WARSAW, Poland – Tatiana Zhuravka shuffles out from room 702 to collect medicine to ease her weary nerves and fractured back. The 74-year-old arrived here in April, after spending a month and a half in her church basement while Russian troops bombed her city.
Up two floors in room 911, hairstylist Viktoriia Iordatii snips away at Irina Semenova’s hair, while their sons play together on the bed. Iordatii’s scissors and clippers are new, gifted to her by strangers that she and her son stayed with after crossing the border. Her old tools had to be left behind while fleeing her home.
On the fifth floor, six-year-old Vladik and seven-year-old Kiril lean out an open window.
“Slava Ukraini!” the two shout to the parking lot below.
Glory to Ukraine.
This is the Best Western Hotel Felix in Warsaw, where the rooms teem with life and the hallways serve as town squares. It’s the temporary home of 160 Ukrainian refugees, one of the many hotels, shelters and strangers’ houses across Europe enlisted to combat the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Rooms in this hotel are rented by a travel agency located 5,020 miles away, in Lincoln, Nebraska – a travel agency that transformed itself into a humanitarian aid organization overnight.
It is the makeshift headquarters of Operation Safe Harbor Ukraine, a Nebraska-founded project raising money and sending volunteers to help keep refugee families safe, housed and fed.
Subscribe for free
Get stories like this delivered to your inbox every Friday.
Volunteers – most from Nebraska – support the families in ways you can count. Fifty hotel rooms filled. 315 people housed in under two months. Two meals served daily. 21 plastic drawers filled with medicine. Nearly $300,000 raised so far.
But there are things here that can’t be quantified. The stories shared between mothers from opposite sides of the world. The secret handshakes and hugs exchanged by children who make these hallways their playground. Any small distraction from Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine – an invasion that has endangered and upended the lives of the people sheltering in this hotel.
“Nebraskans have huge hearts,” said Brian Wallingford, a volunteer from Lincoln who helped establish the hotel shelter. “We’re known for helping your neighbor, whether you know your neighbor or not. Our neighbors just happen to be halfway across the world.”
When the violence in Ukraine began, Steve Glenn watched it unfurl through his TV in Nebraska. Millions of people were fleeing the country, most ending up in Poland.
The former Husker football player and Lincoln business owner felt compelled to help. He thought about writing a check. It didn’t feel like doing enough.
For 36 years, Glenn has negotiated hotel rates for companies and clients as the owner of Executive Travel. Why not do the same for Ukrainian refugee families?
Working his travel industry contacts, Glenn secured a discounted rate at the Best Western in Warsaw – 50 rooms, $50 a night.
Then Glenn handed his credit card to Wallingford.
“Get it booked,” he said to the eight-year employee. “We’re going to do this.”
With that, Wallingford and coworker Whitney Holcomb went from working in travel to international humanitarian aid.
For two weeks, Wallingford called every Polish organization and nonprofit he could find. He went online, posting on the Warsaw forum of Reddit.com: “I’m coming to rent a hotel for Ukrainians, anyone interested in helping?”
Seventeen people messaged him, people from as far away as the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden. They wanted to help.
He found Warsaw locals willing to assist. Polish speakers who called around to restaurants, churches and nonprofits, explaining Operation Safe Harbor’s aims. People who pulled together lists of nearby grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals and donation centers. Others who volunteered to help translate conversations at the hotel between English-speaking volunteers and Ukrainian families.
By April, Wallingford, Holcomb and Tamara Forbes stood in their newly-rented hotel in Warsaw, shaking hands and greeting the first 48 families.
The families’ paths to the Best Western varied widely. Some spent hours on buses and trains, not knowing their final destination when they boarded in Ukraine. Others walked dozens of miles to enter Poland on foot, or drove through other countries before finding shelter here.
All arrived having lost something. They left behind family members, pets, homes.
The Executive Travel volunteers spent their early days dashing to the pharmacy and carting families back and forth from the hospital. They made sandwiches out of the trunk of a rented car, knocking on all 50 hotel room doors to make sure every family got fed.
Room 118 – Lincolnite Wallingford’s room – became a makeshift corner store, with every possible surface, even his bed, piled high with toothbrushes, diapers, water bottles and donated clothes. At all hours of the day, families would knock.
Sometimes, they were in search of medicine or snacks.
Other times, they sought a shoulder to cry on.
“No one will ever know the heartbreak I feel for them,” said Wallingford, who returned to Warsaw a second time on Friday. “All they will ever know from me is love, safety, security and strength. During the day, everything was thrown into a box. And that box didn’t open up until my door was shut and locked at night.”
Now, in early May, the hotel has fallen into something of a routine – breakfast in the morning, where families and volunteers greet each other in the hotel restaurant. Mothers going in and out of the newly installed laundry room on the eighth floor. Trips to Warsaw parks, zoos and museums.
There are no more late-night knocks on the door to room 118, Wallingford’s old room. An eighth-floor storage room is the new corner store, the hub of hotel activity.
Moments of chaos spring up daily. Volunteer doctors come to visit and the eighth floor hallway fills with families clamoring to be seen. A translation app misses the mark on what someone is trying to say, spitting out “cat for clothes rain” in English when someone asks for laundry detergent in Russian. Cooped-up children color on the hotel walls. They sometimes make noise too late into the night.
Life in the hotel can be messy and complicated. But what humanitarian crisis isn’t?
On the ninth floor, a white fluffy dog named Mia flits through the hall with a gaggle of kids trailing behind. The sound of a lone violin floats from room 908. Matvii Pakholkova refused to leave Kiev without his instrument. His father is now on the frontlines in Ukraine. If he were old enough, the 13-year-old would have stayed.
Katerina Oliinyk watches a Zoom class through her phone in room 623. Her teachers are still in Ukraine. Her classmates are scattered across the world. Downstairs in the hotel kitchen, her mother Olena washes dishes, saving up Polish zlotys so they can afford to leave and stay with friends in Croatia.
On the eighth floor, Mandy Haase-Thomas, a volunteer from Lincoln, uses a translation app on her phone to match a Ukrainian woman’s symptoms with the right medication. The drawers of donated over-the-counter drugs have labels with a mixed bag of languages – Polish, German, Arabic – that neither the volunteers nor the refugee families speak.
At the same time, Don Hutchens and Tara Knuth, also from Lincoln, help to hand out meals. Sasha Yurievna runs up with her phone: “Let me help you,” the translation app reads. The 14-year-old takes over, asking families in Russian how many meals they need and if they would like soup and fruit.
Every group since the original trio that traveled to Warsaw has brought something new to the world of the hotel, Wallingford said. One focused on finding a consistent food source. Another held talent shows and treated the women to hair and nail appointments, trying to bring a dose of humanity to this hotel and to the families’ lives.
“They made them feel like life was going back to normal,” Wallingford said. “That they can disappear from their worries for a minute and focus on themselves and feel happy again.”
In April, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would allow 100,000 Ukrainians into the country. Glenn has started lining up Lincoln businesses willing to host Ukrainian families and match them with jobs. But not every displaced Ukrainian is willing to travel so far from their homeland just yet.
He’s raised the money to keep the hotel shelter running through the end of June, and added 10 more rooms. He’d like to keep the hotel open to refugees through year’s end.
“What do we do in June? We can’t just put people out on the street. That’s not how we do things,” Glenn said. “But it seems like the more I worry, the more people respond with their generosity.”
On an evening in Warsaw, Haase-Thomas drinks tea from a hotel mug and eats pieces of chocolate off a napkin with Svitlana Pakholkova in room 908. In Kiev, Pakholkova loved to entertain. When she moves into a new Warsaw apartment at the end of May, she’ll bring with her a new serving platter. It’s a housewarming gift from Haase-Thomas.
Hutchens takes selfies with Kiril Yurievna – Hutchens wearing an “I Stand with Ukraine” pin on his University of Nebraska shirt, and Kiril wearing a matching Nebraska hat. Hutchens left his address with the 11-year-old, telling him to keep him posted on where he and his family end up.
As night falls outside room 920, Julia Deynega leans over Jonica Carlson’s hand. In 12 hours, Carlson will fly home to Lincoln. But right now, Deynega is giving her a manicure, in nail polish flecked with gold.
Deynega is the “queen of nails,” her husband tells Carlson over Facetime. He’s still in Ukraine, helping to shoot down missiles.
Mia the dog naps at their feet. The women in room 920 swap stories of their families, their pets.
Sitting on the bed, Diana, Julia’s daughter, plays a news alert out loud on her phone – eight killed by a missile strike in her hometown of Odesa. Eight dead, including a newborn baby.
Back home, hundreds of miles away, a war is still raging, no end in sight.
But in Warsaw, two women from opposite sides of the world, who only met a week ago, paint each other’s nails.
For a moment, things feel a little bit normal in a hotel that is anything but.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.