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80 years ago, strangers helped his father flee war in Ukraine. Now this Vancouver man is doing the same with a van in Poland.

From a tech boardroom in Vancouver to driving a passenger van for people fleeing a war zone.
Peter Lukomskyj has travelled to Poland from Vancouver to help transport Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war with Russia. It's similar in ways to how his father came to Canada.

Most weeks Peter Lukomskyj is a Vancouver-based tech executive working in transportation.

Right now he's still working in transportation, but he's in a place very different from a Vancouver office building. On Saturday, March 26, he and his uncle, Lee Krywitsky, landed in Poland, intent on helping refugees from Ukraine as they arrived at the two countries' border. It was a trip inspired by the help offered to Lukomskyj's father by strangers, including a Cossack, nearly 80 years ago.

Then they rented a van (and set up a fundraiser).

The scene at the border

"So what happens here is that people fleeing Ukraine will come to the border and they will queue up to try to get through to Poland," he explains. "They know that Poland is in the EU, they know Poland is protected by NATO."

Lukomskyj and Krywitsky are helping those who make it through the border get to Krakow, Poland's second-largest city and an important hub for those escaping the war. Every day they make the drive, which he describes as similar to the drive from Vancouver to Seattle. From there, transportation is much easier, with planes, trains and more.

"They've been fleeing for sometimes days," he explains. "You know, we've met people whose homes have now been completely destroyed. We've met so many moms with kids who have left their husbands behind because the husbands are staying to defend the country."

At the border, there's a space for processing who's entering Poland and the EU, which allows free passage between member countries. Lukomskyj describes it as a huge building like a big box store filled with a variety of services and supplies.

"They get to take probably the first deep breath and decelerate from this fight or flight that they've had, for sometimes weeks," he explains. "Psychologically, it's often hard even for them to do that. They just feel like they have to keep running."

It's there that Lukomskyj and Krywitsky first meet people; being able to speak Ukrainian helps. Many other volunteers who've come to help in the border area from around the world don't.

"To me, I feel like it's a superpower for me, because I feel like not only I might have my a comforting voice but I also am someone who's savvy in the ways of what the next steps look like," he explains.

While buses are on site to help transport people back and forth, they're not enough to keep up with demand, which is where Lukomskyj and his uncle come in, much like how strangers helped Lukomskyj's father.

Returning the favour 80 years later

A big part of the reason Lukomskyj and Krywitsky made the trip is their Ukrainian heritage, but there's a more specific reason than having four Ukrainian grandparents.

Lukomskyj's father was himself a refugee from Ukraine at one point.

"He and my grandparents and my aunt fled," he explains. "My dad was 10 at the time, and my aunt was seven at the time. They left Ukraine in 1945 as refugees fleeing from a conflict, and at that point, the conflict was between the Russians and the Germans."

The young family decided to flee to the west. In his memoirs Lukomskyj's father wrote about the perilous journey, including experiencing machine-gun fire at night and bombs dropping just feet away from the family as they walked down the road.

Lukomskyj read those memoirs and when war arrived in Ukraine again he took inspiration from them. One common theme in his father's stories was the help from strangers.

"The story that really impressed me was that there was a horse-drawn wagon that somebody was driving along and the person just scooped up to both kids and put them in the back of the wagon. My dad said 'I fell asleep instantly because I was near death from exhaustion,'" Lukomskyj's says.

The parents walked behind as the kids slept. Months later Lukomskyj's father asked his mother about the man.

"She said, 'You know, that was a Cossack,' which is a really strong sort of Ukrainian horseman who's very proud of being Ukrainian," explains Lukomskyj. "He said, 'Why did they pick us up?' And she said, 'You know, when that Cossack saw you, it was the only thing he could do; just pick you up and take you.' And I read that and when I read these stories, it was very, very emotional."

Eventually, Lukomskyj's father made it to Canada, where he married Lukomskyj's mother, a Canadian-born woman with Ukrainian parents. It's his mother's brother who has joined Lukomskyj in Poland.

"I don't have a horse and wagon, but I can rent a nine-passenger minivan. And if I can help somebody get through some really critical stages in the journey, I feel like I'm really just giving back and returning the favor."

The refugees' stories

In the week that they've been there the two have helped dozens of people: driving them from the border town of Przemysl to the train station in Krakow, talking to them when they arrive at the border, giving them suitcases.

During these moments Lukomskyj has heard many heartbreaking stories.

"I'm welling up five times a day," he says. "We drove a woman to the train station yesterday and she was being very stoic and sort of very quiet. Once we gave her the ticket, she just absolutely lost it in tears.

"And I said, 'What happened?' And she said, 'Overnight, my apartment back home was bombed and my mom was killed.' And she had just held it together just to get to the train station and then she just completely collapsed because her mom died that night."

In another refugee's story, Lukomskyj saw a reflection of his own family.

"We had a mom, she had, I'm guessing kind of an eight-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son and to me that was really close to home because my dad was 10 and my aunt was seven at the time. So it was like watching my grandma," he explains.

They had made it from Mariupol, where fighting has been brutal. The mother said they had been sheltering for days, if not weeks, and waiting for the shelling to stop long enough to flee.

"This was basically my dad's story of being bombed on one side, being bombed on the other side and not knowing if you're ever going to make it," Lukomskyj says.

Not everyone's story is heartbreaking though. On Wednesday they helped a young woman in her early 20s who was trying to keep a positive attitude.

"She figured out the visa process for applying for one of the visas that Canada is offering now. And she said, 'You know, I know where I'm going. I'm getting on a train in Krakow tomorrow, I'm going to The Hague in the Netherlands. And I'm going to get my biometrics done for the Canadian visa,'" Lukomskyj says.

She promised to find Lukomskyj once she got to Canada and go for a coffee. At the same time, she was leaving behind her husband, who she just married two weeks ago so that when the war was over it would be easier for her to get him into Canada.

The value of a suitcase

Each morning the pair arrive from Krakow with 26 suitcases - that's how many fit in the van.

"We found [that] these people are coming across the border with everything they have in essentially plastic bags that are ripping at the seams, digging into their hands; they're holding them for hours and hours," he says. "Just to have the dignity of a suitcase rather than a plastic bag with all your belongings is a huge psychological lift."

It's more than just a utility, Lukomskyj points out. It makes a difference to their self-image and worth, he explains, turning them from someone so desperate to flee a war zone that they only had time to grab bags and what was at hand into a traveller who looks no different than anyone else at the train station.

"And so they change the dynamic of how the world sees some events from being a tattered homeless person to somebody who's got a nice brand new suitcase and just that little bit of dignity is something that we're really happy to provide," he explains.

With hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees streaming across the border all the time - it's estimated 2.3 million people have sought refuge in Poland since the war started - the need is constant.

"They're gone 15 minutes, and people are in tears are actually coming up to us and saying, 'Can we buy one?' and when we give them to them, they just don't believe us," he says.

"As horrible as their lives have been, they don't want to impose on people," he adds. "And so when we give them a suitcase, they will burst into tears."

Helping when possible

The pair are headed home soon. They fly back to Canada Saturday, April 2 and Lukomskyj goes back to the office in Vancouver Monday morning. But that doesn't mean their efforts are over.

He's started a fundraiser to support the UN's refugee agency the UNHCR; so far he's raised over $8,000, and he's hoping others will be encouraged to donate or find their own way to help be seeing his story.

"Don't be shy to jump in and take action on that wild idea that you have to help," he says. "For me, it was flying to Europe and doing this."

"Whatever anybody can do to help; use your own superpower to try to develop a way of supporting that disaster," he adds.

It's those acts of kindness from strangers that can really resonate with people for years, if not decades later. 

"Try to help at one point, just like the Cossack who picked up my dad and sister and drove them for you know, maybe 10 kilometres," Lukomskyj urges. "We're just providing one step in that journey, and hopefully giving them a sense of a welcome, a sense of confidence that there is something better here."