Ashland teacher Paul Huard gets his hands dirty during summer break helping Ukrainian refugees escape to Poland
Paul Huard, an Ashland history teacher, holds up a vest he wore this summer in Poland that identified him as an aid worker helping Ukrainian refugees. [Morgan Rothborne/Mail Tribune]
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series about local people who recently traveled to Eastern Europe to help Ukrainians in need.
Paul Huard, a history teacher at Ashland High School, traded his summer vacation from walking another leg of the Camino de Santiago in Spain to help Ukrainian refugees escape to Poland.
His flight to Spain was already booked when war broke out, he said. Using his letter of acceptance as a Nazarene Compassionate Ministries volunteer, he was able to convince the airlines to change his flights, and he was in Poland in July.
His motivation for volunteering was his faith.
“Showing God’s love is not an ethereal light burning in the darkness; it’s people getting their hands dirty helping others,” he said.
Huard has been many things. History teacher, journalist at home and abroad, freelance and full time.
He said his experience as a wartime volunteer altered his priorities. He has won awards for his writing and teaching, but chasing success cannot be what life is about, he said. The war still captures his attention. He wants to come back.
“Everyone has a cause; I guess that’s mine,” he said.
He spent 12 weeks working at a train station in the Polish city of Przemyśl (pronounced Xemish), he said. Multiple charities have concentrated there to catch refugees who are sent there via interconnecting trains, Huard explained.
Men of military age cannot leave Ukraine, so the Ukrainian refugees he saw were almost all women and children, he said. Old women and newly single mothers who arrive at the station with children assume responsibilities unknown to them.
The women arrive in Przemyśl struggling with suitcases full of their belongings. He helped a family get a new suitcase when theirs gave up the ghost in the middle of the train tracks, and the explosion scattered the family’s belongings everywhere.
Many of the women need tickets for another leg of their journey. The Przemyśl ticket station cannot be reached except by first traveling up a staircase to an underground pedestrian tunnel, then up another staircase, Huard explained. He and his fellow volunteers met women passing through Polish border guards and offered to help them with their bags.
He likened the job to helping a friend move out of an apartment seven hours a day, eight days a week.
“I am 60 years old; I’m not the docile young man I used to be. I could only work a few hours,” he said. “Volunteers in their 20s and 30s worked eight to 10 hours a day.”
Once people and their bags were through the stairs, Huard and other volunteers would help them get tickets and connect them with larger charities to continue their getaway or meet their other needs. A charity offered borscht, beef and cabbage to those who were hungry.
Eventually, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries realized that even though Huard’s body wasn’t as strong, he had other abilities, and he paired up with a Ukrainian volunteer, Iryna, to help refugees who fell through the cracks connect -se with the biggest charities.
Huard said that in this work he relied on the advice of friends, one a combat medic, another a veteran of humanitarian work.
“You can’t help everyone, but you can help the person in front of you. You will experience emotional lows, but you will also experience a certain joy. If you need a break, step away; take care of yourself.”
Huard recalled one instance where he couldn’t leave.
Lada was a 12-year-old girl traveling with her family. They ran out of money and needed help getting to Warsaw, where they could take her to a hospital, Huard said. Lada was seriously injured in a Russian attack, with severe burns covering 40% of her body. Blood and fluid were still coming from his ears, he said.
He spent some time talking to her about school and her life at home. Hoping it would be a cheerful distraction, she worked to keep a smile on her face.
“Why that child was not in agony, I do not know; it was the grace of God that she was able to be straight,” he said.
He and his fellow volunteers arranged and paid for a train ticket, hotel room and taxi fare to take Lada to the hospital.
It was difficult, she said, to see how women endured compiling indignities. Phones get lost; luggage disintegrates; they run out of money; they don’t know if where they are going is safe, he said.
Przemyśl has frequent rains and thunderstorms in July. He said the children sometimes lay down in the rain to sleep on the ground outside the train station, too exhausted to go any further.
He expressed that all Americans should help the Ukrainians, but warned how they help.
Some people are taking advantage of the situation in Eastern Europe, he said, by advising donations to a trusted religious organization or a trusted charity already working in Ukraine or one of its neighbors.
Those who want to use their own hands and feet should expect to work there, he explained.
“It was like asking for a job. I had to go through a background check; they wanted to see a resume; they wanted to know my language skills; I had to interview twice,” Huard said of the months-long process to be accepted for an organization tied to his own church.
The process is selective, he said, because these organizations are working to keep the foxes out of the coop.
“There are sex traffickers who take advantage of refugee women and children; it has been there since the beginning. I have a lot of wristbands and a vest, so they (refugees) can see who the good guys are,” Huard said, holding up the identification items the volunteers were wearing.
He has kept many memories, but his prized possessions, he said, are two hard candies given to him by an elderly woman.
“I was helping her get her luggage across the tracks and she reached into her bag and I said in Russian, ‘no money, no money.’
The woman smiled, shook her head and handed him the candy. Huard found in these two candies an almost spiritual experience. He said he was completely fulfilled; I knew I had helped someone; he knew at that moment that he was in the right place at the right time.
“I will never eat them,” he said.
Contact Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.