Discussion: Flatwater Free Press Reporter On a Nebraska-Based Effort To Harbor Ukrainain Refugees in a Polish Hotel

May 20, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Natalia Alamdari stands with curly hair and a big smile. She's wearing a "Nebraska Needs Journalists" T-shirt under a light black jacket

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As the war in Ukraine continues, it has created a humanitarian crisis the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Europe since WW II. For two weeks Flatwater Free Press reporter Natalia Alamdari lived alongside refugees and volunteers as they lived out of a hotel in Warsaw, - their rooms and food paid for as part of Safe Harbor Ukraine, a Nebraska-based humanitarian effort. Nebraska Public Media News Reporter William Padmore talked with Alamdari about her experience and Safe Harbor Ukraine.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

William Padmore: For those who don't know, what is Operation Safe Harbor, and how did you find out about it?

Natalia Alamdari: So Operation Safe Harbor -Ukraine kind of started out as a travel agency in Lincoln. So, Steve Glenn, he's based in Lincoln and he owns Executive Travel. When he saw what was happening in Ukraine, he just thought, you know what, I want to help in any way that I possibly can, and what made sense for him was going that travel industry route and working out a really cheap rate with hotels, covering that, so that Ukrainian families have somewhere to stay while they figured out what came next. So that was partially through them, partially through all the donations that they were able to raise. So far, they've raised about $300,000, to keep this thing going. So it's really just this grassroots Nebraska effort to make sure that Ukrainian families are housed, clothed, fed, and have access to different medications and things, things you need to get by. They actually came to us. I think they were just trying to raise as much awareness as they possibly could. They asked us, "Hey, do you want to send a reporter over? They can follow along, see what these Nebraskans are doing in Warsaw,“ and that's kind of how it all came to be.

Padmore: This operation, and this is from your reporting, it's renting out 50 hotel rooms, and a Warsaw hotel, housing 315 people, all of this arranged in less than two months. What is life at this hotel like?

Alamdari: Just to clarify the 315, that's the total number of people they've helped so far. So some of those families have stayed at the hotel for about a month, some of them have left, gone to different countries, in some cases gone back to Ukraine, (and) found more permanent housing solutions. So the 315 is in total. I think right now they have about 160 families, and they just expanded it from 50 rooms to 60 rooms. But life in the hotel, is really, you know, you have this main room on the eighth floor, it's kind of where all the supplies are kept. And it's where meals are handled. Or at least while I was there, it was where meals were handled. And that's really just like the hub of all of the activity, you have moms coming in grabbing medicine for their kids, meal distribution, kids who know that there's someone who will probably give them a lollipop and they run into that room. So it's really just like that main hub. It's like, it's like a small little community, and you have women giving haircuts, people kind of keeping tabs on all the children.

Padmore: And about the volunteers, how many of them are there? And what did they tell you about why they decided to travel halfway across the world for this?

Alamdari: I think when I was there, there were maybe four people. I think there's a lot more at the moment, I can't tell you an exact number on that. I guess you know why a person goes across the world to help. I think it's just like this deep down need to like do something, you know? Like you see these things happening on TV and you want to help people in any way you can.

Padmore: Why the Ukraine crisis, you know? Of all the different wars and conflicts in the world, It seems like this particular conflict has inspired an almost otherworldly sense of people wanting to help. Do you have any theories as to why that might be?

Alamdari: I don't have a good answer and it's something that I've thought about too. Maybe it's just that this is a clear cut enough conflict, to where our human brains can look at it and very clearly see the horrors of what's happening, and that's something that, you know, it sticks in your head, you feel very compelled to do something. I don't know. I don't really have a good answer for that. I'm sorry.

Padmore: No problem. One final question. How long can this go on? Did Steve Glenn indicate whether he planned to continue this operation until the end of the war?

Alamdari: So right now, they have enough funding to last until the end of June. The ultimate hope would be to keep this going through the end of the year, but that takes money. It also takes volunteers. So two different kinds of resources. And I think it's interesting that you asked that question because that was something that came up when I was just talking to volunteer doctors who are in the hotel. It's like this, this concern of like, okay, there's this very large outpouring of support right now, but you know what happens when the rest of the world starts to get compassion fatigue when it comes to the Ukrainian war? What happens when this kind of fades into the back of people's heads? Will there be that continued outpouring of resources and volunteers, money to kind of keep serving these families as long as they need? And that's the question that everyone's wondering right now.

Natalia Alamdari is a reporter for the Flatwater Free Press. You can see all of her stories that she filed from Warsaw, including the latest one published today, on our website – and on flatwaterfreepress.org