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Volunteers from Mass. head to Europe to offer aid to Ukrainians displaced by war

Refugees, mostly women and children, at an evacuation point at Przemyśl, Poland, on March 8.Olga Pavleyeva

Spurred by the suffering of millions in Ukraine, volunteers from Massachusetts are stepping in to offer care and comfort to people whose lives have been shattered by invading Russian forces.

Dr. Erica Nelson, a physician with the emergency department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, will travel to Poland Sunday, and then into the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where she will join medical relief efforts.

“This is what gives my life purpose... this is how I continue to face how difficult life can be, by giving anything that I possibly can,” she said Saturday in a phone interview.

A team of paramedics and nurses from the US led by Alexander Smirnov, a paramedic from Medway, have spent the last several days working in a Polish refugee center about two hours west of Lviv.

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Smirnov’s daughter, Maria, said in a phone interview that her father was unable to stay home and watch the refugee crisis unfold.

“It got to the point where my dad couldn’t sit still. It’s one thing to be donating money, or packing up supplies,” Maria Smirnov said Saturday. “But it’s another to fly halfway across the globe to go help these refugees who are our brothers and sisters.”

The devastating war, which began Feb. 24, has left cities bombed, homes and hospitals ruined, and has sparked the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Already, more than 2.5 million people have fled to Poland and other neighboring countries.

Nelson, 39, a native of Norwood, also serves as the deputy medical director of Team Rubicon, a California-based non-profit that provides relief to people impacted by disasters and humanitarian crises, according to the organization.

She said her team will work with groups like the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Health Organization to conduct medical needs assessments for refugees who fled Ukraine, as well as displaced Ukrainians who remain in their country.

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Nelson, who previously responded to crises in places like Ethiopia, Palestine, and Jamaica, said she expects to encounter “an inordinate amount of suffering” in Ukraine.

She’ll be part of a team of roughly 30, including doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and other experts. They have members stationed in Lviv, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, she said.

Nelson is slated to be deployed for about three weeks -- but acknowledged that things could change rapidly due to the escalating war. She said Brigham and Women’s Hospital has supported her in her humanitarian work.

“They know how dire the circumstances are, and they know we have to respond,” she said.

Nelson said her family is deeply concerned for her safety, but supportive of her work. While the world has focused on the refugee crisis in Ukraine, she wants people to also pay attention to similar crises unfolding in places like Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.

“We are all connected to each other, and the suffering of anybody on this Earth is connected to who we are as human kind,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the Polish city of Przemyśl, Alexander Smirnov, 54, has set up a first aid medical station inside a former shopping mall. Smirnov, a father of five who immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union decades ago, set up a local non-profit called Global Disaster Relief Team to help organize aid for Ukrainian refugees.

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Maria Smirnov, 26, who is part of the group’s leadership team, said that it raised about $16,000 in a matter of days and brought bags of bandages and other medical supplies to aid relief efforts in Poland.

It was able to organize a five-member team of Russian-speaking US medics to travel to Poland, she said. Three of those medics are from Massachusetts -- along with Alexander Smirnov, the team includes Olga Pavleyeva of Sharon and Alexander Zharov of Lynn.

Working in Przemyśl, Pavleyeva and her colleagues have aided Ukrainian refugees, grappling with the trauma they endured before reaching safety in Poland, she said in a Facebook post Friday night.

“We hold them, hug them, and listen. But most of the time, I don’t know what to tell them,” Pavleyeva wrote. " ‘I feel sorry for you’ is inappropriate here. In this situation, words from a different, new, dictionary are needed.”

In her post, Pavleyeva quoted snippets of conversations with some refugees, who described losing everything they had back home.

“ ‘We left everything behind. That’s it! We had a big house near Kiev. We built it ourselves. You should see our garden: it was beautiful,’ ” one refugee said, according to Pavleyeva.

Maria Smirnov said, as a Russian American who is proud of her culture, watching the invasion of Ukraine brings feelings of anger, guilt, and shame.

“What Russia is doing is not what I stand for,” she said, pointing to the deep ties between Russia and Ukraine. “These are literally our grandmas, our grandpas, our sisters and brothers. And we are hurting them, Russia is hurting them.”

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“There is nothing we can do, except have brave people like my dad go over there and help.” she said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.