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Bringing help: Western North Carolina’s connection to the war in Ukraine

Bringing help: Western North Carolina’s connection to the war in Ukraine

Leaning against a wall in the basement of the train station right about midnight, they were cold and tired and broken, and it quickly became clear that they wished to go no further.

They’d already made it more than 5,000 miles from Asheville to a small, ancient city in eastern Poland, but still had about 700 miles left on two separate overnight trains until they’d reach their destination. 

Humanitarian aid workers who’d been laboring in a war zone for nearly eight months were eagerly awaiting their arrival. It would be up to me to drag them across the finish line.

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Ukraine’s national railway trains, as seen above in Kyiv, continue to operate after minor interruptions during Russia’s initial invasion. Cory Vaillancourt

I wasn’t in much better shape. Jet lag, little to no meaningful sleep for days and the constant physical stress of escorting them halfway across the globe had left me just as exhausted as they were. Staring up at the imposing granite stairwell leading out to the streets, I glanced back down at my two travel companions, who by now had collapsed and were lying in a heap on the icy floor.

We’ll call them Pinkie and Blue. 

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Blue was nothing but dead weight. Leaving Pinkie at the bottom next to my big black suitcase, I hauled Blue halfway up the stairs. Each step was laborious and awkward. Then, it was back down to Pinkie, who was likewise completely defiant. Yanking Pinkie up the stairs to rejoin Blue, I repeated the process a few times, leapfrogging them along with my suitcase until finally we were all together at the top. 

The streets of Przemysl were deserted and dark but for a warm orange glow emanating from some corner bar just down the way, like a picture some vaguely Slavic version of Thomas Kinkade might paint. 

I would’ve been happy to plant myself on a barstool just then but wasn’t eager to mule my companions across the cobblestone streets and simply couldn’t leave them unattended, so I sat down on the ground between them, taking in the frigid winter air, in a pristine sort of silence, waiting for the train. 

A shrill, high-pitched blast from an air whistle signified its arrival from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine more than 350 miles to the east. Passengers disembarked — all women and children, most without luggage — and the quiet station suddenly awoke. 

Those lacking joyous reunions proceeded to the station’s waiting room. Half of it had been commandeered for cots perched 6 inches off the floor, topped with fat white pillows and thin wool blankets. 

Coats and baby clothes, along with diapers, were piled everywhere. A woman in a red vest that said “medica” on the back weaved her way through it all, dispensing bottled water. 

Out of the shadows, a young man came to me speaking what I assumed was Polish. I don’t speak Polish. “No speak-o your language-o,” I said, unsure exactly why I’d put it to him that way. 

He whipped out his phone, fired up the Google Translate app, and spoke more of his words into it. They quickly appeared on the screen, in English. He told me he knew of some cheap hotels if I needed one, maybe the kind where you wake up the next morning in a bathtub full of ice, missing a kidney, with a note on your chest telling you to call an ambulance. 

An older man wandered about the station, talking to the few random people who were still lingering there. Dangling about his neck was a blue and yellow lanyard with a placard that said “volunteer.”

“Kyiv?” he asked. I nodded. 

“Great,” he said in a thick Boston accent. “Your train leaves from right over there. C’mon, I’ll help.”

He grabbed ahold of Blue as another tall man latched onto Pinkie. They led us around the corner of the station into the Polish border guard building and ushered us into the trackside enclosure. 

“Good luck,” he said. 

A stern-faced policewoman with light brown hair drawn back into a tight ponytail inspected my American passport from her desk inside a tiny plexiglass vestibule. She looked down at it, and then up at me, and then down at it, and then up at me again in silence far less pristine than the street. Scanning my passport through some sort of machine, she made a few percussive strokes on her keyboard. 

Located as it was just 5 miles from the Ukrainian border, Przemysl had become something of a jumping-off point for people looking to cross by train and as such had become a swirling crossroads of spooks and spies, humanitarians and mercenaries, refugees and journalists. It was all very no-nonsense there. 

Without a word she pulled out her stamp, mashed it onto a blank page with a clockwork “ka-CHUNK” and handed it back to me. 

Pinkie and Blue didn’t need passports. 

You see, Pinkie and Blue aren’t people. They’re thrift-store-class rolling travel suitcases, pink and blue, each filled with 50-some pounds of level 3a anti-ballistic armor. 

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Sergio Fesiuk is the lead pastor at AVL City Church in Arden. Cory Vaillancourt photo

This all started back in late February, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The reasons for the invasion are both complex and simple — a simmering 1,000-year feud among closely related cultures, and Russian security concerns over a post-Soviet, self-determinant Ukraine growing ever closer to the west.

A month or so later, Garret K. Woodward, The Smoky Mountain News’ A&E editor, and I hatched a plan to do some reporting on the situation. He talked to PBS war correspondent Jane Ferguson, and I spoke with several professors at Western Carolina University. One of them, at the conclusion of our interview, said, “You’re going, aren’t you?”

At the time, I hadn’t considered it, but after being asked, I started to think seriously about it. As a politics editor concerned mostly with local, state and sometimes national politics, I had to convince myself that the reporting I’d do would be relevant to my field and my audience. I found my justification in 19th-century Prussian cavalry officer and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. 

“War,” Clausewitz said more or less, “is simply the continuation of politics by other means.”

Through the spring and summer, I planned to explore what happens when politics degrades into “other means.” I had some ideas and some contacts, but by late September they’d all petered out, so I resigned myself to sitting at home during my annual five-week post-election sabbatical until a chance meeting set things back into motion. 

He’s a low-key Asheville businessman. You probably wouldn’t know his name even if I told you, but we’ll call him Andre. A mutual friend gave me his name and his number, scrawled in ball-point blue on a crumpled scrap of yellow paper. Although Andre prefers to stay in the background, he’s been delivering humanitarian supplies to Ukraine pretty much since the war began — clothes, medical supplies and, yes, body armor for aid workers. 

In the United States, law enforcement agencies utilize varying grades of personal protective equipment, but the vests carry an expiration date after which they can’t be used anymore. Usually, they’re destroyed. 

I first became aware of this when I wrote an August story about a donation of used body armor from the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office that would ultimately end up in Ukraine through the efforts of Samaritan’s Purse and the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. 

In talking to Andre, I learned everything I would need to know about travelling to an active war zone. Underscoring the seriousness of the whole journey, I quickly surmised that the most valuable skill I could acquire was to become an expert in the proper and rapid application of a tourniquet. 

I also learned that Andre wasn’t Ukrainian but was involved in relief efforts due to the leadership at his place of worship, AVL City Church, in Arden. 

“We’re actually nondenominational. We have maybe 15% Slavic people but we have about a dozen or so other nationalities,” said Lead Pastor Sergio Fesiuk. “We have people that are just newborn a few weeks ago to people in their 80s from all walks of life, quite frankly. Different age groups, different stages in life, a dozen nationalities from Spanish to Polish to Congo from Africa.”

Fesiuk was born in Ukraine in the early 1980s. In 1989, near the end of a 70-year period of Soviet repression, Fesiuk’s entire family fled the religious persecution of communist Ukraine for Buffalo, New York. 

“There was a lot of prejudice against those who believed in God and so you were not allowed to attain proper schooling. Your work, they looked at what you believed, and really diminished and not allow you to get ahead because of your faith,” he said. 

In 1993, the family ended up in Asheville and started the church. Although they began shipping aid to Ukraine at that time, their efforts ramped up in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion. 

Fesiuk, however, wanted to ensure the aid they were sending would end up going to the people who needed it most. 

“We did not want to just raise funds and give it to an organization, because of the corruption. Some people ask, ‘So you think Ukraine is corrupt now?’ My response is typically, ‘Which government is not corrupt?’ You have to put things into perspective, as if all of a sudden Ukraine won’t be corrupt. Of course it is. So is America and so is every other country,” Fesiuk said. “A lot of the funds that get raised, they go to the people that they’ve always gone to, and that’s typically the people at the top or those who have connections.”

SEE ALSO: In Ukraine, American nonprofits stave off humanitarian catastrophe

Drawing upon his existing Ukrainian network, Fesiuk began to hand-deliver money and supplies. Then, he started to build a team of people who could go and do likewise. One of them, Andre, asked me if I’d be willing to take a few extra suitcases on my trip. 

I met Andre only once, at the Asheville Regional Airport. He paid for Pinkie and Blue’s passage to Krakow, Poland. We shook hands, and that was that. 

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The train station in Przemysl, Poland, has become a convenient waypoint for travelers to Ukraine. Cory Vaillancourt photo

From Asheville to Chicago to Frankfurt I didn’t have to deal with Pinkie and Blue much, but that all changed once I got to the hotel in Krakow.

My three-hour train to Przemysl wouldn’t leave until the next night, so to avert the whole struggle I took Blue from my hotel to a locker in the train station. Then I returned to my room and repeated the process with Pinkie. Getting them onto the train and into the overhead bins was a herculean task made all the more difficult by Pinkie losing a wheel somewhere along the way. By the time we finally made it onto our overnight train out of Przemysl, to Kyiv, I’d had quite enough of them, to be honest, and dozed off into an uncertain slumber. 

I awoke to a tall, blond Ukrainian woman shaking me. She wore camo, a sidearm and a serious countenance. 

“Passport,” she said. She wasn’t asking. 

I noticed a bomb dog and two other soldiers on the train, checking everyone as we officially crossed the border into a country at war. Now, the possibility of a Russian missile strike — anytime, anywhere — would be constant. 

I was a bit worried about Pinkie and Blue. 

Sure, they had proper export paperwork, but I was operating on the word of some total strangers that I wouldn’t get hassled. Thus far, they were right. How long that would continue was still a concern. 

There was little more sleep to be had on that 12-hour ride through the Bible-black night of western Ukraine in winter. Out the window, there wasn’t much to be seen for long stretches of time, except for the occasional soft light from some small settlement blazing through the car until, eventually, all would fade to black again. 

When the sun began to “rise” behind the thick grey clouds — I only saw it for a few hours the whole two weeks I was in Europe — I began to make out some details. 

It struck me how midwestern it all looked, which perhaps explained why the pre-Soviet Slavic diaspora easily adapted from the breadbasket of Europe to the breadbasket of America. 

On both sides, the tracks were bordered by small stretches of woodland. Beyond them, through breaks in the tree line, I could see vast empty fields covered in snow and with Czech hedgehogs blocking frontage roads. Czech hedgehogs aren’t animals. They resemble large, six-pointed jacks, are usually made from 3-foot sections of rail and are designed to thwart the advance of mechanized infantry and tanks. 

By around 6 a.m., we were approaching the far reaches of Kyiv, a city of 3 million. 

Early in the war, Russian troops reached the outskirts but were ultimately repelled by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who offered fierce resistance, and the civilians who greeted them with Molotov cocktails. This was perhaps the first indication that Russia’s army wasn’t as strong as the world thought it might be. 

Other than the occasional hedgehog or concrete-block checkpoint, there were few signs that intense fighting had raged here just eight months prior. Great smokestacks, soaring into the sky, seemed to sprout from residential neighborhoods where massive high-rise apartment buildings, a remnant of communist-era housing policy, loomed ominously. 

I was ready to get off the train as soon as it pulled into Kyiv’s sprawling Pasazhyrskyi station at 7 a.m., and it was at this point that the situation with my two uncooperative travel companions became downright comical. 

The platform was busy. Very busy. Mobs. People pushing. Shoving. Walking with intense determination and sense of purpose. Pulling Pinkie and Blue off the train, along with my own suitcase, was a whole process. Grab one. Move it. Go back for the other. Move it. Get the last one, move it. Pinkie falls down. Prop Pinkie up. Blue falls down. Prop Blue up. Stack Blue on top of Pinkie. All fall down. Buster Keaton. Charlie Chaplin. Three Stooges. 

A gaunt, younger man asked if I wanted a taxi. I told him no. 

An old, toothless man who smelled like a river of vodka was next. 

“Help. I help,” he said. 

I told him no as well, but he grabbed ahold of Blue. Hoisting Blue above his head, he started to walk away. His partner, another old ne’er-do-well, grabbed Pinkie. 

“Oh no,” I thought. “Here’s where this all goes haywire.”

I had no idea what they would do, where they were going, or what they would want when we got there. I only knew they didn’t look capable of running off with the heavy suitcases. The taxi guy, who’d been following me, asked me again and out of desperation I said, “Fine.”

It was all a blur. They moved fast, literally tossing people out of the way. I had no choice but to follow in their wake, dazed and apprehensive. 

Through a crowded corridor and down an escalator they ushered me out of the station in what seemed like only a few seconds. Sloshing through several inches of grey, salty slush, the two men loaded everything into the trunk of an unlicensed taxi parked outside and then did the most remarkable thing — they simply turned and walked away. No, I wouldn’t have that. I grabbed one of them and slipped a $20 into his palm. That’s almost a day’s wages for the average Ukrainian. Then, I chased down the other guy and did the same. 

The taxi driver slowly closed his trunk and opened the passenger door. I slumped into the seat with a great sense of relief. I’d made it this far with Pinkie and Blue and my suitcase. I was in the home stretch. 

“Where to?” he asked. 

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Dawn breaks over the train station in Odessa, Ukraine, on Dec. 1. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Weeks before my trip began, Andre, through Sergio, connected me to a guy in Ukraine named Dennis Melnichuk. Through several phone calls with Melnichuk, I learned that he was born in the United States to a Ukrainian family and is currently orchestrating the delivery of some of the cargo the Asheville church has been sending. Melnichuk is part of a nonprofit called Awakened Generation, which coordinates with faith leaders and locals to meet what it calls “the catastrophic surge” of need in the wake of the Russian invasion.

“We do a mix of humanitarian aid and religious work, helping people the best that we know how. We’ve been doing this for years but ever since the war started, that’s been taken up another notch, something that we never expected,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of things that we were not trained for, or would not even consider ourselves qualified for, but we’ve learned a lot along the way and have been able to help a lot of people.”

On the morning of Feb. 24, Melnichuk received a phone call from his pastor, who reported explosions in Kyiv. Melnichuk’s first instinct was to head toward danger, in hopes of helping to evacuate civilians, but he was talked out of it. 

“I’m glad that I was, because the road was blocked,” he said. “There were people that were in line on the road, stuck on the highway for three or four-plus days. We ended up organizing a group together, we had about 14 vehicles, 20-plus drivers who are driving out into Kyiv in cooperation with other churches that were some of the first responders before any international organizations could really get into position, even before the government really could start implementing mass evacuations.”

Melnichuk’s operation now consists of a number of cargo vans. Since the war began, he estimates that they’ve helped more than 2,000 people flee the conflict for somewhat safer environs in western Ukraine. 

“As believers, we really want to make sure that what we do is being led by the Lord and at the time we actually said that this is what the Lord was speaking to us to do,” he said. 

Apparently, the Lord had chosen Melnichuk’s crew for one of His toughest battles. 

In the early days of the war, when military operations were much more common, the bright red crosses painted on the tops and sides of their vans meant little. 

“They were traveling in a convoy together, and they were targeted. This other team was driving back and they saw the cars all burning,” he said. “You just see people’s bodies burned on the ground, and this car, it’s clearly an evacuation vehicle.”

I’d hoped to hitch a ride in one of Dennis’ vans, but the logistics simply didn’t work out for us, so I had no other choice but to book the time-consuming train trips. When I arrived in Kyiv, I was looking at a 12-hour layover with Pinkie and Blue and nothing in particular to do. 

Sitting in the cab at the Kyiv train station, I showed the driver an address Dennis had given me; it was a “safe house” of sorts in the suburbs where I could crash for a few hours. 

During the ride I learned that my cab driver’s name was Vitali, and that he had worked in air freight before the war. With the subsequent cessation of civil aviation, he found himself without a job and was trying desperately to feed his family of four before the holidays. 

At one point, I asked him what he would say to Russian President Vladimir Putin if he had the chance. 

“Nothing,” he said through Google Translate. “One cannot have conversation with a madman.”

As we progressed along the 20-minute drive, Kyiv was bustling, albeit without power or traffic signals. There wasn’t much obvious damage apparent. 

We soon arrived in a modest, middle-class neighborhood. I gave Vitali all the cash in my pocket and he gave me a hug. 

Anya was expecting me and showed me to a bedroom. 

I awoke some hours later in the dark and the cold as Anya called me downstairs for dinner. Spaghetti, bread, parmesan cheese, dill pickles and water. I realized it was my first actual meal in several days, and it was magnificent. 

There were six of them now, a makeshift family of drivers who’d just gotten off the road or were preparing to get on the road under cover of darkness. My 9 p.m. departure was approaching. Anya and another man, Grigori, took me back to the train station in one of the vans, helping me drag Pinkie and Blue along. 

Inside the cavernous station, which had blacked-out windows, Ukrainian soldiers were everywhere. Some coming, some who had seen things they can’t forget, some going, some who would never return, some patrolling, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Their rifles weren’t like the clean, pristine weapons you see American soldiers carrying. They were Soviet-era Kalashnikovs with wood furniture, dented, scratched, nicked. I wondered how many owners they’d had, how many times over the past half-century they’d been dropped, how many horrors their sights had seen. 

Anya and Grigory waited there with me with me until my overnight sleeper train arrived. I’d purchased both bunks in the compartment so I could get some privacy and some rest. After nearly four straight days of travel, I was badly in need of both. 

An attendant chastised me for raising the shades on my window, but she was, mercifully, the last person I’d see for the next nine hours. Cracking a bottle of wine I’d bought in Krakow, I did a little reading and was quickly lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking and predictable rhythm of the carriage. 

Early the next morning, I awoke to the sound of long-delayed messages pinging my phone as the train re-entered an area with cell service. The messages were from someone I didn’t know, a man named Viktor, who would be waiting for my arrival — or more appropriately, the arrival of Pinkie and Blue. 

I stepped off the train at around 6 a.m. in Odessa, an ancient port city at the northern tip of the Black Sea just 70 miles from the Crimean Peninsula seized by Russia in 2014 with nary a peep from the west. It was here that I’d spend the next seven days reporting in recently liberated areas of Ukraine only a few miles from the front lines. 

Immediately, I heard someone calling my name. It was Viktor, with another man. I didn’t get a good look at them. We shook hands, and that was that. Grabbing hold of Pinkie and Blue, they disappeared off into the silent, grey dawn. 

I was actually a bit sad to see them go and wondered what adventures they’d see next. 

Hours later, I got another message from Viktor. 

“Thanks,” he said. “Thanks a lot.”  

I told him that I’d had plenty of help all along the way — the volunteers in Przemysl, the random drunks in Kyiv, Vitali the cab driver, Anya and Grigori. 

“I know,” he said. 

Editor’s note:  The names of the Ukrainians in this story have been changed to protect their identities. 

Leave a comment

5 comments

  • Just the start of an amazing journey. Thank you Cory for your wonderful report on the small things those in WNC have been doing the make a big difference in humanitarian aid.

    posted by Diana Simon

    Tuesday, 01/10/2023

  • Outstanding reporting, right here in Haywood County!
    Grateful.

    posted by Mike Goodman

    Friday, 01/06/2023

  • This is amazing commentary. Thank you for sharing your experiences

    posted by Terry Ann Clasby

    Thursday, 01/05/2023

  • thank you for the article..making people in our area aware of Ukraine ..hope & prayers

    posted by wanda deutsch

    Wednesday, 01/04/2023

  • thank you for the article..making people in our area aware of Ukraine ..hope & prayers

    posted by wanda deutsch

    Wednesday, 01/04/2023

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