Edmonton nurses follow hearts to front line of Ukraine refugee crisis

‘We have a desk in Warsaw, we’re establishing a desk in Przemyśl, and then we’re trying to establish a desk in Lviv so that people can kind of get handed off to each one and get connected to housing, food, transportation ‘

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Moved by the news coverage of the war in Ukraine, Edmonton nurses Anna McRobbie and Shayna Lavallee saw themselves helping people in need.

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They landed in Poland on April 15 and began helping refugees from the Tesco humanitarian centre, a converted grocery store in Przemyśl, a city of about 60,000.

Lavallee has a background in mental health and said she felt a similar pull to help those fleeing Ukraine as she did during the Fort McMurray wildfires, where she had provided support at the Northlands evacuation center.

“I knew I had to go and I had to help,” she said. “I had to do something because I had that capacity and with my mental health specialization, I knew I could do some help there.

“It felt similar here, there was just that similar pull like I know I can go do that, I have experience backpacking, I have experience traveling in foreign countries. That similar kind of heart-wrenching feeling like ‘I have to go do something.’”

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A pivot through Poland

Their original plan was to work in a nursing capacity through a non-governmental organization, but while they have registered with the Canadian Medical Assistance Teams, neither speaks Ukrainian, so they are lower on the selection lists. The pair pivoted to helping with cleaning and organizing the Tesco center and handing out supplies.

One of McRobbie’s goals was to network and connect with other folks who were there to help. Fortunately, she found fellow Canadian Johnathan Verroen, who already had more than 700 Ukrainians looking to come to Canada.

“We decided to team up and help people get visas and then also be starting to fundraise for flights and try and figure out how to get a flight for the people that already had all that stuff,” she said.

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Currently, McRobbie is in Lviv, Ukraine, with a few other Canadians helping to coordinate evacuations looking to come to Canada. Their aim is to begin the process of applying for the Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel program in Lviv so by the time they arrive in Warsaw, Poland, only the final steps of the application process will need to be completed.

“What we were hoping to do is basically we have a desk in Warsaw, we’re establishing a desk in Przemyśl, and then we’re trying to establish a desk in Lviv so that people can kind of get handed off to each one and get connected to housing, food, transportation,” she said.

Two GoFundMe’s are currently set up, one Mainly for supplies for the Tesco centerthe other for flights for the refugees.

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Atrocities ‘further east in Ukraine’

In Lviv, McRobbie has had to navigate connecting with the refugees in a city at war. She said there are water and sanitation issues, while air raid sirens go off every day, multiple times a day. But she does feel safe.

“All the atrocities that I’m hearing of are from further east in Ukraine. So in terms of my own safety, I don’t have too many concerns,” she said. “Getting lost is my biggest concern here because the language is a huge issue, but people are super friendly, once they know you’re Canadian, they love Canadians here.”

Lavallee added the mental health toll on volunteers is remarkable.

“I have seen volunteers have a panic attack and had to walk away or start crying at the desk,” she said. “I’ve been having conversations and talking about the impact of vicarious trauma and humanitarian stress on the body, people who have been working night shifts for three, four weeks now non-stop.”

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Volunteers burning out

There is also a constant need for volunteers due to burnout and attrition.

“They can sleep at the center, they can eat at the center, and they can work as much or as little as they choose to be able to take care of their own self-care,” Lavallee said. “There’s going to be a continued need for volunteers here in Przemyśl, and this is going to keep happening as long as the war’s going on.”

Lavallee has plans to stay until June. She plans to start a master’s of counseling program online. McRobbie is tentatively staying until May 10.

“I have a life back in Canada, so I do have to go pay attention to that,” McRobbie said.

“But this pulls at my heart hardcore.”

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