Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, women around Poland have been making trips to the Polish-Ukrainian border to offer rides to the multitudes of refugees seeking safe passage out of the country.
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 is helping them make the journey.
“Feeling safe and secure is one of humans’ basic needs,” said Ella Jarmulska, 38, an entrepreneur from a village on the outskirts of Warsaw who helped found the group and serves as one of the drivers. “To provide them with some sense of security was as basic a reaction as giving water to a thirsty person,” she said.
Women Take the Wheel, an informal group with about 600 members, uses Facebook, WhatsApp and other messaging platforms to communicate and coordinate assistance.
The amplified perils that women and children face are part of what motivated Ms. Jarmulska to issue an appeal for female drivers on Facebook after making her first trip to the border, near the town of Dorohusk. On that trip at the onset 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, Ms. Jarmulska empathized with those arriving, alone or with children, after a difficult journey to a different country where the language is foreign and men, however well-intentioned, are offering rides, sometimes late at night. It can “add to the trauma and state of fear,” she said.
“What can I do to make it easier on them?” Ms. Jarmulska asked herself that evening.
Kasia Garbarska saw the discussion on Facebook and an opportunity to further mobilize the effort, suggesting the volunteers travel in groups: an extra safety precaution, she said, and a way to maximize space.
Through her job with the marketing department in Warsaw’s City Hall, where she has worked with some of the reception points for refugees in the city, Ms. Garbarska heard the fears that female refugees expressed, including the dangers associated with taking rides from unknown men.
“They do not feel safe,” said Ms. Garbarska, 56, who volunteers as a driver at least once a week. “So if we can do anything to make them feel a little bit safer, that is what we have to do.”
There is no vetting process for the drivers, but that is being addressed, Ms. Jarmulska said, adding that she closely examined a person’s Facebook profile before accepting any request to join. Some cars are outfitted with blue-and-gold signs of the group’s name and its logo — a van with the symbol for “women” underneath it. (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.) And volunteers are instructed to check in at reception centers and with the local authorities before offering any transportation.
Women Take the Wheel will offer transportation and widen its network of female volunteers as long as there is a need, Ms. Jarmulska said. It’s a matter, she said, of “showing up with your hand out and heart open.”