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In heart of ‘war zone’: Fredonia man describes Ukraine volunteering

Submitted Photos Patrick Stokes, right, poses with a Ukrainian flag.

Fredonia’s Patrick Stokes recently did five weeks of volunteer work in war-torn Ukraine, and spoke about it this month at the Fredonia Opera House.

Stokes, who plans to return next month, worked for Siobhan’s Trust, a Scottish non-profit outfit that essentially acts as a mobile pizzeria. The charity has distributed about 1.2 million pizzas in Ukraine since the Russian invasion of February 2022.

Stokes started out by going into the crowd for “selfies” to send back to friends in Ukraine. That was fitting as Stokes spent much of his time in Ukraine shooting videos and photos, documenting his work and that of his Siobhan’s Trust mates.

“If you found someone who spoke great English, you would ask them, ‘Where did you learn such great English?’ They’d say, ‘Netflix,'” he commented.

Stokes got involved in Ukraine volunteer work through a friend who drove ambulances there last year. He sent the man $100 and asked him to let him know if he needed anything else. His friend responded with a list of contacts to get him started with volunteer work.

Patrick Stokes takes a “selfie” while serving pizza to Ukrainians.

“At first, I meant more money,” Stokes said with a laugh. But then he thought things over and talked things over. He heard a lot of discouragement — people said to him, “It’s a war zone, why would you be going?”

However, he noted the nature of the Russo-Ukrainian war is such that the front lines are mostly static. Missile attacks and air raids offer constant reminders of the war, but day-to-day life goes on for most Ukrainians.

“You can walk into a store and not feel like the war is on,” he said, also adding that in his work, “there was never a feeling the front was close. But we did get close a couple times.”

When Stokes resolved to volunteer in Ukraine, he applied to five separate non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One accepted him but then shut down their Ukraine operations just before he would have left the United States, because two of its workers were killed in an attack. Siobhan’s Trust was the first organization to respond to him after that fell through.

Flying into Ukraine was impossible due to the war. He flew to Warsaw, Poland, then took buses overland.

Patrick Stokes poses with aid workers and locals in Ukraine.

At the Polish-Ukrainian border, he saw piles of knives. They were left by Ukrainian women who had taken them for protection when the invasion started and they fled the country. All of their male loved ones stayed behind to fight the invaders. Once they reached safety in Poland, the border guards made the women drop their knives, and they figured they weren’t needed anymore, anyway.

Stokes was told the war refugees also brought their pets with them — but Poland would not let the animals into the country. So they languished for months in makeshift kennels on the Ukrainian side. Several NGOs eventually saved the animals and found new homes for them.

“You quickly learn all the safety tools… you listen, and take them to heart completely,” Stokes said. He noted one widely reported, but surprisingly hard to combat, trick: taking SIM cards out of mobile phones so they cannot be tracked.

Stokes expected rough living conditions. “The trust had been in lots of remote villages where they had to shack up in abandoned buildings,” he said.

To his surprise, during his five weeks in Ukraine, he was based in cities and stayed in many decent hotels. Ukrainian hotels are anxious to get Westerners’ business, especially if they are assisting Ukrainians, he said.

Every morning, “you’d get a ping on your phone. You’re going 20 kilometers away to this little village.” Poor roads and military checkpoints meant it could take an hour to go that distance.

He had four days in the five weeks where he didn’t serve pizza. Two were travel days, a third day was cleared because a town canceled its pizza visit to mourn victims of a missile strike. The fourth day off was the result of a snafu: their “fixer,” who helped set them up with localities to cook for, thought they didn’t have enough staff, which was incorrect. “We yelled at her,” he said.

Although he never saw front line fighting, the war touched Stokes, nevertheless.

He heard this advice: Don’t go to a bomb shelter unless it’s “noisy.” He was told, “When you hear ‘thud thud thud,’ that makes it noisy. One thud doesn’t make it noisy.”

Stokes also heard a heartbreaking story from one young Ukrainian refugee. His father had formerly served in the Ukrainian military. When the Russian military came to their town, they executed the father, in front of the boy. According to Stokes, Russian troops regularly killed any Ukrainian veterans they came across.

Stokes befriended a man who wound up fighting in the Ukrainian military. The man, who he called “Sasha,” recently sent him a photo where he posed with three captured Russian soldiers.

Sasha told Stokes that the Ukrainians sometimes fly U.S. flags to draw Russian fire. “The Russians shoot at them and then we know where they are,” Sasha said.

Though he had plenty of war stories, Stokes also described peaceful, friendly villagers who wouldn’t let him and his fellow volunteers leave until they sampled some homemade wine.

Stokes’ lecture ended fittingly, with free pizza offered out in the lobby, distributed by Om Nohm from just down the street. Stokes held a meet-and-greet at a nearby bar after the lecture, seeking donations for Siobhan’s Trust.

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