June 17, 2022
FINDING HOPE AT THE UKRAINIAN BORDER
Photography by Sonia Goydenko
Words by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
Throughout history photographers have been inspired to capture those moments that create a visual story that speaks a thousand words. Sonia Goydenko is a photographer that has mastered the art of visual storytelling, making meaningful connections between her subjects and the viewers. In just a fraction of a second she finds the truth in the moment, bringing a genuine experience to the viewer.
For Sonia the crisis in Ukraine is more than a tragic event. It strikes Sonia through the heart, she has a very personal connection to Ukraine. Sonia and part of her family left Ukraine as refugees in 1991, and immigrated to the United States. Her father, grandmother, and aunt still live in Ukraine. Sonia has experienced the perils of having to leave everything behind, depending on humanity and what felt like miracles, to emigrate from Ukraine.
When the war broke out in Ukraine in February, 2022, it brought back her memories of her own family's flight from Ukraine in 1991. Sonia was compelled to help in some way, remembering well the help she and her family received when they left Ukraine as refugees. Sitting at home, depressed, and watching the news and seeing her family suffering, Sonia decided to take some sort of action. Inspired by her close friend, Megan Kwasniak, a Polish doctor and photographer living in Florida who had the idea of heading to the border and working in a medical tent, Sonia decided to join her. Sonia packed her bags and offered her services in a small town called Medyka, the largest refugee camp on the Ukraine-Poland border. Being fluent in the Russian language and understanding Ukrainian, Sonia volunteered her services as a translator for the refugees fleeing Ukraine into Poland. Sonia shares with us what she experienced there.
Sonia was very touched by all of the joy and genuine compassion that she witnessed during her time at the Ukrainian border. How hundreds of people from all over the world left their jobs, homes, families, to come together and help the Ukrainian refugees in any way they could. It was very important for Sonia to show the joyful side of the crisis, to share hope when it seems impossible to find any. Sonia describes her personal journey and the valuable connections she witnessed and helped to create.
“Upon seeing people in moments of pain and grief, my immediate reaction was to comfort that person, not take their photograph. I am not a war photographer and I did not come there to do that. I have met some incredible photographers documenting the harsh realities of this war, but for myself, I felt much more drawn to photographing the joyful moments I witnessed. Many volunteers came to play and entertain the children and I wanted to photograph those moments: moments of pure joy in dark times. While volunteering on the border isn’t as dangerous as crossing into war zones and delivering medical aid, it’s still an important job. The people fleeing the war and coming through the camp will not just remember the horrors of their experience, but will also have with them these touching moments of feeling seen and cared for, not forgotten by the world.”
Memories came flooding back to Sonia, of her family's journey, and how life has come full circle. Sonia went back to help her fellow Ukrainians, giving the same hope to them that her family had received. Sonia is a living example that life can get better. Her open arms and loving smile were hope and inspiration to walk forward into their unknown futures. Sonia thinks often about all the help her family needed to emigrate from the Ukraine in 1991, and found it a gift to be able to help her sisters and brothers in their time of need.
“If this action hadn’t been taken, I could’ve been the one fleeing gunfire and bombings, crossing the border into Poland, boarding the bus to Przemyśl, and heading into the unknown with no home - instead of being the American volunteer on the other side welcoming the refugees. I began to think of how blessed I am, how lucky I am to have a home to return to. Although I still feel heartbroken after returning from the border, going back through some of the photos I took during my time there, I am reminded of the joy that each individual can bring, the compassion and warmth that I saw so many people give openly and freely. I really believe that it’s only through us, individual beings, that any change can be brought about.”
After looking through the images Sonia has shared with us, you can see the personal connections she makes, and the hope she brings to the refugees she translates for. The reassurance they feel when they know their words can be understood, and they can understand in their language the options they have moving forward.
We thank Sonia for sharing her personal journey with us, and we are humbled by her efforts and the genuine connections and contributions she has made in aiding in relief for the refugees fleeing Ukraine at Medyka, Poland border.