ROCHESTER, NY (WROC) — Growing up, it was typical for Leeda Burda to spend summers visiting her family in Ukraine. While she was born in the US, her family is from Ukraine and many are still there.
The 27-year-old now lives in East Irondequoit, working as a nurse. But when the war began in Ukraine, she knew she had to do something.
With the community’s help over GoFundMe, and with some of her personal savings, Burda bought a ticket to go to Poland. There, she would spend close to two weeks serving as a translator at different refugee camps and train stations.
“My main thing that I was doing was interpreting and just providing comfort and translating, helping people at the train station, helping them navigate which train to get on for Berlin, or Prague, or just anywhere they were going next,” said Burda.
Burda spent a lot of her time working at a German desk at a train station. Her ability to speak both Ukranian and English allowed Burda to assist many women and children who were fleeing the war-torn country of Ukraine, trying to find safety elsewhere.
“They were really sad and just a lot of confusion of where to go. They asked me questions like, ‘what country do I think is a good country to go to next?,’” Burda said. “None of them actually want to leave their home, so that makes it extra hard on them, but they try to remain positive and hopeful that they’re going to come back home one day.”
Burda and her team also visited two different refugee camps along the Ukranian border.
One was in Przemysl, Poland. There, Burda said there was good security and officials were registering all the refugees, making sure they kept track of who was staying there and where they went.
However, she didn’t see the same thing at the next camp they visited, which was 40 minutes away in Korczowa. This was concerning to Burda and her team, who had heard this location was a hot-spot for human trafficking.
“I was working with a team, we were offering them help with security, and they just didn’t want it,” Burda said. “I just thought that was very suspicious because they had the same amount of security personnel and volunteers.”
Burda said her main concern was that people were able to walk right into the camp and they weren’t registering refugees before they got on buses.
“Are these buses going to these areas? And how are you going to know these people got there safely?,” Burda said. “There’s no way of knowing where those people have gone.”
Many women and children fleeing Ukraine are in vulnerable positions and in shock, Burda said. Some families are uncertain of their next steps and where they will be staying, which can make them a target for human trafficking.
“It’s such a big issue. All of these women and children are coming, they’re super vulnerable,” Burda said. “Most of the volunteers are really good people, but, as the world’s seen, it only takes a few bad people to make it not a great situation for anyone.”
So, Burda and her team started bringing awareness to human trafficking, speaking to people at the camps, but also writing to government entities, like the British Parliament, to ask for help increasing safety at camps.
“I just believe that it’s all human responsibility, whether you’re Ukrainian or not, to protect people who are vulnerable,” Burda said. “It could literally happen to anyone.”
While Burda continued her work in Poland, she found out she wasn’t the only one from the Rochester area there. Natalia Golub, a doctor from Rochester Regional Health, was too.
Burda hadn’t met Golub before, but the two connected through ROC Maidan, a local Ukranian nonprofit.
“We met in Przemysl and we worked a little bit together at the train station,” said Burda. “I definitely made a life-long friend and I can’t believe I hadn’t met her before.”
The two women created a bond over their shared passion of helping others. Burda, working on translating and spreading awareness about trafficking, while Golub helped a lot with medical assistance and supplies.
“She’s a doctor and she was also doing the same thing as me, translating, helping people with the different train situations, but she’s also going into Lviv providing medical assistance and bringing medical supplies in,” Burda said.
Burda returned home this week from her travels, but she has kept in contact with Golub, who is staying until mid-May. They hope their stories encourage others from the Rochester area to make the trip to Poland to help, but they say it’s important you don’t travel alone.
If you’re looking for ways to support those in Ukraine, Burda recommends donating to ROC Maidan, or the MAD Foundation, which helps bring translators to areas around Ukraine to assist refugees.