Whether ferrying passengers on a Boeing 757 from San Francisco to Honolulu, or driving refugees across the Ukraine-Poland border, kindness blurs boundaries and borders. American Airlines pilot and real estate agent Jeffrey Schrager, along with Polish truck driver Marek Stankiewicz, embody kindness in a world of frenzy and violence.
Schrager’s ties to 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 ties. Once speculation about Russia’s attack on neighboring Ukraine turned into a threat and eventually a grim reality, Schrager looked for ways to help, from California.
His local friends told him about the crisis of refugees trying to flee the war in Ukraine. People were using their personal vehicles and renting vans to ferry families across the border – mostly women and children, as adult men are not allowed to leave. His friends put him in touch with Stankiewicz, who is a Polish lorry driver living in the UK.
The two men had no plan. But a lot of determination.
“We had the same idea. We both wanted to help. It was a good synergy to do this work. Together we got in the van and thought God would run 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 at the Medyka refugee center in Poland.
They drove Ukrainian refugees to government-provided rehabilitation centers in Zamosc and Lublin, and makeshift centers set up by local and international organizations.
According to reports, more than 2 million people have fled Ukraine, a country of 35 million people.
This is just the beginning, says Schrager, hinting at a looming crisis of millions of people trying to escape a war that is taking place in cities and towns, not just at borders and in bunkers. With a growing number of refugees, Schrager says the facilities “just aren’t enough.”
No parallel here with air passengers from San Francisco to Honolulu.
“They are healthy, but they are scared,” he said. “They are extremely afraid of the unknown. We try to be very gentle and very supportive. And uplifting for them because many of them have just left behind brothers, husbands, fathers and grandfathers. They 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 have left everything behind for uncertain destinations. Besides English, he speaks Russian and Polish, which facilitates communication with migrants. Especially in a crisis where every helpful individual faces many exploiters, language barriers can be insurmountable.
Stankiewicz’s wife and daughter are back in the UK.
“My wife is going to work and my daughter is in secondary school. I came to drive the van and help these people. What I want to emphasize is the fact that this is an unprecedented scale. You walk into an elementary school and you have people who have been laying 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 someone else to do that. I was ready to do it myself. And Mark wanted the same. And so together, we are able to do that and it works very well. We both had free time, and it 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 exchange for anyone willing to help. So they’ve rented an apartment for the upcoming week in the area, so they have a more coordinated effort to get as many people out as possible.
Schrager’s cousin, Diana Sevanian, is a resident of Santa Clarita. His father and Jeff’s father were brothers.
“Our grandmother Sarah Schrager was also from Odessa. Suddenly we were all connected, and in this fight for survival together even more,” said Sevanian, a former screenwriter for The Signal.
As the current crisis worsened, she recalled how history repeats itself, reminding her of what their family members had to go through during the pogroms.
“Same madness, different century,” she says.
She created a GoFundMe page (bit.ly/3CAEyJI) to make it easier for those who want to do their part. Sevanian, who works with the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, says Schrager “is a brother, and now a hero to me.” She has been in constant contact with him and has become a kind of liaison between him and those who wish to help at home.
There’s a lot of help around, says Schrager, “but it’s not coordinated effectively.” He hopes to get help transporting people and transporting equipment in the vans. The idea, he says, is to bring the aid directly to people in need and to help larger organizations like Hope for Help in Germany in their efforts.
Both Schrager and Stankiewicz recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done. When asked to smile for a photo, Stankiewicz replied, “I’ll smile when everyone has a house.”