A longtime friend and volunteer of The Doorway, Dan recently reconnected with us after spending six months in Slovakia. During his time in Slovakia he found himself close to the Ukrainian border thinking ‘Just Do Something’. His story has reminded us of the impact one person and one powerful mantra can have.
“If I didn’t know you’d stop me, I’d suggest going to the Ukraine border tomorrow.” This was last February. My wife Silvia and I were in Bratislava, Slovakia with our two small children. We were visiting her family for a few months while I worked remotely for a Calgary company.
My wife didn’t immediately say no. So, I knew I had a chance. A couple of hours later, I brought it up again, showing her a video of families being separated at a train station as wives and children left behind husbands and fathers who were unable to leave Ukraine due to mandatory conscription of all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60.
My wife agreed that I could go. She saw my determination. But she urged me to be careful. The Ukraine border was seven hours away. I’d never been to eastern Slovakia and I only knew a few Slovak words and phrases. And we weren’t sure of the reliability of the vehicle we were renting from a friend, a large family car that could seat six passengers (depending how much luggage they had).
That same evening, I loaded the car with groceries, bottled water, diapers, and personal hygiene products. The next morning at 6 a.m. I was on the road, heading east into the unknown. The phrase that kept echoing in my mind was, “Just do something.”
I dropped the food and supplies off at a refugee camp near the border and the next day the Red Cross matched me with a group of refugees that needed to go to Bratislava.
In the six weeks that followed, I made four more trips to the Ukraine border. I would drive to the border on a Saturday, drop donations off at the refugee camp, then return to Bratislava the next day with refugees. In total, I drove 23 refugees from the border during those six weeks, all women and children (plus one dog).
Donations from friends and family back home funded those subsequent trips. The donated funds gave me a sense of responsibility to keep doing it, no matter how exhausting each trip was. Many said that if they were there (near Ukraine), they would be doing the same. I believed them. I was acting as their proxy.
Many of the refugees spoke at least some English and some shared their experiences with me. Many seemed to be in shock. All looked exhausted. A young woman told me of fleeing her home in northeastern Ukraine the first day of the Russian invasion, after being awoken at 4 a.m. by the sound of a nearby airport being bombed.
Another young woman told me how her parents were still in Kharkiv, near the Russian border. Her father was not yet 60 and her mother insisted on staying with him. At first, they didn’t want to let their daughter go, but after a few days they agreed. They realized that it would take Ukraine years to rebuild. They wanted their daughter to have work opportunities. She was headed to stay with relatives in Paris. From Bratislava it was going to be a 21-hour bus trip for her.
The refugees’ stories made me appreciate how incredibly fortunate I was to have a job and a safe place to live. All of that had been taken away from these refugees overnight. Helping them gave me a tremendous sense of purpose. Each of those weekends, all my attention was focused on getting safely to the border and back. Each trip felt like a mission in which my values and my actions were perfectly aligned. I never wanted to forget that feeling. I wanted to find ways to keep feeling that way when I returned to Canada.
One group I drove to Bratislava called me their hero. I was incredibly touched. I thanked them, but I told them the real heroes were the ones they’d left behind, the ones who were risking their lives to protect their country. But I was doing something, in my own small way. And that felt amazing.
Of course, you don’t need a military invasion for people to have uncertainty about their homes and livelihoods. There are many people here in Calgary, including the young people The Doorway sees every day, who don’t have the security of a home and job. Each of us has the opportunity to help people in our own community. You don’t need to be in a warzone to be a hero in someone’s life and to feel that your values and actions are aligned.
To make sure that my values and actions were aligned going forward, I decided to leave my job and start my own communications business, focusing on non-profits and small businesses. I’m currently volunteering with various non-profits, including the Centre for Newcomers, which means I can continue assisting refugees and other new Canadians. I’m also volunteering with The Doorway, of course.
I first learned of The Doorway (then called The Back Door) in 1996 when I was a journalism student working on an article about homelessness. Co-founders Carl DeLine and Marilyn Dyck shared what they were doing to help young people. I was in awe of their commitment to youth and impressed with the unique contract system they were using to help young people take steps off the street.
In the years since, I’ve helped out The Doorway once in a while, never forgetting how impressed I was by that initial contact with Marilyn and Carl. Their vision and hard work, along with the hard work of everyone who has followed in their footsteps, continues to make a huge difference in young people’s lives. The Doorway embodies that “Just do something” spirit that I felt a few months ago as I drove east into the unknown.
Dan delivering supplies to a refugee camp near the Slovakia/Ukraine border.