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Sebastopol neighbors went extra miles to help Ukrainian refugees

Two North Bay retirees spent nearly a month driving women and children from Polish border with Ukraine to Krakow.|

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.

Type of Wood efforts included supplying refugees with food and water, buying generators and medical supplies for makeshift clinics at the border, purchasing vans to transport people to safety and handing out suitcases to families who arrive at the border carrying their possessions in plastic bags.

Namkung and Schneider both opted to be behind the wheel.

“I didn’t want to go over there and just stand in line and serve food or pass out clothes,” Namkung said. “All of that is important. And you need those volunteers. But I really wanted an opportunity to make a human connection, to real people with real emotions. So being in a car for three hours with someone was just the greatest experience.”

Namkung put 5,500 miles on his rental van in two weeks. Schneider clocked about 2,000 in a week and a half, he said.

The checkout process at the refugee center was elaborate. It included a detailed information log (driver’s passport, adult passenger’s passport, license plate number, destination, etc.) for each trip, a thorough check by security at the exit gate and a call back to the desk to verify everything matched up. It may seem over-the-top, but there have been numerous reports of sexual attacks on fleeing Ukrainians.

Schneider and Namkung both encountered initial wariness on the part of mothers. The drives usually ended with warm hugs and smiling photos. Some of the passengers spoke flawless English. Others conversed clumsily through Google Translate. Some fell asleep in exhaustion, children on their laps.

The refugees were bound for hotels, or friends’ houses, or the airport or train station. The Sebastopol neighbors often felt like Uber drivers shuttling people around. Sometimes, Namkung said, he’d climb into bed at 1:30 a.m.

The Namkungs and Schneiders completely funded the humanitarian trips — airfare, hotels, car rental, food, etc. (Type of Wood paid for gas and reimbursed for items directly purchased for refugees.) The GoFundMe accounts were on top of that. By Friday afternoon, Namkung’s was only $114 shy of his $16,000 goal, and Schneider had met his $10,000 target.

They’re not done. Namkung is talking to Lone Pine Village neighbors about sponsoring a family under the Uniting for Ukraine program recently announced by President Joe Biden, and will be starting another $20,000 GoFundMe to purchase a used wheelchair van for the aid organization Caritas Ukraine.

Both men say they are contemplating return trips to Poland or Ukraine. Schneider believes he can put his training to use and offer psychological counseling to refugees.

It’s not that their volunteer stints were easy. Namkung and Schneider saw refugees at their lowest moments — their crisis the result not of uncontrollable natural disaster but of an autocrat’s cruelty. Still, they came home inspired by the legions of volunteers, from all over the world, who worked beside them.

“You just met the best people,” Schneider said. “It’s somewhat similar to what you found here after the fires. It’s kind of like the trance of everyday life is broken, and people are just kinder. They’re just nicer.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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