Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, women across Poland have made trips to the Polish-Ukrainian border to offer rides to the many refugees seeking a safe escape from the country.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, most of the more than four million people who have fled Ukraine are women and children. And because both groups are at high risk of exploitation and human trafficking, the Women Take the Wheel volunteer collective is helping them on their journey.
“Feeling safe and secure is one of the basic human needs,” says 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. “Making them feel safe was as fundamental a response as giving water to a thirsty person,” she said.
Women Take the Wheel, an informal group of about 600 members, uses Facebook, WhatsApp and other messaging platforms to communicate and coordinate help.
The increasing dangers faced by women and children were part of what prompted Ms Jarmulska to post an appeal for female drivers on Facebook after her first drive to the border near the town of Dorohusk. On that trip at the beginning of the war, Mrs. Jarmulska saw dozens of men standing in front of their cars in front of reception sites – hastily erected centers for incoming refugees – “looking like bouncers in a club”.
As a woman, Mrs Jarmulska empathized with those who came alone or with children after a difficult journey to another country where the language is foreign and men, well intentioned, sometimes offer rides late at night. It can “increase the trauma and anxiety,” she said.
“What can I do to make it easier for them?” Mrs. Jarmulska asked herself that evening.
Kasia Garbarska saw the discussion on Facebook as an opportunity to further mobilize efforts and suggested the volunteers travel in groups: an extra safety precaution, she said, and a way to maximize space.
Through her work in the marketing department of Warsaw City Hall, where she has worked with some refugee reception centers in the city, Ms. Garbarska heard the fears of refugee women, including the dangers of being taken away by unknown men.
“They don’t feel safe,” said Ms. Garbarska, 56, who volunteers to be a driver at least once a week. “So if there’s anything we can do to make them feel a little bit safer, then we have to do it.”
There is no vetting process for drivers, but that is being addressed, Ms Jarmulska said, adding that she scrutinized an individual’s Facebook profile before accepting a request to join. Some cars feature blue and gold plaques of the group’s name and logo — a van with the symbol for “women” underneath. (The image was designed by Ola Jasionowska, the artist behind the flash that became the image of the women’s movement in Poland two years ago.) And volunteers are being told to report to reception centers and local authorities before being transported offer.
Women Take the Wheel will provide transportation and expand its network of female volunteers as long as there is a need, Ms Jarmulska said. It’s about, she said, “showing up with your hands outstretched and your heart open.”