The word “sacrifice” is generally defined as giving up or giving up something for something else. Greg Curtin has come to know the meaning of this proposition in a very real way.
Curtin, a 2010 UT Friendsville finance graduate, has been in Poland for a month helping Ukrainian refugees who fled the chaos and destruction resulting from the Russian invasion of their country. He is based in a town called Przemsyl, just 10 miles from the Ukrainian border. After quitting his job and abandoning his efforts to get his master’s degree, he now works 18-20 hour days in an effort to help victims of violence and also to send medicine and other medical aid to Ukraine. in the absence of external agencies. .
“I didn’t want to go,” Curtin said when asked how he came to the decision to take on this mission. “I made a list of reasons why I shouldn’t go. But I couldn’t sleep and felt bad trying to plan for my future while ignoring the situation in Ukraine. As soon as I made the decision to volunteer, I slept like a baby. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but it was the right decision. It was too logical.
Unsurprisingly, he also found it to be an arduous effort.
“We keep our hands busy,” he said. “There is so much work to do that we don’t really have time to think. The worst are the private moments, usually at night, when it’s emptier in the hallways. Many volunteers expect the full brunt of this to hit them once they’re gone. But while they are here, we are focused on improving the effectiveness of these systems that we have put in place to help Ukrainians.
Curtin said when he first arrived in Poland he traveled to Warsaw where he spent most of his time answering questions from people looking for information online. “I was visiting embassies and humanitarian aid offices, and posting what I found to help others make the decision to come to Poland or not,” he said. “I found Przemysl to be the place to be. Volunteers who had just left Przemysl met me in Warsaw and told me that it was necessary to improve the logistics and the overall organization.
Once there, he was asked to work night shifts from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. and sleep in a tent during the day. “Last week I moved into the mini-warehouse where we work,” he said. “We sleep on the same camp beds that the refugees use. The lights stay on 24 hours a day and there are always dogs, babies and workers moving around making noise. It’s not the best conditions, but it’s still very good for a refugee camp.
He is now sharing what he learned with other outreach organizations in the area. “I hope we can increase deliveries as soon as possible,” he said. “It is difficult to provide a whole country with food, hygiene, medicine, etc. with a ragged group of volunteers.”
Notably, this isn’t Curtin’s first experience abroad. He has traveled to 85 countries, beginning with various trips to Europe that he took as an undergraduate student. He spent a semester at Vienna Business College and during his stay traveled to most countries on the continent. Unable to find a job in finance after graduation, he then traveled to China, where he spent the better part of four years, while making side trips to other Asian countries. Later he lived two years in Uganda, followed by two years in Amsterdam, visiting his parents in Friendsville in between.
“I was perfectly happy living my whole life in the United States until my sophomore year at Georgia Tech,” Curtin said via email. “My rugby teammates came from all over the world and I was intrigued by their stories from back home. I left school and moved in with one of them in the UK, which made me pushed to learn about other cultures and try to understand how people live all over the world.I kept my eyes open for opportunities to travel to new places and prioritized new experiences over familiar comforts.
Curtin freely shared some of those experiences he found in the refugee camp. “A man from Azerbaijan did not choose a country to move to,” he said. “A volunteer approached him and struggled to guide him to his next step. This volunteer brought it to me. I found out that he had no money and wanted to return to Azerbaijan. The problem was that he held a Soviet passport and had been living in Ukraine illegally for decades. Our system was not designed to help someone like him. But I knew that if we abandoned him, he would slip through the cracks. I looked to see if others were struggling to return home after fleeing Ukraine, and found an article about Azerbaijanis receiving special attention from a minister a few days ago, and returning home from Bucharest, Romania. I tracked down the author of the article and called him. I told him he needed to help another man get home. The minister got involved again and the Azerbaijani man was on a bus to Romania after two days. He and I didn’t speak any common language but during those two days after I helped him, he always stopped and hugged me when we passed through the refugee center. It really hit me hard.
He also shares an encounter with a teenage girl who approached the volunteers during a night shift.
“We have a pet supplies section, but we primarily offer dog and cat supplies and food,” Curtin said. “This girl needed food for her hamster. We didn’t have any hamster food, but a team of six volunteers ended up Googling what hamsters could and couldn’t eat, then searched our food supply for dry cereals and nuts. We ended up trying hard and walking all over the center to get this girl what she needed. It was night and there weren’t many people. It feels good to put so much effort into such a small request. But it’s the kind of details that make you realize that we have a responsibility to take care of whatever these people need.
As for what people here at home can help, Curtin said the needs are many.
“I want people to reach out to those on the ground and ask us how they can help,” he said. “If you want to help the animals…we know the people who care for dogs and cats on the Medyka border. If you want to help the kids, we know the people who buy toys and run the temporary kindergarten here. If you want to accommodate families… we know the people who organize family accommodation. It’s a shame that those who work all day, every day don’t have time to post their stories online. And those who have the budget and the time to make high quality videos don’t seem to be around to help us out.
In that regard, Curtin has been part of his mission to help educate people about what’s going on at Ground Zero.
“People all seem to think that the big world organizations run things here – the UN, the Red Cross, etc., but that’s not true,” he said. “The people who help refugees find host families in Britain are managed by a volunteer church group. Because there is a British flag hanging above the desk, people back home think that the British government has representatives here who register people for visas. No. This center is run by Scouts, Girl Scouts and random volunteers. The bed and cleaning manager is an actor from Atlanta. The former night manager is a 24-year-old backpacker from Belgium. I do logistics and warehousing, and was running a custom embroidery business a month ago. I’m sure the big organizations will come in soon and tell all of us that we’re not doing a good enough job. But at least we’re here.
Nevertheless, the challenges are many. “We are doing our best,” he said. “It’s just a shame that the money the world gives doesn’t reach these refugees in these border centres. They don’t have slippers or flip flops to shower in, they don’t have bags to put their things in, we don’t have coffee cups or plastic spoons. Think about it. The world supports Ukraine and this large refugee center cannot afford plastic spoons. We bought them from local stores. We asked our friends to send them. We have people going to other cities to buy in bulk. But almost every day we run out of spoons. And the world gives millions of dollars. It is very frustrating. We put families on buses for 20 to 30 hours and they don’t have bags to hold the only personal belongings they took home when they left their country.
At this point, Curtin said he had no intention of leaving Poland and instead planned to stay as long as necessary. He closed his own business, gave up his apartment and put what he owned in storage. His ultimate goal, he says, is to teach history and geography.
In the meantime, he considers his sacrifice to be worth it.
“I’ve already hit rock bottom,” he said. “I bounced back. I knew I wouldn’t make any money doing this. But I also knew that I was smart enough to somehow survive…I fully expect to end up with zero. So anything above is good. I know I have a much easier road to getting back on my feet than many of these people here.
Email [email protected] to contact Lee Zimmerman, longtime freelance writer, reviewer, reviewer, and blogger.