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On the border of Ukraine: Nicholas Kaasik on a humanitarian crisis

I drive from Switzerland to the Slovakian/Ukrainian border. On the highway headed east, I pass military convoys from NATO countries, and see USAF C-130 aircraft fly low over the highway. From Vienna, it takes only six hours to get to the Ukrainian border. This does not feel like a faraway conflict.

I drive through multiple military checkpoints manned by young Slovakian soldiers, and drop off a carload of candy, snacks, water, fruit and baby food to a Red Cross tent in a grass lot next to the border. The donations are happily accepted by the local volunteers, many of whom are high schoolers. I ask if they need me to bring anything, and they say that, for now, they are well stocked.

On the pedestrian border between Ukraine and Slovakia, a constant stream of refugees, women, children, the elderly, come across. They carry rolling suitcases awkwardly through the grass, or sometimes just have plastic bags full of clothes.

The Red Cross is handing out candy and tea, but few take anything. There are huge olive-green tents full of donated clothes and blankets.

I meet an unaccompanied Ukrainian teenager, perhaps 14, who speaks no English, but has an address in Germany saved into his phone that he’s showing everyone. Through Google translate, I gather he’s taking a bus, then a train, to Germany. I give him my number and tell him to call me if he needs transit or a place to stay.

On the grass lot, the refugees gather into small groups. Many children play and laugh. The parents are largely silent and look blankly at each other and around the lot.

Slovakian firefighters are running a well-organized shuttle service, taking all who arrive first by van, then bus, to Košice, a Slovakian city close to the border. There, volunteers from the Greek Orthodox Church and local Facebook groups help refugees get train tickets west.

The European rail systems have made tickets free for all Ukrainians fleeing the war, although there’s some confusion over whether foreign students, who were studying in Ukraine before fleeing the war, are eligible.

I ask a volunteer in Košice if they need anything. They need money, to help foreign students get back home, but are otherwise O.K. Ukraine is a study destination for thousands of students from Africa and India. These are not students of the same economic means as someone doing a term abroad in London or Paris.

The volunteers in Košice caution that the Ukrainians arriving now are better off and more able to flee. Those still to come will be poorer and require more assistance.

I spend the night at a hotel close to the border. The hotel, normally a summer holiday destination on a lake, has been largely taken over by a Slovakian humanitarian organization. The family checking in before me is fleeing Ukraine, with a disabled son in a wheelchair, and carrying an infant daughter. I saw their old van in the hotel parking lot. The highways are full of cars with Ukrainian license plates, all full of women and children and pet carriers.

On the road to Košice, I see an old, 1980s-era car with Ukrainian license plates stopped, with some type of engine trouble. An elderly man, who reminds me of my late grandfather (who was himself a refugee of World War II), is working on something under the hood, while two teenage children cry and embrace behind the car. Some Slovakians are trying to assist with repairing the car.

From Košice, everyone without a car heads west to Bratislava by train. In Bratislava, the city tourism bureau and volunteers greet arrivals at the train station and help them arrange tickets farther west, to Vienna. My hotel in Bratislava is full of German and Dutch soldiers in fatigues, dispatched to assist the Slovakians with the crisis.

At the Vienna main train station, an Austrian humanitarian organization Caritas (www.caritas-Austria.at) assists arriving Ukrainians. The vast majority continue west, to Germany, primarily, Italy and Switzerland.

“What happens then?” I ask a Caritas volunteer.

“It’s very difficult.”

Nicholas Kaasik is a graduate of Shelter Island High School, Class of 2007. He’s an attorney currently living in Thurgau, Switzerland. Nick went to the Ukrainian border, he said, “To bring some supplies, make some donations, see if I could otherwise be helpful, and be a witness.”