Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, women across Poland have traveled to the Polish-Ukrainian border to provide rides for the multitudes of refugees seeking to get out of the country safely.
Most of the more than four million people who have fled Ukraine are women and children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And because both groups are at high risk of exploitation and trafficking, the volunteer collective Women Take the Wheel helps them make the trip.
“Feeling safe is one of the basic human needs,” said Ella Jarmulska, 38, an entrepreneur from a village on the outskirts of Warsaw who helped found the group and is one of the drivers. “Giving them a sense of security was as fundamental a response as giving water to a thirsty person,” she said.
Women Take the Wheel, an informal group of around 600 members, uses Facebook, WhatsApp and other messaging platforms to communicate and coordinate support.
The heightened perils facing women and children are part of what motivated Ms Jarmulska to appeal to female drivers on Facebook after making her first trip to the border, near the town of Dorohusk. On that trip at the start of the war, Ms Jarmulska saw dozens of men standing by their cars outside the reception sites – hastily erected centers for arriving refugees – “looking like bouncers at a club “.
As a woman, Mrs. Jarmulska sympathized with those who arrive, alone or with children, after a difficult journey to another country where the language is foreign and where men, however well-meaning, offer rides, sometimes late at night. It can “add to the trauma and the state of fear,” she said.
“What can I do to make it easier for them? Mrs. Jarmulska wondered that evening.
Kasia Garbarska saw the discussion on Facebook and an opportunity to mobilize more effort, suggesting volunteers travel in groups: an added safety precaution, she said, and a way to maximize space.
Through her work in the Marketing Department of Warsaw City Hall, where she worked with some of the city’s refugee reception points, Ms. Garbarska heard the fears expressed by refugee women, including the dangers associated with driven by unknown men.
“They don’t feel safe,” said Ms Garbarska, 56, who volunteers as a driver at least once a week. “So if there’s anything we can do to make them feel a little safer, that’s what we need to do.”
There is no vetting process for drivers, but it is being processed, Ms Jarmulska said, adding that she looked closely at a person’s Facebook profile before accepting any request for a driver. membership. Some cars are fitted with blue and gold panels of the band’s name and logo – a van with the “women’s” symbol underneath. (The image was designed by Ola Jasionowska, the artist behind the lightning bolt that became the image of the women’s movement in Poland two years ago).
Women Take the Wheel will provide transportation and expand its network of women volunteers for as long as there is a need, Ms Jarmulska said. It’s about, she says, “showing up with an outstretched hand and an open heart.”