Whether it’s flying passengers on a Boeing 757 from San Francisco to Honolulu, or driving refugees across the Ukraine-Poland border, kindness blurs boundaries and borders. Jeffrey Schrager, an American Airlines pilot and Realtor, with Marek Stankiewicz, a Polish truck driver, epitomize kindness in a world of frenzy and violence.
Schrager’s connection with Ukraine and Poland go back generations. His great-great grandmother was from Odessa, present-day Ukraine. Schrager went to Poland a few years ago to trace his family history. But his motivation comes from a deeper sense of injustice, beyond ancestral connections. Once the speculations of Russia’s attack on the neighboring Ukraine changed to a threat and eventually a grim reality, Schrager looked for ways to help, from California.
His local friends told him about the crunch of refugees trying to flee the war in Ukraine. People were using their personal vehicles and renting vans to get families across the border – mostly women and children, since adult men are not allowed to leave. His friends connected him with Stankiewicz, who is a Polish truck driver living in the United Kingdom.
Both men had no plan. But a great deal of determination.
“We had the same idea. We both wanted to help. It’s been a good synergy to make this work. Together we got the van, and figured God would direct the show. And here we are,” Schrager said, speaking from the passenger seat of the van around 8 p.m., with Marek in the driver’s seat in Poland’s Medyka Refugee Center.
They’ve been driving Ukranian refugees to rehabilitation centers provided by the government in Zamosc and Lublin, and makeshift centers set up by local and international organizations.
According to reports, more than 2 million have fled Ukraine, a country of 35 million.
This is just the beginning, says Schrager, hinting at a looming crisis of millions trying to escape a war that is being fought in cities and towns, not just borders and bunkers. With a burgeoning number of refugees, Schrager says the facilities “are simply not enough.”
No parallels here with flying passengers from San Francisco to Honolulu.
“They’re healthy, but scared,” he says. “They’re extremely scared of the unknown. We try to be very gentle and very supportive. And uplifting for them because many of them have just left brothers, husbands, fathers and grandfathers behind. They’ve had an extremely long journey, a very scary journey.”
Stankiewicz has been instrumental in Schrager’s endeavors, especially when it comes to communicating with people who’ve left it all behind for uncertain destinations. Apart from English, he speaks Russian and Polish, which makes it easier to communicate with the migrants. Especially in a crisis where each helpful individual is countered with many exploitative ones, language barriers can be insurmountable.
Stankiewicz’s wife and daughter are back in the UK.
“My wife goes to work, and my daughter is in secondary school. I came to drive the van and help these people out. What I want to stress out is the fact that this is unprecedented scale. You walk into a primary school, and you have people who’ve been lying down there for days. It’s just overwhelming.”
Not that Schrager was looking for a partner, but he found a great one in Stankiewicz.
“I didn’t want to rely on anybody else to do this. I was willing to do this myself. And Mark wanted the same thing. And so together, we’re able to do this and it’s working very well. We both got time out, and this was possible.”
The duo, along with two other people, have now formed a group to increase the number of people they can help. They have nothing to offer in return for anyone who is willing to help. So, they’ve rented an apartment for the upcoming week around the area, so they have a more coordinated effort to get as many people out as they can.
Schrager’s cousin Diana Sevanian is a Santa Clarita resident. Her father and Jeff’s father were brothers.
“Our grandma Sarah Schrager was also from Odessa. Suddenly we were all related, and in this fight for survival together even more,” said Sevanian, a former feature writer for The Signal.
With the current crisis worsening, she was reminded of how history repeats itself, reminding her of what their family members must’ve gone through during the pogroms.
“Same madness, different century,” she says.
She has set up a GoFundMe page (bit.ly/3CAEyJI) to facilitate help from those who wish to do their part. Sevanian, who works with Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, says that Schrager “is a brother, and now a hero for me.” She has been in constant contact with him and has become a kind of liaison between him and those who wish to help from home.
There is a lot of help around, Schrager says, “but it’s not efficiently coordinated.” He is hoping to get assistance to transport people and haul material on the vans. The idea, he says, is to get the help directly to people who need it and to help larger organizations like Germany’s Hope for Help with their efforts.
Schrager and Stankiewicz both acknowledge much work remains ahead. When asked to smile for a photo, Stankiewicz said, “I’ll smile when everyone has a home.”