Sebastopol neighbors went extra miles to help Ukrainian refugees
For 30 years, neighbors David Schneider and John Namkung have talked over the fence in their quiet, shady Lone Pine Village neighborhood on the south end of Sebastopol. They’ve celebrated kids’ birthdays, nodded when taking out the recycling and warily eyed wildfire smoke together.
Their interaction April 8 was a little different. That day, Namkung took his old acquaintance to the Medyka border crossing, on the Polish side of its border with Ukraine, and showed him around the Korczowa refugee reception center, a converted shopping mall that has been serving as a temporary haven for thousands of people fleeing the Russian invasion.
This was Schneider’s first day in Poland, and one of Namkung’s last. Between them, the two retirees — Schneider, 71, is a psychologist; Namkung, 74, was director of special education for Santa Rosa City Schools — would spend nearly a month on the outskirts of a war, ferrying beleaguered families to safety.
“It was really like one candle lighting another,” Schneider said Thursday, sitting in his living room on Bing Tree Way with his wife, Dana, and still wearing the plastic wristband that identified him as a registered volunteer.
Both flames still seemed to be burning strong as the two men talked about their recent experiences and their desire to do more to help Ukrainian refugees.
“I feel like my body is here in the states, but my heart is in Poland and Ukraine,” Namkung said from Kauai, Hawaii, where he was marking his 50th wedding anniversary with wife Dianne — a celebration delayed for a year by the COVID pandemic, and for a week by John’s work in Poland.
This wasn’t Namkung’s first humanitarian trip abroad. He went to Greece in 2016 to assist Syrian refugees, and again in 2019 to teach English to displaced Yazidis.
In Poland, he saw the same type of suffering by ordinary people forced into harrowing escape, and the same instinct among parents to do anything possible to protect their children. There was a difference this time, though. In contrast to the Greek camps, 90% of the Ukrainian refugees were women or children.
Namkung set up a GoFundMe to raise money for a nonprofit called Type of Wood and kept a daily blog about his experiences in Poland. The Schneiders were on a short stay in Tahoe when David began reading Namkung’s account. He knew in an instant where he was headed.
“Within 24 hours, I think you had everything booked,” Dana Schneider said, looking at her husband. “I’ve never seen you make such an immediate decision about something.”
David Schneider also would work with Type of Wood. (The organization is Mormon, though neither Sebastopol neighbor is a Latter-day Saint.) And he, too, would blog and establish a GoFundMe for Type of Wood.
Their digital journals are a window into the anxiety, despair, pugnaciousness and unexpected humor they encountered on their drives, primarily from the border town of Korczowa west to Krakow and back, a route that Namkung likened to the straight, unremarkable stretches of I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley.
John Namkung, March 28
I am just about to give up and start looking for safe areas to pull over when I spot an old gas station. The sign isn’t lit up and it looks to be closed, but I see a light in the office and drive in. What a strange and eerie gas station — all but one of the pumps aren’t even functioning pumps. They are made of wood to look like pumps! An old man and his wife are in the office, and he proceeds to fill up the tank with the one real pump as I almost weep with joy and relief.
David Schneider, April 11
(Dimas) said the war started on his birthday. They left in a car from Kyiv and it took them 28 hours to get to the border, usually a 9 hour trip. They then waited 12 hours, outside, through the night, in the windy rain and cold, to pass through into Poland on foot.
John Namkung, April 2
(Denis, age 11) talked nonstop during the three hour ride to Krakow. He spoke a little English and every once in a while he would say, “John, you are cool.” Several times he said, “My mother likes your car.” And near the end of the ride he said, “My mother likes your car and if you want to give it to her as a present, she would be very happy.”
David Schneider, April 11
Luba on the far right in the picture gives me a big hug and says in my ear: You came all the way from California to get me to the train station. American. You do this. I love you. Thank you.
Every day brought new logistical challenges — missing reservations, translation hiccups, shifting needs.
“It was very much learning how to sky-dive by jumping out of a plane, and reading the directions on the chute on the way down,” Schneider said Thursday.