My dad and I went to Poland and Ukraine to help refugees, including teens just like me
While we left behind thousands of pounds of essential supplies, we took home with us an indelible memory of the hardship facing the displaced Ukrainian people. We also left with a sense of optimism.
Scott Ostfeld and his 15-year-old son, Trevor Ostfeld, took a detour from their spring break plans in Florida and traveled to Poland and Ukraine in late March as part of a humanitarian mission with their New Jersey synagogue. Their group carried 129 large duffel bags to deliver more than 9,000 pounds of donated supplies to help the women and children fleeing the war.
Refugee teens had lives a lot like mine
I wasn’t sure what to expect when my dad and I left for Poland and Ukraine. All I knew was that I felt pretty awkward piling dozens of boxes of feminine hygiene products into my cart at Costco. My dad and I were also responsible for packing up more than 4,000 diapers, which is a pretty sad thing to be bringing into a war zone. It says a lot about who the real victims of war are.
I saw many people my own age among the refugees. Teenage boys in high school, just like me, carrying all the possessions they could cram into a single suitcase, helping their moms, grandmas and younger siblings. One boy crossing the border waved at me and I considered how much we had in common as recently as two months ago, and how little we have in common now. If the boy had been just three years older than I am, he would have stayed behind in Ukraine to fight for his country’s freedom.
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Part of what I realized in Poland and Ukraine is that kids are just kids, even when they are escaping their homes, and in many cases, leaving the country for the first time. I enjoyed giving out candy to all of the children and seeing them smiling back at me. I know they needed the essential supplies too, but who doesn’t love candy? And most importantly, I think they sensed that we cared.
The other part of the trip that I will never forget is seeing everyone crossing the border out of Ukraine with their family pets. I would never leave my dog Rocket behind, and I know the Ukrainian children felt the same way.
In addition to helping them find essential supplies and safe places to live, I think it’s also important that we help the Ukrainian children and teenagers maintain hope. Hope that they can still finish school, have fun with their friends, get good jobs and be happy, knowing that the people of my synagogue and the people of world are behind them.
We bend the arc of our own story
Roughly 100 years ago, my great-grandfather Efraim Molensky was killed in a massacre of Jews in Ukraine. My great-grandmother Faiga Molensky, a young widow, bravely left the country with her four children in tow. One of those children was my Grandpa Sam, a man so important in my life that my son Trevor Samuel was named in his memory.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Four generations after this great injustice was perpetrated on my family, my 15-year-old son and I returned to Ukraine – this time not as victims, but as people in a position to help.
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We will never forget the courage of the constant flow of Ukrainian women crossing the border who left their male relatives behind, packing their lives into suitcases to ensure the safety and survival of their children.
While we left behind 9,000 pounds of essential supplies, we took home with us an indelible memory of the hardship facing the displaced Ukrainian people. We also left with a sense of optimism about the global effort to help. From food trucks sponsored by the United Sikhs, to Italian paramedics, Israeli relief workers and others, the border relief operation is a remarkable example of global collaboration.
One of the attendees on our mission shared a quote from a sacred Jewish text: "It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it." I think my ancestors would be proud of the relief work we did in March. Sadly, the hard work is just beginning.