Reflections on Helping, Humanity and Hope

“Our culture prizes knowing: our goal, passion, product. What we need to celebrate is unknowing: messy middles marked by confusion and next steps”.

Susan David

A lot can change in 20 days. As I write, a train is taking me from Prague, Czech Republic to Salzburg, Austria. Watching new vistas pass by the window, makes it feel like a lifetime ago we answered an email from Vets without Borders titled “Urgent: Vets needed to support Ukraine at the Polish border”. What are we doing on a train to Salzburg? Why am I not in Poland “helping” people and pets from Ukraine? It has been weird and mentally exhausting trip necessitating shifts from head to heart and back again while challenging biases and discovering truth often lies hidden in that messy middle. It has also been a deeply rewarding trip but not in the ways I expected.

To begin at the beginning seems a good place to start. Way back to March 10, I opened my email to find an urgent request from Vets without Borders. I ran upstairs and said to Rob (my husband and also a vet) “read this and tell me your thoughts”. I watched as he read and then without hesitation, turned to me and said two words. “Hell yes”. Calls were made, life rescheduled, donations gathered and in a few short days we were on our way to Poland. From that first “hell yes” it was a rollercoaster of emotions running the gamut from excitement, gratitude and disbelief to uncertainty, impostor syndrome and full blow fear. Not fear for our physical safety but fear that we might not be “enough” or have the skills needed for the job we were being asked to do – set up an animal health center in a refugee camp close to the Polish-Ukraine border. This volunteer job was different than anything we had done before and uncertainty loomed large for both of us.

I have a tendency to overthink things and get stuck in the details. Through our years of travel and volunteer work, Rob helps me get out of my head with his reminder that “if we don’t have a good time, we will have a good story”. As we frantically packed for the journey and impostor syndrome threatened to overtake Rob, I was able to offer him a reminder that “regardless of what happens I know one thing will be true. We will meet some amazing people and make new friends, we always do!”. We joined hands and stepped forward into our uncertainty.

Veterinarians without Borders VWB is a great organization. A Canadian NGO whose work in Canada’s remote North we have had the privilege of supporting as volunteer vets. Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, VWB responded to the sudden need for food, medication and supplies by animal shelters and animal welfare groups in Ukraine. As the war escalated countries neighboring Ukraine were presented with staggering numbers of refugees crossing the border with their pets. In Chelm, Poland, a town 20 km from the Dorohusk border an 800-bed transitional camp was being organized to temporarily house Ukraine refugees. Camp volunteers saw the potential for large numbers of pets arriving with their fleeing owners and reached out to VWB requesting help. Within days of our arrival, it became apparent the need for veterinary care was not what we and others watching the news at home were expecting to find. Thankfully, the “worst case scenario” did not exist as pets arriving at the camp were anxious and stressed but in good health. These were the lucky animals, owned by people with the resources and/or the ability to escape with their four-legged companions. Owners were in need of reassurance, travel kennels, food and most importantly rabies vaccinations and microchips to allow travel to other parts of Europe. As foreign vets, without the approval of Polish veterinary authorities, we were of no use in this capacity. We learned our first lesson. Things are not always as they seem; be open to challenging your expectations and assumptions.

With this new understanding, we shifted gears and started exploring where and how VWB we could best support the plight of Ukrainian people and their pets. This is where things get interesting. A quick search of social media reveals dozens of animal welfare groups as well as individuals who are in Poland or coming to Poland with the intention of “helping”. Sorting through which groups are “doing good” or following necessary rules was a mind-numbing exercise fraught with challenging questions whose answers remained elusive. Note: the low vaccination rate of pets in Ukraine makes the spread of rabies into neighboring EU countries a very real risk if animals are illegally moved across borders by well-meaning people. It brought to mind a favourite quote I heard many years ago about the nature of humanitarian or any good work one might decide to do. “There are 3 rules we need to remember:

Rule #1 – Do good

Rule #2 – Be seen to do good

Rule #3 – Don’t confuse rule #1 and rule #2”.

In attempt to separate fact from media hype we spent our days gathering information from as many sources as possible only to discover lesson number two; truth is often hidden in shades of grey. We spoke to local people and local veterinarians. We visited other refugee camps and border crossings. We spoke with a local veterinarian and met with government vets working around the clock at Polish entry checkpoints. We arranged a meeting with a large international NGO doing the same research as ourselves and explored opportunities to collaborate. Finally, we scored a meeting with the head veterinary official in the region where most of the animal rescue groups were gathering. Opinions on the legitimacy and intentions of these groups varied greatly depending on the perspective and biases of each individual. Who decides what is ethical in a war zone? What does “doing good” even mean? We challenged our own biases in an attempt to find the facts and discovered even more shades of grey. Shades of gray that were starting to look muddy with the very real possibility of getting stuck in something we might regret. It was becoming clear that the real need was inside Ukraine’s borders and with no ability to speak Ukrainian/Polish/Russian, creating a new role for VWB in Poland was in fact “confusing rule number 1 and rule number 2”.

It should be noted that before Rob and I arrived, and separate from our mission, VWB was already sending supplies into Ukraine to support the animal shelters and animal welfare groups on the Ukraine side of the border, through partner organizations. They continue to do so, having partnered with 5 different organizations working in the Ukraine. By doing so, in the last month VWB has delivered 430 tons of animal food to over 1200 drop points, which range from organized animal shelters, to individuals taking care of groups of abandoned animals. What is really needed from Canada is to support this is funding, not personnel on the ground. Anyone who wishes they could help, whether that be veterinary clinics, staff, or clients can donate to the VWB Ukrainian initiative. Donations can be made on line through the VWB Ukrainian Animal Emergency Appeal.

Which brings me to the end of this tale and lesson number 3. The real story, the best story, is never about you. This isn’t a story about two veterinarians from Canada who answered an email and travelled to the Polish Ukraine border. Rather, it is a story about the collective compassion of human beings and our inherent “goodness”. Before you disagree and remind me of the atrocities happening next door in Ukraine, let me share another perspective. This story would not exist without organizations like VWB who responded to a call for help from halfway around the world. It would not exist without the compassionate people of Poland and other countries who have opened their borders, their doors and their hearts to help ease the suffering of their fellow man. An abandoned grocery store, a sport stadium and an empty car dealership all became safe places for weary travelers to rest because the people of Poland saw a need, saw suffering and made it happen. In fact, two somewhat misguided vets from Canada would have been occupying those camp beds themselves were it not for a kind Polish family who took them in and fed them with no expectation of anything in return. A family who will forever hold a place in our memories and our hearts. From the Ukranian student who worked as our translator, the firefighters who drove us to the border and countless others who helped us explore the layers of complexity that exist on the edge of a war zone, we owe you our deepest gratitude.

Finally, thank you again to all the local veterinary hospitals in the West Kootenays and Kelowna area who generously donated supplies. Those medical supplies were packed into boxes and we have received word they arrived safely at VWB’s partners in the Ukraine where they will be used by animal shelters and veterinarians who remain taking care of the less fortunate animals left behind. Your response was truly heartfelt and heartwarming and we sincerely hope it ends up doing the good we all hoped it would.

This story is about you and it is about them. It is about getting comfortable with “messy middles” and moving forward despite this discomfort to embrace our humanity in the face of sadness, uncertainty and fear. An intricate web connects us all. May we see beyond ourselves and find hope in their example.