Group from Utah, Idaho grows effort in Poland to help Ukrainian refugees

Mar 20, 2022, 10:50 PM | Updated: Jun 14, 2022, 11:17 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A volunteer group from Utah and Idaho that’s helping Ukrainian refugees in Poland said they’re bracing for a huge surge in numbers this week.

They’re receiving even more on-the-ground help from the Beehive State as they prepare for what’s coming.

In the midnight hour when most were sleeping, a van cast headlights on a lonely, quiet road in the Polish countryside.

In the back of that van, three refugees from Ukraine — a brother, sister and sister’s child — dozed off, relishing the peace and rest. They finally crossed the border from Ukraine into Medyka, Poland, late Sunday evening.

With bus service winding down for the night, they found a private van offering to take them to Krakow two and a half hours away.

Brett Hilton sat at the wheel, with his wife Bonnie sitting behind the front passenger seat. The couple had just flown in from South Jordan, Utah, a couple days prior.

“They kind of felt inspired to come help, and we invited them to join our team. And they offered to be able to take on the lead on this,” explained Rob Sturgill, who sat in the front passenger seat next to Brett.

Sturgill, who is from Idaho, has been helping transport refugees from Medyka to Krakow and other areas of Poland for the past week.

He, along with his brother from Lehi, are part of Type of Wood Charities.  

The group arrived in Poland and rented vans to drive refugees. They are also purchasing suitcases so that people can hold their belongings.

Sturgill said many refugees arrive with their belongings in plastic grocery bags.

While the last few days saw a lull, he explained, they expect a huge week ahead in Medyka.

“There’s kind of a feeling out there right now for most folks that’s there’s going to be a large flood coming in here, probably in the next week,” he said.

Part of that, Sturgill indicated, has to do with what’s happening in the largest Ukrainian city near Medyka.

“We are getting quite a few refugees into Lviv, which is just a couple hours from the border, and there’s been a handful of bombings down there in the past week,” Sturgill said. “So there’s concerns that that area is even getting more dangerous.”

Sturgill said they’ve made connections in Medyka with volunteers who find them families to transport. Sometimes they drive them to small villages to stay with host families. Other times, they’ll drive them to the train station in Krakow as the families take the next step in their journey.

But many women and children fleeing the country don’t have an end point in mind, Sturgill explained. They simply needed to get out of Ukraine.

Thanks to donations from his co-workers, Sturgill is able to purchase hotel rooms for those families to stay in for a night or two, so they can take a shower, sleep, and eat a warm breakfast while preparing for what’s next.

Originally Sturgill was planning to return home Sunday.

Instead, Monday morning, as it neared 1 a.m., he was in the middle of yet another two-and-a-half hour trek from Medyka to Krakow.

“What’s going on here is a bit overwhelming,” Sturgill expressed. “And I think we realized that we needed to spend a little bit more time training the next group that’s coming in to be prepared.”

He now has help from Brett and Bonnie Hilton, with more volunteers arriving this week. They are ready to welcome in that next wave.

“We’ve introduced them to our contacts in each location, and have gone through with them basically all our procedures and processes that we’ve put into place,” Sturgill said. “To make sure that if the flood gates do open, that we are prepared and able to keep track of every single refugee that is in our hands.”

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Group from Utah, Idaho grows effort in Poland to help Ukrainian refugees