n October 2018, I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine for just less than an hour when I crossed over by foot at the Medyka border crossing, just 80 kilometres west of the Ukrainian city of Lviv.
I was visiting family and my grandfather’s village in Przemyśl, Poland when my father and I decided to drive a little further east. “We’re so close to the border; why not?” I recall him telling me. Instead of joining the long queues of vehicles waiting to drive into Ukraine, we parked our small rental car and walked over the border. With no way of getting around the city (and on a deadline to get back to our hotel on the Polish side of the border), we left after just 45 minutes and waited almost two hours in a line of about 50 people to get back into Poland.
I now look back on that time and realize how grateful I should have been for that two-hour wait to cross the border. Less than four years later, that same border crossing has become the pathway for the mass exodus of Ukrainian refugees fleeing from war following the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine—some travelling thousands of kilometres to get to Medyka, only to have to wait days to cross into Poland.
According to the United Nations, Ukraine has the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. In just over four weeks since the invasion, almost 3 million refugees have left Ukraine with nowhere to go and no idea of what will happen next.
While neighbouring countries have graciously accepted Ukrainian refugees and welcomed them with open arms and humanitarian aid, it is important to consider that those same nations have in recent years shut the door on other refugees from war-torn, non-European and non-white countries. They defend this position by claiming that Ukrainians are Europeans, “one of them,” and not like refugees coming from the Middle East.
This was particularly exemplified in Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic. These countries were tried by the European Union’s (EU) top court in 2020, which ruled that they had broken the law by refusing to host refugees to help ease the burden on southern EU states such as Greece and Italy after a surge in migrant arrivals from 2015.
Poland was involved in another migrant crisis in November 2021 when the country prevented asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East from crossing into Poland from Belarus.
These hypocrisies are also seen within media. News organizations all around the world have been reporting on the war since it broke out as well as the fallout of the invasion. Though the coverage is appreciated, there’s no question that there have been instances where reporters perpetuated Eurocentric white privilege in their language and approach when discussing the war and the humanitarian crisis.
For example, CBS News’ Charlie D’Agata was reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, when he compared the war in Ukraine to those within Iraq and Afghanistan, calling Ukraine a “civilized” nation. Though he later apologized, D’Agata is just one of several white reporters who have taken this incorrect and insensitive approach when covering the war in Ukraine, as well as other countries affected by colonial invasions.
It is vital that these reporters are held accountable and report accurately on what’s going on. There is no need to compare the humanitarian crises and question which one is more unimaginable; they shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Instead, why not shine a light on the human interest stories of folks fighting for their country, fleeing war for their safety, and supporting their homeland through any means necessary?
It is possible to stand with Ukraine while also standing with Palestine, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. Though Ukraine is just the latest hot topic in the news cycle, it may be old news in a mere few weeks. That is exactly why, like with other war-torn countries, we need to continue bringing attention to the atrocities civilians and diasporic communities are facing in any and every way we can.
Since the start of the war, several of my close friends have travelled to the Medyka border to help refugees settle in Poland, facilitate their travel to another country, or simply translate from Ukrainian to Polish to English; doing whatever they can to help. At the same time, I know families who spent days in make-shift bomb shelters in basement buildings in Kyiv, praying they’ll be able to make it out alive.
Here in Canada, I am constantly thinking about what else I can do to help Ukraine. Whether it’s collecting physical or monetary donations—through the Come Back Alive fund, Unite With Ukraine, or others—sharing information on social media or holding rallies to raise awareness within and beyond the community, everyone can help make a difference. No effort is too small nor does it go unnoticed.
I have always wanted to have the opportunity to visit Ukraine properly, and I still look forward to the day I’ll be able to stand in Independence Square in the heart of Kyiv. Once we win the war, I hope to travel there and help rebuild the buildings, homes and communities targeted by the Russian army. But until then, I look forward to continuing to raise awareness, funds and humanitarian aid thousands of kilometres away.
Alexandra Holyk is a second-generation Ukrainian in Canada and a third-year journalism student at X University. Her work can be found in the Toronto Star, CTV News Toronto and The Eyeopener.