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'Everyone I know is helping' | News, Sports, Jobs – The Adirondack Daily Enterprise

by Arifa Rana

Apr 12, 2022
Rebecca Pohl, right, a Raquette Lake native living in Warsaw, Poland, smiles with a Ukrainian mother and daughter, Iryna, center, and Oksana. Iryna and Oksana lived with Pohl for a week last month after fleeing their country during the Russian invasion. Pohl said the three of them would play ukulele and discuss Harry Potter. Iryna and Oksana eventually moved to live with family. (Provided photo — Rebecca Pohl)
When Rebecca Pohl goes shopping, she fills her car up to the brim. When she goes to the train station, she brings burn kits and heart monitors. When she goes home, there’s a kind Ukrainian woman sleeping in her bed.
Pohl, a native of Raquette Lake, is one of thousands of people living in Poland who are putting their normal lives on hold to support the millions of Ukrainian refugees entering their country, fleeing the Russian invasion.
Pohl is a high school counselor with the American School of Warsaw. When Russia began a brutal invasion of Ukraine in late February, Pohl was living only a couple hundred miles away. Then, when refugees began coming to Warsaw by train in droves, she started filling a car with food, linking up with other volunteers and going to meet them.
“Everyone I know is helping in some way,” Pohl said.
For the past month, she’s been turning thousands of dollars in donations — many from North Country residents — into tangible results, improving the lives of Ukrainian refugees starting a new life in a new country.
Rebecca Pohl, right, with a scarf on, was in a photo with Vice President Kamala Harris when Harris visited Warsaw, Poland last month. Pohl, a native of Raquette Lake, is part of a massive effort in Warsaw to help Ukrainian refugees. (Provided photo)
She said the donations go directly to help Ukrainians — there’s no overhead or administrative costs.
“The ASW Foundation has no administrative costs because it’s all volunteer, and ASW (the school) covers what costs there are,” Pohl wrote in a message. “The donations all come in to our school building and get sorted there, so the ASW Foundation doesn’t have rent or utilities to pay.”
She’s working directly with some of the first people refugees meet when they arrive in Poland, so she knows what they need. And with a massive network of family and friends back here in the U.S., she has the money to buy it.
The ASW has raised $100,000 as an organization since the invasion began. She’s raised $40,000 by herself.
Pohl said she’s been “blown away” by the generosity of people.
Rebecca Pohl, in the red scarf, is a Raquette Lake native living in Warsaw, Poland. She said the woman to her right in a mask was the first Ukrainian refugee she and a group of volunteers gave money to when they arrived at a train station where refugees were entering Poland. (Provided photo)
Raquette River Brewing in Tupper Lake brewed a special beer, the proceeds of which are all going to Pohl. Her sister Rachel got a Finger Lakes winery, Rasta Ranch Vineyards, involved, too.
In the first few weeks, Pohl gave handfuls of cash directly to families arriving at the Central Train Station in Warsaw who were living out of shopping bags and suitcases.
Throughout March, she was going on two or three supply runs a week, but then supermarkets started running out of the food they needed.
“I had to give them a break,” she wrote.
And the needs have changed. At first, people arriving by trains needed food. They were tired, hungry and scared. Now, with food more readily available, they need medical supplies.
Rebecca Pohl, a Raquette Lake native living in Warsaw, Poland, said this Ukrainian mother who fled a Russian invasion of her country and arrived at the train station in Poland with only a few possessions, “burst into tears” when volunteers gave her an envelope of cash. (Provided photo — Rebecca Pohl)
Last week, she watched medics at the train station attend to people coming from the city of Mariupol.
“Some of them arrive with untreated injuries from bombs,” Pohl said.
A colleague of hers, Teo, learned to make balloon animals for the kids. But he had to stop. When a balloon popped, it was was startling to the adults. She said the kids didn’t pay much mind, but the parents were still shell shocked.
She recently spoke with a medic named Hubert who had been primarily a veterinarian until the invasion, when his focus shifted from animals to humans. He told her, since Feb. 24, his unit has served 1,500 refugees and rescued 300 animals. She ordered a heart monitor for him. Currently, his group is raising money to buy an all-terrain ambulance.
She said 1,000 young Ukrainian refugees are joining the Polish public school system every day, and they all need school supplies, so a few weeks ago she filled 100 backpacks with supplies.
Rebecca Pohl, a Raquette Lake native living in Warsaw, Poland, snapped this picture of her friend Jonica as they shopped for food and sustenance for Ukrainian refugees entering their city, fleeing a Russian invasion. Pohl is using donations, often from people in the North Country, to directly buy the things refugees arriving in Poland need. (Provided photo — Rebecca Pohl)
A fifth-grade class at her school assembled hygiene kits to be given to refugees crossing the border. She joked that the solution to the massive work load the volunteers face is “child labor.”
Opening her home
Pohl took in refugees immediately. She moved out of her bedroom — letting the refugees sleep in her bed — and onto a pull-out couch in her second room.
On March 7, her first two guests arrived — a mother and an 11-year-old daughter.
“The daughter loved Harry Potter and art,” Pohl wrote. “She reminded me so much of my niece!”
Together, they played ukulele and talked about which Hogwarts house they are in.
The two stayed with her for three nights and then moved near the German border to live with family.
“They are doing well,” Pohl said.
Then, a mother with a 25-year-old daughter stayed for a week before the daughter left for Germany, seeking a job and an apartment with a friend, another refugee from Ukraine.
The two had been displaced from their home in Donetsk eight years ago during a war in which Russian-backed separatists declared that region of Ukraine to be independent. They were displaced again when the Russian military invaded their new home in Kyiv this year.
The mother, Natasha, stayed with Pohl and is still living with her.

No saint

Pohl is insistent that she’s “not a saint.”
“I’m starting to go crazy, having a roommate for the first time in almost 20 years!” she wrote.
It was challenging to open her home.
Natasha doesn’t speak English, so Pohl said it’s harder to bond, but they speak through Google translate. Natasha is also wary of Pohl’s dog, Rambo, because of bad prior experiences with dogs, but she’s learning to be comfortable living with a dog. Pohl told a story about coming home and Rambo doing his “doorbell bark and charge.”
“Natasha very calmly said ‘Rambo, Rambo’ and dropped a treat into his mouth,” Pohl wrote. “She has figured out a way to coexist with Rambo.”
Pohl said she felt she had to open her home.
“It’s not that I wanted to do this. I want my space back,” she said with a laugh. “But these people have nowhere to go.”
She said they need places to live so they can get jobs.
“It reminds me of the poverty cycle, where homeless people can’t find work because they are homeless and they therefore stay homeless,” Pohl wrote. “Imagine being a refugee in a foreign country, and you’re living out of a suitcase, and you’re trying to find work with your suitcase and children in tow. Impossible.”
But there are no apartments left in Warsaw. Rent is through the roof and the entire country has more refugees than it can house. Pohl said people are traveling to other European countries.
Pohl estimated that around 60% of refugees coming by train want to move on to another country, and around 40% want to stay in Poland.
The U.S. has agreed to accept up to 100,000 refugees. But Pohl said the process of getting approval to move to the U.S. or Canada is so much more burdensome.
“Here, in Poland, people were able to just cross the border. Some don’t have documents at all,” she said. “Can you imagine the U.S. accepting a planeload of people without documents?”
Before, Poland had border control and security — but that all got put on hold during the humanitarian crisis.
Still, it’s hard to cross into a new country. Pohl said a Ukrainian student who joined her school said her family waited in their car in a line at the border for a week. And that’s someone with the resources to own a car.
She also said discrimination doesn’t end with a crisis. Pohl said she’s heard about discrimination against Belarusians who are fleeing their own humanitarian crisis and against non-Ukrainian refugees. People from around the world study in Ukraine, she said. It’s a good, affordable place to get an education and attracts people from India and Africa. But when they’re reaching the Polish border, sometimes, she said they’re told to get in the back of the line and let Ukrainian women go first.
Pohl said the U.S. should accept more refugees.
“I don’t think the U.S. is doing enough,” Pohl said. “I think we absolutely have the money and resources to do it and we should be ashamed for not doing more.”

Donations from home

Pohl said she spends a lot of time thinking about who to give the money to. She wants to make sure it’s being spent right. She goes to the train station to personally meet and vet the people who run the organizations she’s aiding.
Her mom and sister are working hard, too. They collect donations and transfer them in a way that Rebecca can access the money.
The Pohl family keeps color-coded spreadsheets to let people know exactly where their money went and Rebecca regularly posts journal entries of her work on social media.
She’s still working her full-time job all through this and working on getting a master’s degree.
Pohl said it’s tiring, but she feels a responsibility to do this work. She admits, she feels her part in the volunteer effort is “cushy.” Still, she’s giving away a lot of her time and energy.
“But it’s nothing compared to what these other people are doing!” she said, referring to the volunteer medics, organizers and workers she’s volunteering with.
Pohl said she finds inspiration from these people. She’s featured several of them in her Facebook posts. Some people have quit their jobs to volunteer. Others are balancing work and volunteering. All are spending most waking moments at the service of others.
She wells up with emotion when she thinks about how she’s surrounded by people from various backgrounds, all helping those in need at a pivotal time in world history.
“I feel so fortunate to be here,” Pohl said.
She’s worked around the world — Mexico for four years, China for two, Zambia for three — in various school positions — principal, English as a second language teacher and her favorite, American Literature teacher.
She said she never planned to live in Poland, but she’s glad she’s there now.
Pohl’s work assisting Ukrainian refugees can be read about on her Facebook page at facebook.com/rebeccamildredpohl.
Her sister Rachel is collecting donations by Venmo at Rachel-Pohl-6, with the confirmation code 5253.
Her mother Donna is collecting donations by PayPal at rlnav@frontiernet.net and by check at Donna Pohl, P.O. Box 100, Raquette Lake, NY 13436.
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