Poulsbo firefighter talks about refugees

A Kingston humanitarian aid worker found himself back in the classroom when he visited students on Bainbridge Island to give them an update about his trip into Ukraine and Poland.

Students at St. Cecilia Catholic school learned about the ongoing humanitarian disaster from a classmate’s dad who is a Poulsbo firefighter that just returned from the Ukraine-Poland border.

Fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Sarah Taylor’s and seventh- and eighth-grade teacher Amy Lee-Despard’s classes followed updates from Jake Gillanders who was in Ukraine the last couple of weeks. Upon his return, Gillanders, CEO of Empact Northwest, spoke to the students about his trip, the conditions and shared ways to help.

Gillanders was part of the Empact pathfinder team that assessed refugee reception centers in Poland, evacuation corridors and living conditions at the border cities of Rzeszów and Przemyśl, Poland, and Lviv, Ukraine.

Bringing the impact of war closer to home for the students, Gillander asked them to imagine how they would feel if they were at home all snuggled in bed and all of a sudden the light comes on and, “your mom or dad comes into the room and they say, ‘we have to go!’”

He told the students they could only take a backpack, three sets of clothes and whatever else they can fit into the bag.

“What are you going to put in your backpack when you may never see your home again?” Gillanders asked. “I want you to think about what that would feel like. You only have a minute or two to get what you’re going to take with you, and get out the door.”

That’s what people are experiencing all over Ukraine, Gillanders said as he impressed upon the students that the refugee children are no different than they are. “They live in conditions and situations just like you do, with their moms and dads in apartment buildings or in homes. They’ve just been forced with no information and no time to leave without ever knowing if they’re ever going to come home,” he added, showing photos from his trip.

Gillanders is no stranger to disaster. He’s a firefighter and captain of the Poulsbo Fire Department along with being the CEO of Empact Northwest, a non-governmental organization with a network of volunteers that responds to natural disasters and sends in teams of people trained in urban rescue, medical work and logistics. They search collapsed buildings, find people trapped inside using dogs and cameras and dig them out. They also set up medical sites to take care of victims and logistics to move supplies in and around the area.

“This mission is a little bit different for us,” Gillanders said. “It’s made by a person, but it’s still a disaster because there’s so many people affected, and that’s how we got engaged in this work, even though it’s not a natural disaster.”

All month, St. Cecilia students have been following the news in Eastern Europe, and they’ve been collecting change to donate to relief efforts for Ukrainian refugees, so far raising $316.26.

Gillanders asked the kids to imagine they were refugees. He showed checkpoints that city residents had constructed out of barricades hastily made from tires filled with dirt because they had little notice to protect themselves against the invaders.

“They know people are coming to hurt them. So, they built these all over their towns,” Gillanders said.

Students viewed images of the long lines of cars filled with refugees waiting to cross the border to safety. None wanted to leave as Gillanders described the exodus as, “They don’t have a choice. They’ve been forced into this situation.”

The vehicle line into Poland can take three or four days, and there are long lines of people walking to buses. After they cross the border, relief workers direct them to shelters filled with people who are constantly coming and going all day and night.

“Your bed is right next to somebody you’ve never met, and you’re all crammed into this warehouse, and everything’s been cleared out to make room for you to sleep, and you’ll stay there for a couple days,” Gillanders said.

The students are visibly moved. Gillanders asked them to think about what was left behind. “What are the things that couldn’t fit in your backpack? Remember when you had a really special stuffed animal that you were really connected to?”

A picture of a stuffed animal appeared in the slide show, “That stuffed animal was left behind by a little girl who didn’t have time to pick it up.”

He mentioned the people they had to leave behind. Their cousins, brothers, sisters or grandparents who couldn’t make the journey, and their older brothers and dads who had to stay because men between the ages of 18 and 65 are expected to fight for Ukraine.

Gillanders has a lot of empathy for the men taking their families to the border. He said the dads saying goodbye to their families “was pretty tough for me to watch.”

While the men are expected to stay to protect their homes there is little equipment, and they’re being trained with wooden guns. “They’re getting a week of training, before they’re sent to fight one of the biggest armies in the world,” Gillanders said of Russia.

At the end of his presentation, he lingered on a picture of Kyiv, the capital city. “Just three weeks ago, this looked just like downtown Seattle, and now it’s destroyed. This is what people are experiencing every day right now in Ukraine.”

Students peppered him with questions including: Did you see any American soldiers? Gillander explained they were in Poland. How far had the Russian army invaded into Ukraine? He showed them on a map where Russian forces were at that time.

Gillanders’ Empact team is working with others in assisting in refugee relief. “We can’t fix this problem…But maybe we can bring them a little bit of comfort. Whether it’s hot food, a little medical care, or playing with kiddos in the reception center. What they need right now is a little bit of normalcy,” he said.

Students learned they can make a difference by sharing how important it is to help Ukraine.

“There’s not that big of a difference between them and us. It’s about geography and timing. I’ve talked to these kids, they’re the same as you,” Gillanders said. “Three weeks ago, they were in school just like you are right now, and that’s how quickly all of our lives can shift and how we need to be empathetic to those people experiencing that.”

Teacher Lee-Despard said it’s important for the students to understand a greater world view. “Love your neighbor is the bedrock of what we teach here. Kindness matters,” she said.

Nancy Treder/North Kitsap Herald
Poulsbo Fire Department Captain Jake Gillanders points to a location on a map of Europe.

Nancy Treder/North Kitsap Herald Poulsbo Fire Department Captain Jake Gillanders points to a location on a map of Europe.

A mother and daughter wait in a refugee center in Poland.

A mother and daughter wait in a refugee center in Poland.