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I didn’t have to decide to make the journey to Poland – there was no weighing up the pros and cons, wondering who I’d be travelling with or when it was going to happen. I just thought “I can help so I will”.  

As nursing students we want to help, it’s part of our make-up. We want to provide care. The only difference between us and the refugees I saw now living in Poland is where we were born. I’d like to think that if I found myself in that situation, someone would want to help me too. 

I travelled to the Polish/Ukrainian border with Bridge to Unity, a small Emsworth-based charity that offers support to those in need, including those who are seeking sanctuary or are homeless. I’ve been volunteering with them for some time and as the crisis in the Ukraine unfolded, the local community donated £25,000 to the charity, such was their desire to do something to help. 

They've been overwhelmed with work 

We used this money to fund much-needed medical supplies, such as dressings, eye washes, medical backpacks, stretchers and defibrillators, for a not-for-profit organisation called Zintegrowana Sluzba Ratownicza (ZSR), which was already operating in the area. They’ve been overwhelmed with work so by delivering our supplies directly to them we hope we eased their burden a little. Some of the equipment we’ve provided will be taken onwards into Ukraine.

Libby and group

As nursing students we want to help, it's part of our make-up 

The long journey 

To get to the border, five of us, in a car and a van, drove through Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany before reaching Poland. We stopped only for essential breaks and to collect more medical supplies from a supporter in Germany. My role included organising the huge amount of travel paperwork necessary to undertake the journey, providing basic health care and keeping in touch with our essential supporters at home.  

We reached a town just outside Krakow at 1am and after sleeping for about three hours, at 4.30am we continued our journey with new friends from ZSR who accompanied us to their worksite on the Polish border. 

'How is this happening?'

If the journey was memorable, the destination was unforgettable. I know what I saw there will stay with me for the rest of my life. Imagine a massive, empty, soulless shopping centre-style building now housing thousands of people. This is where people were living, with camp beds as far as the eye could see.

I had to keep taking deep breaths to ground myself 

Entering the complex was an assault on the senses. My first reaction, as I struggled for air, was “how is this even happening?” But what shocked me most was the smell. It was so dirty in there. The place was overcrowded and there were huge skips of rubbish and food discarded everywhere. I felt that everywhere I looked there was something else to shock me. I had to keep taking deep breaths to ground myself.  

What I saw on peoples’ faces will stay with me forever. They had such a vacant look, yet their expressions said so much. They were in an unfamiliar and unwanted environment and their journeys had only just begun.  

Our friends from ZSR urged us to keep together. This, they said, wasn’t a safe environment, and yet all I could see, stretching out into the distance, were scared people. Children were playing with what little they had but were just getting in the way. People were talking in lots of different languages and were constantly moving – they had no allocated space. Some were taking their dogs outside where others were making fires to protect themselves from the bitter cold. 


There were just so many people. The sheer number of people leaving Ukraine is almost incomprehensible. The United Nations says Poland alone has so far taken in 1,204,000 refugees. 

The sheer number of people leaving Ukraine is almost incomprehensible

Medical help 

In the middle of all this was a medical station, with a foil blanket hung up as a make-shift privacy curtain. The medical and clinical staff were doing what they could to help – sometimes it was just handing out a couple of paracetamols. Sometimes it was more. People didn’t get the chance to pick up months’ worth of their regular medication before leaving. Just this alone could lead to problems. But in this environment, there’s so much to consider. After years of keeping apart from other people, these conditions are a breeding ground for all sorts, from colds to COVID.  

When I saw a little boy on an army camp bed with his teddy bear, this tiny bit of his normality in a situation far from normal, struck home. I didn’t cry. I’m not sure how. 


The helpers are helping, and they are trying so hard. But there’s only so much they can do in this constantly evolving situation. There was no time to prepare, so they have to do what they can with what they have available to them.  

No return to normal

I’ve not been back 36 hours yet and I certainly haven’t come back down to earth. I’m not sure that I want to because what I saw will drive me on. I’ve cried so much since I’ve been home but feel that I don’t want to be home getting on with a “normal” life. 

I’m going back in April when we’ll pick up the fully fitted ambulance we’ve fundraised for and drive it directly to our partners from ZSR. They desperately need this equipment and I hope the ambulance can be used for immediate help and for many years to come.

Tomorrow I return to my placement. I’ve got some time to make up but I don’t mind at all. What’s a few extra hours after what I’ve witnessed? It’s such a tiny price to pay. After making this journey I know beyond any doubt that humanitarian nursing is what I was put on this earth to do. I just can’t see me working on a ward, in a GP practice or even in the community. Médecins Sans Frontières or the Red Cross feel like the kind of employers I want to work for. My journey didn’t ignite the feeling, but it did cement it.

Liberty Rose is a second-year nursing student at the University of Portsmouth 

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