Most of us have watched the Russian invasion in Ukraine unfold on our TV screens for two months now. We have agonized over the widespread devastation: the death toll, the human suffering, the humanitarian crisis, and the protracted and seemingly intractable nature of the conflict. Moved to help out and do something, some of us have donated to recognized and trustworthy nonprofits and international refugee organizations.
Many other locals have packed their bags and gone to the front lines to help. One of them is Julio Salado, a fitness coach from Malden who is currently volunteering in Przemyśl, a town near the Ukraine border in southern Poland.
Since the war broke out in late February, Salado, a licensed EMT, started reaching out to nonprofits to learn about volunteering opportunities.
“I’m an on-the-ground, hands-on type of person,” Salado told me via a WhatsApp call from Przemyśl. He said he filled out a handful of volunteer applications to travel to the area with different institutions, including World Central Kitchen, the sprawling charitable global effort started by the Spanish American chef and humanitarian advocate José Andrés. WCK accepted Salado’s application to travel to Przemyśl for a week, which concludes on Sunday.
It is estimated that more than 10 percent of Ukrainians — a total of 41 million people — have fled their homeland. Another 7 million Ukrainians have left their homes and are internally displaced. Up to 3,000 soldiers and many more civilians have been killed. The World Bank has said that damages to Ukraine’s infrastructure total at least $60 billion.
When Salado arrived at Przemyśl, he reported to a WCK location. (Another WCK site, in northern Ukraine, was recently hit by a Russian missile.) He went through a short orientation about the organization’s policies. “They have a lot of rules, like a sexual harassment policy but also things like, ‘you can’t spy’ and ‘you shouldn’t take pictures of the refugees,’” he said.
Dzienń dobry is good morning in Polish🇵🇱— Coach Julio (@FitnessFoundry) April 22, 2022
Day 5 AM of my 12hr shift with World Central Kitchen in Przemsyl, Poland near the Ukraine border.
Pics of kids play area and aid group tent with hygiene products.
Loving and kind support for the Ukrainians♥️
Have a nice day☀️#WCK pic.twitter.com/Mzdde6W3KI
He also learned about the massive WCK logistical operation, which entails food preparation (sandwiches, coffee, cocoa, etc.) and the transportation and distribution of said food: loading and unloading trucks and then handing out the food at nearby aid centers, like the one he was assigned to.
“This area where the site is reminds me of Route 1 back home,” Salado told me. At the aid center, Ukrainian refugees show up to get basic necessities and the WCK food that Salado hands out. “There are so many children! As we speak, I’m watching a few of them play soccer right in front of me.” There’s an odd sense of normalcy, which feels good, he said.
This is Salado’s first trip overseas ever. To raise money for the cost of the flight, accommodations (he’s staying at a hostel he found through Booking.com), and transportation in Poland, Salado started a GoFundMe, which has raised almost double his initial goal of $2,800.
At the aid center, Ukrainians show up hungry, said Salado. “Anyone will learn within five minutes how to communicate what they want to eat,” he said. The language hasn’t been that much of a barrier. I asked him if the 12-hour shifts are too much and he said no, he’s running on adrenaline. “You can’t read this in a book . . . the feeling when you’re literally in front of somebody and you’re helping them a little bit.”
Salado, who grew up in Fields Corner in Dorchester, has been on the other side, too. “I know the power of interacting with another human being when things are bad.” About 16 years ago, he was homeless and lived in his car or on a friend’s sofa.
“I’ve received pretty much every service you can receive when you’re homeless,” he said. What Ukrainians are going through is on a different scale, of course, but Salado is familiar with the sense of despair. “[Ukrainians] may feel helpless but they’re not hopeless. And the bridge between the feeling of helplessness and hope is aid organizations.”
Salado said it’s been heartbreaking to see multiple generations of Ukrainian refugees flee together. “You see the grandmother, the mother, the grandkids.” I asked him what he wants to remember from this experience 10 years from now. “That it only takes a small group of people to make a tremendous amount of change and to inspire others,” said Salado.
Rather than watch from afar, Salado took the initiative and, in a small but compelling way, is lending a hand to fleeing Ukrainians. He wants to return as soon as he can to volunteer again.