Stéphane Beaudin could no longer just watch.
As the war between Ukraine and Russia escalated at the end of February, and images of busloads of refugees fleeing bombed-out towns flashed across the TV screen at Beaudin’s home in Farnham, the special education technician turned housepainter decided he had to act.
“My partner is a nurse, and she wanted to go to Ukraine to volunteer as a nurse, but she was told she had to wait six months,” he says. “We found that very frustrating.”
Two weeks ago, Beaudin wrote a post on Facebook wondering how he could best help the Ukrainian people; contacts, requests and offers of support began flooding in, exceeding his wildest expectations. Next month, Beaudin and a fellow volunteer, a special education technician from Spain who he met through a friend on social media, plan to travel to Bucharest, Romania, rent a van and use the van to transport supplies and displaced people to and from the Ukrainian border.
According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 3.4 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion of the country began on Feb. 24. Most have fled to neighbouring countries, including Romania, Poland, Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary. “In Bucharest and in the capitals of all the countries bordering Ukraine, there are thousands of people arriving – imagine 200,000 newcomers arriving in Sherbrooke overnight,” says Beaudin.
His plan is to provide refugees with transportation into Romania, and bring supplies – including medicines, soap, razors, binoculars and bulletproof vests – to the Romania-Ukraine border; friends of friends will then bring the supplies to Odessa. He and his Spanish colleague plan to repeat the journey as many times as they can during a two-week trip. Over the past two weeks, he has been busy on social media establishing contacts and setting up supply drops; his partner and 11-year-old daughter are helping out with fundraising and research respectively.
Beaudin believes his background in special education will serve him well working with refugees. “I’m experienced in crisis management and assistance with children and adults; when you’re a special educator, you’re used to being adaptable, doing a lot with a little and being a team player. My colleague and I are two special educators on a mission.”
The Canadian government currently advises against all travel to Ukraine. Major humanitarian organizations including Doctors Without Borders and Doctors of the World, while actively recruiting medical professionals and people with experience in the logistics of humanitarian aid, have cautioned against untrained international “helpers” travelling to Ukraine or any other conflict zones.
Beaudin clarifies that he has no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine. “I have no experience in war zones and I’m not actually going [to the front lines],” he says. “The people from the [International Committee of the] Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders who are actually in Ukraine are the real heroes from my point of view. I’m not suggesting that anyone should just go to a war zone without a plan. Bucharest will be our base camp, and we feel like we’ll be safe in Romania.”
“Every time I have a worry about this trip, I think of all the mothers and children and grandparents fleeing Ukraine; compared to them I have nothing to worry about,” he says.