Within 24 hours of reading a news story about Ukrainian refugees sleeping in a train station, Aaron Jackson left his Florida home for an area near the border between Poland and Ukraine.
“There I saw the true cost of war,” Jackson wrote on Facebook of his visit to Poland. “Families fleeing their homes. Families separating from their loved ones. Families fleeing from the lives they knew.”
Right away, he got to work helping refugees secure emergency housing.
Jackson is a 2007 CNN Hero and the founder of Planting Peace, a humanitarian and environmental non-profit whose initiatives include a network of orphanages, deworming campaigns, rainforest conservation, and LGBTQ rights advocacy. Through Planting Peace, Jackson says he has also assisted refugees around the world, including some from El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, and Myanmar (Burma).
In this refugee crisis, Jackson says the cold weather is a serious concern.
“It is just absolutely freezing outside. So, getting people into housing is absolutely vital.”
While walking through a packed refugee center near the Krakovets border crossing, Jackson spotted a little girl playing with a toy. Speaking through a translator, he learned her parents were originally from Congo and had lived in Ukraine for the last 12 years.
The father, Donatien Tshikele Mubabinge, said that when Russian bombs fell too close to their home, he, his wife, Ngalula, and their 2-year-old daughter, Tushike, left everything behind, including their savings. They tried taking a taxi to the border, but when traffic got too backed up, he says they had to walk nearly 40 miles (about 60 km), much of it with Tushike on his back.
After learning of their ordeal, Jackson booked a hotel room for the family and began searching for more permanent housing.
“It’s horrible why they’re leaving, but it’s inspiring at the same time – to see the human will and the human spirit and what they’re willing to do to save their own lives and the life of their child,” Jackson said.
Mubabinge says he had to flee violence in Ukraine before. He moved to the country in 2010 and lived in Luhansk, a southeastern city located in the disputed Donbas region that was annexed by Russia in 2014. When pro-Russian separatists moved in, Mubabinge left for the larger city of Odessa and lived there until the current fighting forced his family to flee.
After several days of searching, Jackson found an apartment in Krakow, Poland. Using donations to his organization, he secured the flat for a year and provided the Mubabinges with funds for food and necessities.
“I just know that this will let them relax a little bit. To give them the ability to start looking for work. You know, just to get their bearings,” Jackson said.
When the couple entered their new home, their daughter was all smiles as she jumped on the bed. Her father was grateful to Jackson and Planting Peace, and he hopes others will open their hearts to fellow refugees who need housing.
Jackson is continuing his efforts to help refugees in Poland. He was happy he could help this family through such a difficult time.
“It’s good to have wins, you know? In a situation like this, this was definitely a win.”