Running Supplies into Ukraine & Rapid Refugee Response in Poland: Lessons Learned So Far

The author (L) with a US military veteran volunteering as a combat medic trainer in Ukraine (R).

“We help because we have to. Doing nothing is intolerable.”

Nighttime scene at a Ukrainian-Polish border crossing.

Thousands of people are transporting, housing, feeding, and otherwise helping over 2 million refugees (at last count) streaming one way, and sending medicine, gear, food, and other supplies into Ukraine.

This article collects notes and quotes from some of them. The goal is to share some of their lessons learned and ideas that may be useful in other situations.

A volunteer, grassroots-driven effort: by all accounts, including from those first on the border after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, individuals and small organizations were the first to respond. Take-away: smaller, more local entities were nimbler and faster to the scene than brandname entities.

An improvised food tent at a Ukrainian-Polish border crossing.

Motivations and the instinct to start: a recurring theme in each interview was acting on the instinct to “do something with what you have, now” and not to over-think, but to start, and then continually reevaluate what to do next.

The interviews began before I even landed in Warsaw. On a connecting flight from Paris. In an unplanned conversation, barely 30 seconds past “hello,” a fellow passenger and I were talking about the why, what, how, and what’s next of our small engagements in the sudden and colossal humanitarian mobilization in Poland.

The fellow in the neighboring seat had — immediately and for free, by open-ended and unwritten agreement — let 15% of his rentable apartments to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. They found each other through common friends and social media platforms: “friends of contacts of acquaintances.” He said he acted because he “simply had to.” These words and themes would be repeated often.

The author (L) with Oleksandra Lubchuk and Robert Konski (R).

For example, Robert Konski converted the locations of his businesses into a temporary community of over 100 refugees, complete with daycare and schooling. Two Ukrainian women, Oleksandra Lubchuk and Daria — the former was two days away from starting her English language tutoring business in Kharkhiv before it was bombed — are the appointed volunteer managers. As described in our recorded interview, a major lesson for the future is to be proactive and directive when accepting aid, like asking donors to pre-sort and label what they send in or drop off, so that the community burns less volunteer time later.

Olga Adamowicz and her husband Luke in Lublin, as they described in these recorded interviews (1, 2, 3), similarly emptied their workshop and apartment and converted all available space into temporary housing and a place to feed, clothe, and figure out next steps for 100–200 Ukrainians per day. They’re meanwhile housing themselves in a hotel and their children at their neighbors.

Olga and Luke’s converted workshop space under their home.

Olga and Luke’s experience has been like that of a business startup story: an instinctual need to act immediately, followed by “connections-of-connections” showing up, and then finding-and-solving problems, one refugee, one hour, and then one day and then one week at a time. Olga’s two “lessons learned” so far are to always appoint a leader/representative/contact for any group of arriving refugrees, and to always be direct and candid about expectations. Among those who showed up to help, randomly, through friends-of-friends, were at least two people with IT startup experience (Michal Pilawski and Ruz Bacha), a former hedge fund manager (Stephanie Allen), and so on, from various countries. These people would start doing anything, no matter how small, like driving 2–3 refugees at a time in a rented car from the border. But then they’d see a need — like for fundraising or organizing logistics. Or resolving a bottleneck in providing onward transportation away from the border. The next steps included co-opting a friend’s charitable foundation that could legally take money, then creating a new website to crowdfund, and then social media sharing to reach those who wanted to help. Sites through which these people can be supported include a GoFundMe page and this site.

Co-founders of World Central Kitchen and United Sikhs separately confirmed some of these observations: “there’s a lot in common with running a business — for example, seeing the value of rapid prototyping” said Hardial Singh of United Sikhs in our recorded interview. As Javier Garcia of World Central Kitchen said in our recorded interview: “we don’t punish for failed experiments — as long as our people are acting with good intention and trying something that may be an improvement, and learning.”

Our last profile of a local businessperson spending “100% of available time on one’s business, and another 100% of available time on meeting the needs of the crisis” is that of Christopher Jaworski, who “could not just sit in the workshop” where he converts vans into world-renowned all-terrain campers.

Christopher (R) and the author (L) on a supply run into Ukraine.

Christopher’s actions — running supplies over the border to Lviv, Ukraine — illustrate the dichotomy of extreme entrepreneurs: (1) starting instead of overthinking, yet (2) being realistic, seeing risks, and asking and absorbing new information to rapidly pivot so as to have the biggest impact. I witnessed Christopher’s exhaustive preparation, making sure he had official permissions and manifests from the Polish Red Cross. He had constant communication with intermediaries. Without the right connections, we would not have had gathered and delivered the gear, medical supplies, and other essentials that Ukrainians need (we were told 80% of the supplies that we transported were headed for the frontline areas, including the area of besieged Mariupol).

A small sample of the equipment handed-off to intermediaries who took supplies to frontline areas.

Worse, people and transports have gone missing, according to Christopher. Again: starting is vital, but “knowing that there is a lot we don’t know” and absorbing input and coordinating with experts with specialized knowledge and contacts is equally vital to having a desired outcome, as he describes in our recorded interview.

Christopher reviewing a manifest and permissions with a local leader of the regional Polish Red Cross chapter.

Christopher and I will never forget several details.

A helpful QR code for reporting enemy activity.

One was meeting U.S. military veterans going into Ukraine. Christopher’s connections to intermediaries were able to make sure the veterans, and their expertise in training others to provide combat medical aid, were directed to appropriate people.

Moon over Lviv in the evening.

Another was picking up refugees — relatives of an employee of one of the people I met helping Olga and Luke. They traveled back with us and stayed with 25 other refugees already living with Christopher’s family.

It was hard not to cry seeing the uninhibited affection and care that Christopher’s dad expressed for one of the children — and it leads me to my most surprising observation.

The author (L) with a visibly (and typically) ebulient Christopher.

Without exception, everyone with whom I spoke said they feel more optimistic about the future of humanity. They were ALL more centered, calm, and appeared MORE happy than the average of people I met who have witnessed the first month of war on a video screen. Why? Maybe it is because — while the horrors and traumas of war are obvious — those helping at the frontlines of the refugee crisis and in the supply chains are active, they’re busy, they don’t have time to stew or reflect too much, and they are surrounded by others similarly motivated, inspired by the same constructive intent, and seeing, immersed in, and acting out of love and other positive emotions.

This brings us to a controversial question, but one that must be asked: what good could emerge from a nightmare of terror and carnage? As at least one Polish entrepreneur who survived the trauma of a forced childhood relocation (Artur Racicki, who has mentored many Ukrainian startups for several years all over Poland) agreed that, while millions will need therapy, it’s hard to deny that some percentage of survivors may be forever altered by their experiences to grow into the next generation of people who pivot at a moment’s notice to spontaneously self-organize to solve problems.

A highway into Ukraine.

A final reflection was shared by Michal Pilawski in response to the question “how much of a difference can one person make” — roughly paraphrasing the literature on managing in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) contexts, he said “you can’t measure success by the number of refugees transported or housed on any given day — this is not about efficiency — it’s about enough of us chipping-in somehow, as we can, to make sure there’s spare capacity of various kinds in a situation with ongoing, changing, and unforeseeable needs.”

A PS on the process of gathering these stories, since several friends have asked “how the heck did you meet all these people and find these stories”…

Without prompting, the people cited above echoed themes of other entrepreneurs in extreme environments profiled in my book Extreme Entrepreneurship, and my experience gathering these stories similarly paralleled prior experiences and those of the people I was meeting. First: it pays to start. Showing up at the border and just approaching people led to meeting the cofounders of United Sikhs and World Central Kitchen. Second, sharing what you’re doing, both with contacts and on social media, also pays. For example, a friend that I met through MIT Enterprise Forum CEE, Krzysztof Gawrysiak, put me in touch with Christopher, but it was only because I posted about being on the border on social media that we coincidentally discovered that a cousin of mine was volunteering with Olga and Luke. Third, it pays to ask dumb questions and say “yes” — even to what seem like small favors: giving a ride to a few people here, or a few more people there, may not seem hugely impactful, but it can make a big difference for them during one of the hardest days of their lives, and, by doing so, one might meet the next interesting person, like someone who developed a logistical app that helped to convert a big box retail location into a space for temporary housing and support for hundreds of refugees. It’s impossible to tell where some story threads will lead or may end, but it’s equally impossible to find them without starting, asking, listening, and keeping going. Thank you to all those named above, and many more, for allowing me to share your stories and lessons learned so far.

A Ukrainian highway at night.

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Associate Professor of Law & Sustainability at Babson College

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Adam Sulkowski

Adam Sulkowski

Associate Professor of Law & Sustainability at Babson College

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