The world is watching with fear and concern as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine decimates once-bustling cities and displaces millions of people scrambling to leave the country.
Unable to tune out from the suffering of Ukrainian people, one Maltese man is helping transport refugees from the Polish border.
Marc Edward Pace Portanier, who has strong ties to Poland through his partner and close friends, is part of a team of people renting vans and helping transport refugees from the Polish border crossing in Zusin to Lublin.
Poland, which shares a large land border with Ukraine, has taken in more than 1.4 million refugees since the start of the invasion in February.
“We started out with just one car and three seats and we were helping with logistics and getting people who want to travel to other parts of Poland to get where they need to be,” he told Times of Malta.
“Right now, most transport, like trains and buses, are free in Poland for fleeing Ukrainians, so we’re helping out by doing the two-hour trip from the reception centre to the inner city and assisting them in planning out how they can arrive at their next destination.
“Some are staying in Poland, others are moving on to other European destinations and others are going to farther countries still, wherever they have family or friends who will take them in.
“The most heartbreaking ones are those who do not have a final destination to go to. They have left husbands or parents behind. They have no idea what to do next.”
The effort is being coordinated by two of Marc’s friends, Paweł Dziubiński and Wojciech Sielicki, who lives in Malta, through their child-focused charity Fundacja Zmieniamy Życie (Change a Life Foundation).
"I thought I had thick skin but when you’re there, it’s hard to go to sleep at night because, even though you’re exhausted, emotionally you’re numb."
Since the first trip to Poland, just one day after the invasion began, the group managed to raise funds to rent an eight-seater van and a 50-seater bus to increase the capacity of the trips, with the group members even travelling into Ukraine to transport refugees over the border.
The NGO is also working to coordinate shelter and accommodation for refugees and have set up a temporary home for unaccompanied minors, one of the darker realities unfolding as the brutal fighting continues in Ukrainian cities.
The group is raising funds to continue with the efforts as well as donating medicine and essential items to refugees arriving over the border.
Their efforts have not been in vain. Thanks to donations, the group will today start another trip to pick up 100 women and children and provide them with basic necessities.
“What has been incredible is the effort people are putting in to help Ukrainians,” Marc said.
“Virtually, every city in Poland has its own network of volunteers and there is such an outpour of support and help.”
Having made his first trip to the Polish border last week, Marc has plans to return to continue helping later this week.
“I knew what to expect but once you’re there and see the raw situation, you need to cut out emotions,” he said.
“Everyone is doing their best to help but, sometimes, you have to make the hard decision and accept that you cannot help everyone who is there.
“Some of these people crossed the border on foot and have been waiting for hours. At the reception centres, there is dead silence despite the fact that there are thousands of people.
“The air is very heavy there. The worst are the children because some of them are so young they can barely comprehend what is happening to them,” he added.
“I’ve heard parents tell their children that they’re going on an adventure because being displaced is such a dark and stigmatised thing. How do you even begin to explain that to a young child?
“I thought I had thick skin but when you’re there, it’s hard to go to sleep at night because, even though you’re exhausted, emotionally you’re numb.”
Still, the strength of the Ukrainian people is unwavering in the face of abject hardship.
“From what I’ve seen and heard, the Ukrainians are mentally very resilient and are grateful for every shred of help.
“It’s a good feeling to be part of something bigger. What started as a two-man job is growing into an army,” Pace Portanier said.