right outside the main train station in Krakow. He noticed not weakness and disorientation in the eyes of these refugees, but instead resilience and a strong sense of communal solidarity.
Belopolsky had assumed that there would be few people helping the refugees on the ground and that he as a person born in Ukraine had a special duty to go there to help. He was, however, blown away by the large number of people with no connection to Ukraine who had dropped everything in order to help those affected by the war.
Belopolsky reached deep into his own pocket to help out those who had lost everything, spending around $4,000 including donations that had come just from family, an initial round of unsolicited donations from friends, and a subsequent round after he had learned how to spend money efficiently. Every day he asked the various refugee stations what they needed most, and he purchased items such as food basics, toiletries, and clothes.
I asked him what lasting impressions his trip had made on him, and he said:
“The way that the Polish people came together to help the Ukrainian people is incredible, and I will always love the Polish people for it. The way that the whole world seemed to be united in these benevolent acts of care and kindness everywhere I looked will always stay with me.” A special memory was how Ukrainians gathered in the old square of Krakow singing the Ukrainian anthem and “Zombie” by the Cranberries. He said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever hear the song the same way.”
I also asked him if he felt that he had made a difference and Belopolsky replied:
“Definitely. I know that my effort and the contributions of everyone who sent me money made a difference in many families’ lives. From big things like keeping a baby’s feet warm in some fresh socks to little things like hearing a mother being told that there were no bananas for her kids that day and being able to speak up and say in my broken Polish: “tak! jest banan” because I just dropped off four boxes of them. Hopefully they saw that they were not alone and that I was there, and we were all there with open arms and ready to help and we were all of us together and not giving up.”
Finally, I asked him how people can help, and he answered, “Do what you can and what feels right to you. Send money to the Ukrainian military, fundraise for Ukrainian orphanages, collect medical supplies, volunteer somewhere in the EU, etc. Before I went, a family friend in Warsaw told me that if I just went, I would 100% find some way of helping as soon as I arrived. He was right. There is no shortage of amazing groups and organizations that need help in one form or another.”