Gina Clark has traveled to Ukraine over the past 20 years offering medical support to rural towns. But three weeks ago, she was giving the same medical aid to Ukrainian refugees from their home.
Clark, a nurse of 40 years that lives in Midland, started traveling to Ukraine through a Christian organization called Ukraine Challenge. She is currently employed in an emergency department in Mecklenburg County.
Getting to know Ukraine
Each year, she would travel with a Ukraine Challenge team to participate in a two-week medical screening clinic in rural Ukrainian towns.
“We would advise,” she explained. “If we noted something that was concerning, we would counsel them on seeking medical attention. In some cases we would tell them where to seek treatment.”
They also distribute some over the counter medication and vitamins.
She began joining these teams in the early 2000s. A team still traveled to the country in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. At the time, her team moved westward to the Zhytomyr Region away from some of the conflict in the east.
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When Clark and her family watched the news in April and saw Ukrainians fleeing the country, she wanted to do something.
“We have a relationship with these people. We have worked side by side with them. We consider these people family. To see their country devastated, it is heartbreaking for us because we see how they are suffering,” she said. “We have known them for years. We, the Clark family, and our church have a relationship with these people and to see a city and a country that is just so beautiful be devastated is awful.”
Clark had two missionary friends living in Ukraine. They left the country and went to Poland just before the conflict with Russia started.
They were working with Ukrainian refugees who just entered Poland.
Ukraine is a country the size of Texas with a population of about 44 million. According to the UN Refugee Agency, roughly 4.4 million Ukrainians have fled the country so far, and about 2.5 million of those refugees are in Poland.
Clark went to Poland and stayed March 22-29.
“I knew someone there, and I knew they could help me work with the Ukrainians coming into the country. I didn’t want to show up and not have a plan,” she said.
Traveling to Poland
She traveled through the International Mission Board and went to Zory, Poland. She also gave aid in Wroclaw. There she gave similar medical screenings. But she distributed a bit more than just vitamins.
Refugees were given kits with first-aid, over-the-counter medication, children’s school supplies, and some essentials.
While there, she gave aid to a church that was converted to house about 40 refugees. She also gave aid at a hotel that was housing about 200.
Often Clark was rendering aid to women and children. The Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service had prohibited Ukrainian men 18-60 from leaving the country while martial law was enact. Reports show that martial law has been extended into the month of April.
That was a topic brought up at a trauma seminar at the hotel. One of the organizations aiding refugees had set up a seminar to address the mental and emotional trauma of the conflict.
Clark said many women don’t have contact with their male family members.
“They don’t even know if their husbands, sons or their fathers are still alive,” she said.
One story many refugees shared was how they made it to the Polish border. Clark’s interpreter said she left Kharkiv, Ukraine at night in a long caravan of cars. They drove through fields and side roads because Russian forces blocked main roads. That made what could have been a 15 hour trip into something that took almost 30.
Help isn’t just coming from private organizations. The Polish government is providing significant aid, Clark noted. For example, the government is providing funds to the hotel in Zory for housing and food for the refugees.
The Polish government is also giving Ukrainian refugees an electronic ID number, similar to a US Social Security number called a PESEL. It will allow people to rent an apartment, find a job and enroll their children in schools. Refugees with children will also receive a monthly benefit with this number.
There are other small ways aid is given. While there, Clark noticed that cars with Ukraine license plates weren’t required to stop at tolls. Friends she was staying with had Ukrainian tags, and they were waved through each time without charge.
Not everyone is staying in Poland long-term. For some, places like the church and hotel are just a way station until they move to another country. Families in many counties are opening their homes to refugees.
Clark met several refugees who were being sponsored by families in countries like Romania, Hungary and Germany for them to have a place to stay.
But many refugees Clark spoke to longed to go home to Ukraine. Some were stuck in limbo trying to decide whether they should enroll their children in school or not because they were unsure how long the conflict would continue.
But as the conflict continues, aid to the refugees has remained constant. And the Polish people continued in their support and visible acceptance, Clark said.
“There are billboards with the Ukrainian flag that says, ‘Solidarity’,” Clark said. “There are Ukrainian flags everywhere, and school children have put sunflowers along windows in schools. There is just so much support through the whole country — it’s a miracle, is what it is.”