“You did what you had to do” – a former Swan River resident recalls experience of helping Ukrainian refugees

One-year later, the Russia-Ukraine war persists. Russia invaded Ukraine on this day in 2022, and since then has been a back-and-forth conflict.

And on the anniversary of the invasion, a former Swan River, Manitoba resident shared his decision to get involved with humanitarian efforts there, as well as his experience.

Bryce Klassen, who is now taking post-secondary education in the U.S. in Indiana, says he was serving at a church in Swan River when the invasion began, and felt what he described as “tension” to get involved.

“And I think the LORD worked everything out because I didn’t really have a fully-developed, concrete plan of how I would be involved or what particularly I would be doing, but it ended up that I was able to get involved and to help in a small way relatively speaking.” explained Klassen.

Over the next several months, he helped bring Ukrainian refugees from the western side of the country to Lithuania, as well as refugees from Poland to Lithuania. After taking them where they needed to go, he would take supplies – ranging from medical and cook ware to clothes and generators – back to the Ukraine. Klassen says he was able to do this with the help a friend and a co-operative between groups in Lithuania and Ukraine, also noting he did some supply runs independently. He believes he transported approximately 24 refugees from Ukraine to Lithuania.

But it didn’t come without its challenges, as Klassen pointed out. An obvious one was the language barrier – he doesn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, and the refugees nor his Lithuanian peers didn’t speak English. As an unintended consequence, there were times when he didn’t know what was going on.

“Because if plans changed – let’s say the Lithuanians are coordinating the trip – they’re communicating with each other in Lithuanian and they’re trying to keep you up-to-date but they can’t do that perfectly, and so there are times when you’re not even knowing where you’re going to be staying the night or where you’re going to be stopping, so you kind of just have to go with the flow.” Klassen said.

He managed to get around it using basic words, hand signals and Google Translate.

“It certainly made things interesting,” he added.

Another challenge was transporting refugees from Poland to Lithuania. He says the first trip was no problem, but the second time proved difficult due to Poland’s tight rules on who could take refugees. For context, Klassen explained Poland brought in about 2-million refugees at the time, and had converted buildings into refugee centres. Once the people went into those buildings, they were documented.

“Initially at the beginning – because things are so chaotic – you could pick up refugees from these centres no problem and drive them into Lithuania. But because of security reasons – because of the problems regarding human trafficking and the risks there – they were much more strict on who could take who, and they required more documentation. The first trip was easy to pick people up and take them back to Lithuania, but after the next time we went, we weren’t able to take any refugees back because they required a lot of more information and details about who we were and where we were going, etc. so there was those sorts of things that would get in the way.”

So instead of going directly to the refugee centres, Klassen says they picked up whomever needed a ride to Lithuania.

“People would cross the border and they would be like ‘I don’t know where I’m going’ and they would go on social media and be like ‘I need a ride, this is where I’m going’ and this is what we were able to tap into. There were some refugees that I picked up at McDonald’s. You never knew, there were refugees everywhere, so it would all depend on the situation and on where you were, on the time you were going through. You just did what you had to do.”

He also saw during his time in Eastern Europe the women and children who looked uncertain as to they would see their loved ones ever again.

“I’m thinking of one girl specifically at our church (in Lithuania) who only knew her father through video calls and not really understanding why they’re not together – they’re a thousand kilometres away in another country. So I think for the young kids it’s a lot of uncertainty about ‘Why did we move? Where’s my father? Why isn’t he with us? When am I going to see him again?’. Then for the mothers to try and communicate that to the children, and also for the women to not know necessarily are even alive, so it made things very difficult.”

He also saw how the mothers and their children showed strength despite the circumstances.

“I remember the first time I got to the border – just a sea of people just crossing over, women, children and some elderly men, but mostly women and young children with really nothing and really no idea where they’re going to go. And to see the strength of the mothers but also of the children. In getting ready for this interview I opened up my journal because I had taken some notes while I was there. It says ‘Friday, March 18th, as we picked up 11 refugees at 2 refugee centres (in Poland) I took 6 in my car; there were 4 children, one wasn’t much more than a few years old and she hardly made a sound the whole way’. We drove about 11 hours with these people in my car. It just struck me how despite everything that had been going on, people were so strong.”

Looking back months later, he believes Ukraine has a very real chance of prevailing in the war with Russia.

“I think that they have shown in a remarkable way how real of a possibility that Ukraine will win and they are committed to that. I think they have something the Russians don’t have – they have the motivation, they have the heart to win at all costs.”


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