Wars and international conflicts often bring out the worst in humanity, but they also inspire acts of resilience, solidarity and generosity.
The 2022 war between Russia and Ukraine is no exception. While images shared through news broadcasts and social media posts have shocked a global audience and led many to despair, they have also served to mobilize others to reach out and do their part to relieve the suffering.
This article is the first in a two-part series about Ukrainian geologist refugees who fled the conflict in their homeland and received assistance from the geoscience community in Poland and abroad. Their stories provide a glimmer of hope and a call to action during a time of tremendous challenge and opportunity.
Yuliia’s Story: Choosing Life and Safety Over Employment
Yuliia, a 41-year-old Ukrainian geochemist, lived with her husband and 7-year-old daughter Arina in Bucha, a city located in the Kyiv province. She enjoyed stable employment with the State Information Geological Fund (Geoinform) until the Russian invasion earlier this year.
“On the morning of 24 February, Russia initiated attacks on the Kyiv province by striking with artillery and missiles. That day, the life of every Ukrainian changed, and my life changed too,” she said.
“A helicopter was shot down near our house, the air was black, and it was impossible to breathe. We ran to the basement of the house. My daughter was constantly crying, screaming, she wanted to go home to her bed, but she had to lie on the bed on the concrete floor. We spent only two days in the basement and decided to run away.”
Yuliia’s husband stayed to fight, and since her parents had passed away before the war, she and Arina made the difficult decision to leave Bucha and seek safety at her mother-in-law’s house in the Ukraine’s Cherkasy province, 160 kilometers from Kyiv.
“As many people were fleeing, the roads were crowded, cars were barely moving, the trip took nine hours. We barely had enough gasoline,” she said. “When we got to my mother-in-law’s house, there sirens blaring all the time. Many times a day we had to run to the basement, and it was very cold and humid. We could neither eat nor sleep in peace. It is difficult to describe how you feel in these moments, it can only be understood by a person who has also experienced it!”
Yuliia received word from Polish geologists offering to help her and her daughter, so they decided to travel 1,000 kilometers to the Polish border.
“We waited for two days before we were able to board a train. The train was old, with wooden seats, one toilet for five cars. There was constant darkness, the sound of sirens, shelling, but we were moving,” she said.
After disembarking the train, they crossed the border on foot, walking for six hours in the cold.
“We were very tired, but we were patient! Thanks to the great help of Polish volunteers, we arrived in Krakow,” she said. “It seems like a trifle, but we were afraid to change into pajamas at night, we always thought we had to run to the bomb shelter. My daughter does not take a step away from me when she hears the sound of a helicopter in the sky, or the noise of a train, cries, shouts. Of course, it is difficult to live in a foreign country, but the most important thing is that we are safe.”
The decision to move her family to safety ultimately cost Yuliia her job.
“Since I left Ukraine, my employer unilaterally terminated employment relations with me,” she said. “I’m trying to find a job in Krakow but it’s not easy as I have a small daughter.”
Svitlana’s Story: ‘The Most Terrible Days of My Life’
Svitlana, a soil science and general geologist and mother of two, described her story as similar to that of many Ukrainian women over the past months.
When fighting started in Kyiv, her family fled to safety in a “dacha,” a country home located outside the city. They immediately regretted the decision.
“Going to the dacha was a big mistake. In Kyiv it was safer,” she said. “Because of a massive Russian attack, we were without electricity, water and food for two weeks. Those were the most terrible days in my life!”
Russian tanks drove through their front yard and destroyed their house. Only one house on the entire street was left standing.
“My husband’s parents spent their lives building that house, and they had worked on it until last summer,” she said. “For the first time, I saw tears in the eyes of our father, the bravest man I know.”
Svitlana fled by car with her 12- and 15-year-old daughters, and they drove to the Carpathians in Western Ukraine, near the border with Romania.
“They were horrible days,” she said. A trip that should have lasted a half day took them 52 hours.
The women felt safer in their new location, but the physical and mental strain had taken a toll. They fell to the floor every time they heard loud noises, including airplanes flying overhead.
“I started crying all the time and could not stop even under the influence of sedatives,” Svitlana said.
The family moved to Poland in mid-March when her daughter Maria was accepted into a professional ballet program in the capital.
“Now we are living in Warsaw with a lovely Polish family,” Svitlana said. She hopes to find permanent employment to find a way to cover the ballet training for her daughter.
“We ran from Russian bombs and arrived in Warsaw specifically for the entrance exam with nothing but our documents,” she said. “We left home in winter clothes at a temperature of minus 15 degrees Celsius, and now it is more than 20 degrees Celsius. All our spring and summer clothes remained in Ukraine.”
Svitlana recently secured a position as a visiting geoscientist at Warsaw University. She submitted a proposal to spend six months conducting a study on the geochemistry and mineralogy of Ukrainian quartz sands deposits located near the Polish border.
“These sands are suitable for the glass industry, which will be very important for Ukraine after the war period,” she said.
Svitlana said she is deeply grateful to Polish people and international supporters who have provided financial assistance to her during these challenging times.
“My greatest desire is to return home as soon as possible to a free Ukraine,” she said.
Piotr’s Story: Mobilizing Support
Yuliia, Svitlana and their families are among the more than three million Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland since the Russian invasion.
The Polish government and citizens have responded with tremendous effort to assist their Ukrainian neighbors.
Piotr Krzywiec, associate professor at the Institute of Geological Sciences, Polish Academy of Sciences, has been helping Ukrainians settle in Warsaw since March.
“This huge crowd of refugees has been welcomed in Poland with open arms and hearts; most of them didn’t want to continue their journey for various reasons. They can quite easily communicate here even without proper knowledge of the Polish language. For many this is their first trip abroad. Some already have friends or relatives in Poland; most of them simply want to be as close to Ukraine as possible as they hope to go back home soon,” he said.
Krzywiec, 30-year AAPG member and leader of both the History of Petroleum Geology and Visiting Geoscientist Program Special Interest Groups, planned to represent the committees and deliver a presentation at AAPG’s International Conference and Exhibition in Cartagena in April.
With dozens of Ukrainian geoscientists arriving at his doorstep, Krzywiec canceled his trip to Cartagena and reallocated travel funding to hiring refugees to join his group for a few months.
Krzywiec forms part of a larger Polish geoscience community dedicated to support Ukrainians affected by the conflict.
Adam Kozłowski, geologist at the Polish Geological Institute in Kraków, set up a Facebook group “Pomagamy geologom z Ukrainy” (We help Geologists from Ukraine), to provide help to colleagues.
Kozłowski posted the following group description both in Polish and Ukrainian: “This group is a grassroots initiative of the entire geological community, which is not indifferent to the fate of our friends and associates from Ukraine.”
The page has 565 subscribers and features a variety of announcements: from information about free Polish classes and vision screening opportunities to employment opportunities.
Krzywiec said the Facebook page serves as a single platform to share opportunities in Poland and other countries.
“We have job offers and job requests there, offers for accommodation, requests for material and financial help, everything you might think about,” Krzywiec said. “I contacted my friends from abroad asking about possible positions and got quite positive feedback from, for example, the University of Parma in Italy, the University of Oxford in the UK and University of Texas El Paso, USA.”
Receiving assistance from outside Poland is a huge help to a country struggling to keep up with the influx of requests.
“Poland does whatever is possible to help, but our resources – of the state and of the Polish citizens – are of course limited. On the other hand, needs are enormous, including most basic stuff such as food, clothes, medicines etcetera,” he said.
Seeking More Than a Paycheck
Krzywiec noted that, while displaced Ukrainian geoscientists benefit from employment in their field, their needs extend beyond a temporary paycheck.
Most Ukrainian refugees are female – the men are required to stay home and fight – and many of them fled to Poland along with their children, grandchildren or elderly parents. In addition to paying for food, clothing and medication, many of the refugees seek employment so they can send funds to the husbands, brothers and fathers they left in Ukraine.
“We identified several female geologists that are in need. In most of the cases we managed to find them some sort of temporary jobs at various institutions, accommodations etc. Funds have been collected to provide them with resources needed to cover basic needs. This was a group effort with participants from various geo-institutions that dedicated their resources and time to make it happen,” he said.
“There are fast tracks in Poland set up by our government, so they formalize their situation quickly, and this is very helpful. We now are trying to make their positions more permanent, either as long-term jobs, or for example PhD studies. This however will take some time as our resources are limited, and unfortunately, financial help from abroad is not being sent to Poland fast enough,” he added.
Krzywiec learned early on that support from within Eastern Europe was grossly insufficient for meeting Ukrainian geoscientists’ immediate needs. He sought help from the larger geological community through a global organization: AAPG.
“I approached AAPG asking about possible financial support for Ukrainian geologists who are in Poland. These are basically only females, as men are not allowed to leave the country and they are supposed to serve in the army,” he said.
He contacted Roberta (Robbie) Gries, former AAPG president and AAPG Foundation trustee, and proposed organizing a campaign to support Ukrainian female geoscientists through an initiative led by the AAPG Women’s Network or the AAPG Foundation.
Gries, AAPG’s first female president, who visited Ukraine and Poland during her term in 2001-‘02, supported the idea immediately. She called past AAPG presidents Randi Martinsen and Denise Cox and current President Gretchen Gillis to brainstorm the best way to provide immediate financial support to Ukrainian colleagues.
“I wasn’t sure AAPG could establish something in a quick fashion,” Gries said. “Denise suggested I set up a GoFundMe campaign, which I had not done before, but soon found it was not too difficult. Denise, Randi, Gretchen and I thought we could kick it off with $1,000 each.”
Gries set up the GoFundMe page – Female Ukrainian Geoscientist Refugee Funds – and started the campaign with the first $4,000 committed.
Krzywiec went to work identifying candidates to receive the support while Gries and her friends began seeking support.
Gries manages the page and promotes the fundraising while Krzywiec works to identify eligible candidates to receive funding. She provides the funding to individuals selected by Krzywiec.
“Piotr is the key identifier, he has such close relationships with the Ukrainian geologists,” Gries said.
Krzywiec receives help with vetting from Ukrainian AAPG member, Alexander (Sasha) Kitchka, who escaped from Kyiv and currently lives in Vienna with his family. They send candidate CVs and profiles to Gries, and she contacts them to set up direct transfers.
“I start by sending a few hundred dollars and if that transfer via Western Union is successful, I distribute more the following week,” she said.
She provided an initial contribution of $1,000 to each family to cover initial basic needs and sent follow-up payments as required.
“The funding is keeping up with the needs, so far, especially for new people,” she said. “As we are soon into the fourth month after the invasion, most will need additional funding.”
In its first month, the GoFundMe campaign raised more than $40,000 and provided more than half of the funds to 27 female refugees located throughout Europe.
“Most of our refugees are in Poland, a country with an amazingly big heart,” Gries said. “Others are in Slovakia, Croatia, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany. A couple are still in Ukraine but removed from the eastern war zone.”
She posts messages from the recipients on the GoFundMe page so donors can see the impact of their contributions.
The messages – many anonymous and some with first names listed only – express deep gratitude for the generosity shown by geoscientists halfway around the world.
Olena sent a “thank you” message to the group after receiving her transfer on May 14.
“You are doing a very big and important work by helping women scientists. I devoted my whole life to geology and how important it is when, at a difficult moment, it was the scientists who supported me. After all, your support is not only money, which is very important in my situation, but even more important is the feeling of friendly support from the scientific community. It gives strength to live, work and move on,” she said.
Gries said she is pleased to see contributions from individuals and societies. Donations range from $5 to $10 paid by individuals to $5,000, provided the Denver International Petroleum Society.
“People have been very generous,” Gries said. “Roscoe Jackson of Eureka, Kansas has donated $16,000 so far and is amazing in his commitment. He says it came from the example his parents set in the 1970s taking in Vietnamese immigrants.”
Gries recognizes that GoFundMe may not be the donation vehicle of choice for everyone.
“Many people are donating to other avenues of support, and I understand that. This is not through a non-profit, so it is not tax-deductible. The generosity of the donors is amazing given that facet,” she said.
Donations have been life-changing for women like Yuliia, who posted to the GoFundMe page shortly after receiving her donation.
“Today I received a money order. I’m overwhelmed with emotions! I will be able to buy essentials (underwear, shoes), and now we have the opportunity to buy fresh vegetables and fruits. My daughter dreams of a book and much more,” she wrote.
“It is impossible to convey how hard it was to suddenly leave your home, to flee to another country with one backpack. We express our sincere and heartfelt gratitude for your assistance. In addition to financial assistance, we are grateful for the huge strong support in difficult times. It inspires us and gives us strength to believe in victory!”
Anna Sankina, a geologist living in a refugee hostel in Gdansk, Poland while caring for her disabled daughter, sent the following message after receiving her second transfer.
“Tell other geologists that I am grateful to you all for such kind support. I rode into the unknown, not knowing what and how it would be. But with such care from you, from the Polish colleagues, I feel much calmer. Thank you.”
Be Part of the Solution
Krzywiec encouraged geoscientists from around the world to support Ukrainians through the Facebook group, the GoFundMe campaign or whatever method they choose.
“Please consider being as generous as possible. That might be seen as a small drop in the ocean of needs, but I can guarantee that for those few female geologists we managed to identify this would be huge help; and not only financial – they will see that world cares; this is also very important. Remember that most of these female refugees have their husbands, sons, brothers, etc. in Ukraine, on the battlefield of war that has world-wide consequences. Those that are already abroad are usually supporting their family members that couldn’t leave the country, so your donation might also directly help somebody in Ukraine,” he said.
“Please do spread the word about this fundraising campaign. Every donation counts. I personally guarantee that all money will be properly used and will be highly appreciated.”
To contribute to the GoFundMe campaign, visit GoFundMe.com and search “Female Ukrainian geoscientist refugee funds.”
To post opportunities on the Facebook page, search “Pomagamy geologom z Ukrainy” at Facebook.com.
To contribute funds to cover AAPG dues for Ukrainian members, contact [email protected]