Aid Worker Recalls ‘Eye-Opening' Moments From Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

Nancy Dent of the International Rescue Committee spoke with NBCLX storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo about helping Ukrainian refugees in Lublin and how people far away from the crisis can provide support.

Their stories are heartbreaking, the images hard to look at it. Ukrainians under siege and fleeing for the safety of countries like Poland number in the millions. There's a massive humanitarian effort taking place that includes support from a variety of organizations.

Nancy Dent, a senior communications officer for the International Rescue Committee, is one of those humanitarians on the ground in Poland. Dent arrived in early February and is working with refugees as part of IRC’s relief efforts.

“I think it's very easy – and especially [with] the industry that I work in – we kind of talk about people leaving with a bag and fleeing their country, but it's very confronting to actually see what that looks like,” Dent said.

NBCLX spoke with Dent about her experiences, the impact to her mental health and how people around the world can help with the crisis in Ukraine.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

NBCLX: How did you get into this line of work?

Dent: I've always loved human rights, and I studied law at university and then studied human rights in my masters and then did lots of volunteering.

My first taste of this line of work was in 2015, when there were huge numbers of refugees in Calais in France trying to get across to the UK, and there was a camp known as the Calais Jungle, which has been destroyed over time, but I think lots of people are still living there. I work across our programs in Europe and Asia, which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and I've worked with IRC in Greece.

What is it currently like in Poland where you are?

I'm at the moment based in Lublin, and that's one of the major border towns in Poland. It's about a three-hour drive from Medyka, which is the largest border crossing, I think, lots of people have seen on the news.

The number of people fleeing is huge, and just to put that into context, last year in Poland, 5,200 people applied for asylum. The numbers this year are really different, so the reception that people are receiving is largely volunteer led because obviously Poland's not had to deal with such huge numbers of refugees before.

There's also protection issues. Women and children are the majority of people who are crossing over from Ukraine, because lots of men have obviously been told to stay in Ukraine to fight, and the protection issues are huge. There are people at risk of trafficking, exploitation, unaccompanied children who are crossing and going missing anecdotally.

How are you able to get through this incredibly tough and challenging work?

I've never really worried about my safety and security on trips like this. I think we're all driven by the same thing, which is to support the people who need it most and finding inspiration in those positive stories and when you have affected change or letting your mind go back to that, rather than thinking about the uphill you have to climb in front of you.

More on the Ukrainian refugee crisis

He's One of the Few Ukrainians Who Fled to New York City. Read His Harrowing Story

Exhausted Ukrainian Refugees With Nowhere To Go Next: Scenes From the Polish Border

What do you want people to know about the situation Ukrainians are facing?

A lot of the photos and video footage you see in the news of people, it’s like a still image of somebody running in a direction or looking helpless, and I think that's a really damaging narrative around refugees, generally, and migration and displacement.

Speaking to people from Ukraine is really eye-opening because on one hand, they're absolutely devastated about the place that they've just left, the fact that they may have traveled by themselves, coming to terms with the reality of the situation. But the minute you ask them how they feel about the people they've left behind, how they feel about Ukraine as a country, they talk with such passion. They're so passionate about Ukraine and really resilient, and the world needs to remember that people are not just a black-and-white image on a screen, and people are really complex. Although they can be traumatized by what they're going through, they're also playing with their kids or thinking about the next step, and that’s always really inspiring.

Everyone's hugely complex, and it's not just about people fleeing war but where they're going next and how they can rebuild their lives.

Tell us about a time you provided a resource that helped someone who's crossed into Poland.

One woman was saying that she was so surprised by the warm welcome she was receiving in Poland, and she didn't expect it. I don't want to use the word grateful, but she was feeling appreciative of the fact that there are people at the other end there to provide warmth in terms of items but also attitude, and people feel like they can move on and feel confident that people are on their side.

How can people around the world help Ukrainians fleeing their country and refugees in general?

It's very easy to absorb the news and feel frozen in the fact that you can't do anything, but anyone can have a conversation with their friends about it and raise awareness with family members who might not have an understanding of things.

In this instance, everybody has wanted to either come volunteer or send donations, and while those things are really important and it's amazing that people really do want to provide a physical thing to help, the best thing that people can do is look at organizations that are already here — whether it's the IRC [or] a women's rights organization that works in Warsaw — that they're aligned to and just donate to them. They're the ones who are here, who have the expertise, and you can really channel the work they're doing.

Finding an organization that you're aligned with and speaking about the issues that are important to you are really good ways that people can help.