Supercharged support: from UK to Poland to help charge refugees' phones

England-based Jan has driven to the Ukrainian border that has become a staging post for humanitarian efforts

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From his van at a vast supermarket-turned-refugee reception centre on the Ukraine-Poland border, Jan is offering a blanket, a seat and the vital element of connection though a phone charger to refugees fleeing Ukraine for Poland.

“I was really quite disturbed about the whole thing,” he said, looking back to last week when he watched Russia invade Ukraine from his village near Chichester on the southern coast of England.

In the UK, the former IT worker volunteers to support homeless people. He wants to show compassion to those in need, something he says he did not receive when for many years he suffered from mental health issues.

“I felt for all these people. Like homeless people and lonely people, everyone needs a bit of love.”

Jan, 43, who grew up in Denmark but has lived in the UK since 1999, decided he had to do something.

Jan's van offers a place for refugees to charge their phone. Jamie Prentis / The National

“I went to the shops but didn’t know what to get, didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know what was needed or anything like that.”

He bought some instant soups and coffees, packed a bunch of extension cables and laminated signs saying “mobile charging here”.

“Basically, I just got in the van and left my wife back in the UK and said ‘I have to go'.”

The Dane left home on Friday, driving through the night and arriving at the Polish border town of Przemysl late on Saturday.

Jan is now part of a wider humanitarian operation to support the refugees arriving in Poland.

With donated buggies for children on the floor, volunteers walking around offering hot food, and bags of clothes piled up on top of each other, the car park of a disused Tesco supermarket on Poland’s border with Ukraine has quickly become a key staging post for efforts to support refugees fleeing the conflict next door.

Bags of clothes for those in need. Jamie Prentis / The National

Aid workers, emergency services and private citizens have descended on the car park, on the road from the town of Przemysl to the Medyka border crossing, to offer support to some of the hundreds of thousands of people arriving in Poland.

For now, the car park – only a few kilometres from Poland – is only a staging post. Most refugees are transferred elsewhere for a proper night’s sleep after spending days on their journey to Poland.

When refugees come to Jan’s van, they are often too exhausted to talk.

“When people come over, they’re literally shell-shocked. They just show their phone and ask. I tell them to come over, shake their hand if they want to shake hands. I put my hand on my heart to show them that I respect what they’ve been through.

“Once their phones start charging and they sit down and the adrenalin reduces in their body, by them feeling safe, by sitting on a blanket outside the van … they start opening up. And all of a sudden you start hearing these amazing stories.”

One couple had abandoned their car as missiles rained down near by and walked 30 kilometres to the border in freezing conditions.

“They got here and, of course, they couldn’t contact anyone – he was from Morocco – they didn’t have any power on their mobile phone, they had no idea what they were going to do here.”

After charging up their phones and taking a rest, the couple were later able to find somewhere to stay.

By charging their phones, refugees are “literally just connecting with the world,” Jan said.

“It’s such a simple thing that we take for granted every day – to charge a mobile phone – but all of a sudden it’s just one of the most important things, apart from clothing and everything else.”

Jan is not the only one at the car park, and the disused Tesco building is expected to become a more formal logistics centre.

It’s such a simple thing that we take for granted every day – to charge a mobile phone

Maksym Kolovatyi, 21, is originally from Vinnytsia in west-central Ukraine, near the border with Moldova, but has been in Poland for five years. He came here on the initiative of Polish man Piotr Otawa, who had seen the images of women and children stuck on the border. They brought food, water and other essentials.

“It’s to support Ukraine in this difficult moment. I have [my] mother, father and two little sisters in Ukraine. And I’m here, and I’m just helping as I can,” Mr Kolovatyi said.

His family is OK, they have not decided to come to Poland yet. “But we will see what will be next in the future,” Mr Kolovatyi said.

While more than 660,000 people have fled Ukraine for neighbouring countries, UN agencies said that about 4.5 million could leave the country because of the Russian invasion.

Dominika Chylewska of aid group Caritas, which is also present at the Tesco car park, said that for now finding a place to stay for people is normally not a problem – typically because arrivals have already arranged somewhere to stay with family or friends or, if not, there is the capacity to house those who do not have the connections.

The priority is to give new arrivals what can be given to them as soon as possible. “At night we had a person come in without shoes. Can you imagine at night, zero degrees or even minus sometimes, and people – usually women and children – without shoes?” Ms Chylewska said.

But with no sign of the conflict ending or the shortening of queues to leave Ukraine, that capacity is likely to be stretched.

Jan, whose sole luxury in recent days was a trip to McDonald's, has no plans to leave either. His focus has now shifted to giving out mobile power banks, rather than people using his extension cables to charge their phones. That is mainly because refugees are often moved on from the car park relatively quickly, but also because limited supplies of fuel locally mean Jan risks running out of petrol to keep his generator going.

“I spoke with my wife to ask her if she could get some fund-raising from family and friends to get mobile power banks so people don’t have to sit out here [for] hours charging their phones, so they can move along the process much quicker.”

They have now raised the equivalent of about $2,500 in local currency, although that fund-raising drive has been paused to reassess where to prioritise.

“I’ve never fundraised in my life before, but I really wanted to figure out exactly what people need.”

Jan wants to stay as long as he can, at least until he runs out of fuel and mobile data.

“To be honest, I’ve got no expectations about my impact. I’m just here doing what I can.”

Updated: March 02, 2022, 12:12 PM