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Young Bermudian speaks of helping refugees flee Ukraine

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Harley Jane Rouwhorst, a Bermudian living in the Netherlands, helped Ukrainian refugees during a humanitarian mission as part of a Dutch organisation focused on humanitarian efforts (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A 24-year-old Bermudian helping Ukrainian refugees escape the war has appealed to other young people to get involved in giving humanitarian aid.

Harley Rouwhorst said that Ukrainians – many her age and younger – had been thrust from normalcy because of the war and were now fighting for their lives.

She added that the first family she helped through her volunteer work included a 96-year-old Ukrainian man who fought for Russia in the Second World War – but is now escaping the same army he once served.

Ms Rouwhorst said: “In Bermuda we’re so far away and kind of disconnected from all of that, but we’re all human and we all have the right to live, so we should all come together as one to help.”

Ms Rouwhorst, who has lived in the Netherlands for about two years, added that human trafficking had skyrocketed because of the war.

She explained: “There’s a lot of human trafficking of women who are leaving Ukraine because they have nowhere to go and people will take advantage of that.

“There’s a lot of abuse towards even young girls. That’s why when we go to these Polish camps we really want to relocate them to a safe place in the Netherlands.”

She was speaking after she returned home from her job at Together International, an organisation that specialises in humanitarian aid.

Harley Rouwhorst, a Bermudian living in the Netherlands, helped Ukrainian refugees during a humanitarian mission as part of a Dutch organisation focused on humanitarian efforts (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Ms Rouwhorst said that she joined the organisation last August after she discovered their website.

She added that she was studying international law and saw the job as an opportunity to get work experience involving human right laws.

Most of her job involved administrative work, such as placing teachers around the world to educate high school-aged children in South America and Africa.

But she said that her focus shifted to helping to relocate Ukrainian refugees to the Netherlands after the Russian invasion last month.

“As a non-government organisation we decided ‘we really need to make a humanitarian mission out there because this is important and this is happening right now’.”

Volunteers brought caravans filled with food and supplies to refugee camps in Poland while Ms Rouwhorst and her team helped families relocate.

Ms Rouwhorst said that she helped relocate refugees on two separate missions and hoped to be on the ground to help with another in May.

She said: “I’m excited to go out there, but it’s something that’s so far out of my comfort zone that it’ll be a shock to me.”

Despite the horrors of war, Ms Rouwhorst said that the job has shown her how generous people can be.

“We would have a lot of Ukrainian families come in and bring all these donations and just say ‘thank you so much for what you’re doing’.”

It was 4.30am when Tonya was woken by the bombs.

The 21-year-old, who lived alone in her apartment, said that at first she thought she was dreaming.

But when her dog wouldn’t stop barking and the explosions kept coming, she realised her nightmare was real.

“There was a feeling of madness,” she said. “I didn't understand what to do. I lost connection so there was no internet. I did not understand why no one had called me.

“I immediately collected my documents and rushed around the house, thinking of what to do.”

Tonya said that, after what felt like a lifetime, she got a call from her mother telling her to pack her bags and come to the family home.

She added that her older brother, Petya, soon came to escort her on the three-hour walk to their home.

Tonya said: “Explosions were heard. There were fires and long lines at the shops. Nobody knew what to do.

“It was very scary, but at the same time the sun was shining and I had this dissonance in my head.

“I could not believe how the war could start on such a wonderful day.”

When they made it to the family home, Tonya said, she hid in the basement with their mother and grandfather, a veteran of the Second World War who fought for the Russians.

They spent seven days in the basement with the family pets, two dogs and two cats, to wait out the invasion as Petya and her younger brother, Gleb, aged 15, braved the shelling to buy supplies at a nearby pharmacy.

Tonya said: “It was cold there, but I slept with my mother because it's very warm with her.

"Friends began to call us and tell us to leave, but we did not understand how we would go with my grandfather and the animals on the train.

“Grandpa walks very slowly and there are a lot of us, so we realised that we had to take the bus to the train.”

Tonya said that she and the family left their home town by bus while Petya stayed behind to volunteer with the armed forces.

She added that they stayed in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, for three days before taking a 12-hour train ride to Przemeshen, in Poland.

“I did not see anything as we travelled, but I think it was better for me. I would not have been able to see my home town destroyed.”

She said that, while in Poland, they met Dutch volunteers with Together International who offered them a chance at a new life in the Netherlands.

Tonya added: “We went, but it was risky for us.

“We didn’t know what it would really be like so there were a lot of thoughts and fears.

“But knowing these people now, I would go with these people without hesitation.”

Tonya currently lives in the Netherlands with her mother, youngest brother and grandfather.

Ms Rouwhorst added: “There’s a lot of bad in this world but all of the people that I work with – all my colleagues, all the volunteers – they’re from so many different countries and it’s nice that we all came together for this great initiative.”

Ms Rouwhorst urged Bermudians to donate towards the humanitarian crisis caused by the war.

She also encouraged young Bermudian adults to volunteer through Together International over the summer, where they will receive “psychological first aid training” and help distribute supplies.

• To volunteer with Together International, e-mail info@togetherinternational.eu

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Published April 20, 2022 at 7:56 am (Updated April 20, 2022 at 7:50 am)

Young Bermudian speaks of helping refugees flee Ukraine

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