Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the Order of Malta has been working to help those affected. Order of Malta Worldwide Relief, also known as Malteser International, has been hard at work to bring relief, supplies, and aid to Ukrainian refugees in Poland. The Polish Association, as well as other Associations of the Order of Malta, have been providing support to all relief efforts where the greatest areas of need are found. However, not all efforts to support Ukrainian refugees are occurring directly through the Order of Malta’s relief efforts. Recently, Dr. Ed Gamboa, KM of the Monterey Location in the Western Association of the Order of Malta, traveled to the Polish-Ukrainian border to assist SSF (Sauveteurs Sans Frontieres or Rescuers without Borders) in helping Ukrainian refugees fleeing across the border.
During one of his short breaks, Dr. Ed Gamboa was kind enough to take a moment to answer some questions.
What is SSF (Rescuers without Borders) doing there?
SSF, like the Order of Malta and Malteser International, mobilized its teams rapidly. SSF was on the ground within 24 hours of the invasion. Here in Medyka, at the Polish-Ukrainian border, SSF set up an emergency medical clinic (the brown MASH tent with the gurney parked in front) and a refugee center, located right at the border entry.
As thousands of war refugees poured in (over 2 million into Poland and counting), SSF opened a second clinic at the periphery of Medyka, where a modern supermarket is also located not far from the main checkpoint. Big shuttle buses transport refugees from here to other towns and cities in Poland.
SSF is involved in two main tasks. They welcome refugees who need shelter and a place to rest in a large refugee center, staffed by volunteer teachers, social workers, counselors, etc., who attend to their physical and psychological needs. The center can accommodate 30-50 people. Blankets, clothes, meals, toys, and hygiene kits are provided. The children are entertained by musicians and participate in games with trained counselors. Adjacent to the camp is the medical clinic, staffed 24/7 by physicians, nurses, and interpreters.
It is comforting for refugees to see people concerned about their plight, welcoming them warmly and attending to their needs. The refugees have lost everything overnight. Their families, friends, and neighbors have been separated, their husbands and sons left behind to fight the war. Some have lost spouses, siblings, and friends.
The SSF's second task is receiving donations, mainly medicines and medical supplies, from all over Europe and the world, sorting them out, repacking, and categorizing them for transport to hospitals in Lviv, Kyiv, and as far east as transport vehicles could safely reach.
What kind of medical services are being offered to refugees?
Here in the “upper clinic”, we see all sorts of the usual GP and pediatric cases, fever, sore throat, cough, and diarrhea. Occasionally there are urgent care/ minor surgical patients. This second camp also serves as the reception area for medical supplies. Folks drop by daily with oil and gas, water, baby food, clothes, and medicines which are sorted out and transported into Ukraine. Like the World Central Kitchen close by which serves hot meals 24/7 to refugees and volunteers alike, the two clinics are staffed 24/7, with a physician or a nurse, plus a non-medical volunteer/Ukrainian interpreter.
Thousands of refugees walk into Medyka daily. Many had traveled in jam-packed buses and trains, then waited in line at the border for their papers to be processed, some standing in line 8-12 hours as the temperature dropped towards afternoon and evening. So, we attended to patients with dehydration, hypothermia, headaches, joint aches, and pains. Thankfully we have been blessed with some warmer days.
Where are the volunteers from? How do you staff the medical tents 24/7?
We have an international crew primarily from Israel and France, where SSF has its main offices. Complemented by volunteers from the United States, Canada, the Philippines, etc. We do three flexible shifts -- 0800-1600, 1600-2400, 2400-0800.
What has your impression been of the Polish people?
As my Hungarian surgical colleague in Monterey says, the Polish are simply good folks. Kind and compassionate. It's no surprise that St. John Paul II the Great and St. Faustina Kowalska are Polish. And talented as Marie Curie, Frederic Chopin, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, Nicolaus Copernicus. Out of an estimated 3 million+ war refugees from Ukraine, over 2 million are now in Poland. This is incredible when you consider that Poland’s population is 37 million and Ukraine’s is 40 million. While Putin continues his assault on Ukrainian civilians, kind-hearted Poles are opening their hearts and homes to victims of this horrendous war.
The Order of Malta has the twin charisms of serving the poor and the sick, and witnessing the Catholic faith. It is clear how you and other Members of the Order are serving the poor and the sick. How has the second part of the Order’s charism manifested itself through all of this?
During our off-hours, we joined congregations of Polish and Greek Catholics to pray for peace and an end to this brutal and senseless war. It’s been inspiring to see so many of us come together ecumenically in prayer. To greet the Sikhs, the Buddhists, the JWs, the Muslims, and many others of different faiths brought together by the inner call to help alleviate the suffering of war victims. It was an honor to be invited by the Israelis to celebrate Shabbat with them.
Is there anything that could cause you to cease your efforts in Poland?
If Belarus, with its 50,000 armed forces, joins Putin’s invasion and cuts off the border entries/humanitarian corridors into Poland, the humanitarian organizations lined up along the border will have to fold up and evacuate. Otherwise, I hope to be able, God willing, to return soon and help a bit more.