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FINDING HOPE AT THE UKRAINIAN BORDER

Photography by Sonia Goydenko

Story 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.



The bus to Przemyśl during the golden hour.
A shadow selfie in blue and yellow.


“I spent a total of 14 days there, mostly at the refugee camp in Medyka, the largest refugee camp along the Ukrainian border. During my time there, I witnessed the extremes of the human condition: people fleeing horrific hatred and death and being met with boundless love and openness. Because of my fluency in the language the refugees spoke, I was able to be a container for the grief that these innocent and beautiful people had to endure. I cannot express enough the fulfillment I have felt at being able to alleviate their burdens, if only for a minute. Seeing their terrified faces relax when they heard me speaking to them in their own language was an incredible thing to witness - how just by being there, hearing their story, chatting with them, reassuring them that they are safe, hugging them, I was able to make their entire journey through hell a little bit easier.”



These images are specifically from the bus stop where refugees go after they have gotten food, drinks, clothes, SIM cards, toiletries, and toys for the kids. People wait very worried that the bus will leave without them. I assure them that they have time and that a bus comes every 20 minutes and that even if they miss this one, there will be another in a few minutes. Most of the refugees have been traveling extensively for days. Children often vomit from the constant motion sickness and nausea. Many have been on buses and trains for days. The Polish army and volunteers help the refugees board the buses - assisting them with luggage and explaining to them where the buses are heading. There are refugees waiting for buses at all times of the day in all kinds of weather-to board the next step of their gruesome and tiring journey.
Twin Ukrainian boys with their dog, waiting for the rest of their family to cross the border. All were happily reunited.


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.”



This photo was taken in Medyka, at the Polish-Ukrainian border, of a child I was playing with through a dirty bus window. All of the buses head to Przemysl Train Station and Tesco (a huge shopping center where refugees can sleep, shower, eat, get clothes, and plan where to go next). Before the refugees get on the bus they are given food, drinks, clothes, toys, toiletries, new SIM cards so their phones work, and are seen by medics if needed. All of this is free for them. Many children board the buses happily with all their new toys.
A child joyfully running to the Easter Bunny, having just crossed the border from Ukraine into Poland.


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.



These were taken when I crossed the border into Ukraine to help out a friend working in a truck giving out drinks and food for people waiting to go into Poland.
The largest refugee tent in the camp - for women and children to rest, eat, and sleep in.
A dog, a volunteer, and a young refugee in the Medical tent where I worked at the border. Most of my time was spent translating for doctors and refugees who came to visit this tent.
A group of children in one of the refugee tents at the Ukraine-Poland border, looking outside after a loud helicopter has flown overhead. Sudden, loud noises frighten both children and adults alike, reminding them of the gunfire and bombings that they have just fled.
At the mother/children tent: a baby teething and biting my finger!


When Sonia is not off lending a helping hand you can find her in the streets of New York City where she finds much of her inspiration as a renowned street photographer. Sonia has received awards from numerous festivals, including Italian Street Photo Festival, Miami Street Photo Festival and Aussie Street Photography Festival. She is a member of the New York City Street Photography Collective (@nycspc) and her work was recently exhibited in NYC by Women Street Photographers. Sonia has been published in Huffington Post, Eyeshot Magazine, and various other mediums.


In addition to photographing the streets daily, Sonia manages to find time to teach street photography workshops and give portfolio reviews. If you ever have the opportunity to take her workshop or have your portfolio reviewed, you will find it a very rewarding experience. What else does Sonia do, well she runs the Instagram page @showmeyourduds, an educational platform created for photography students, where talented photographers willingly share the images that they consider failures.


During COVID-19 lockdown, Sonia told us how she turned her lens on her family and herself, creating an intimate series of self-portraits. Then in February of 2022 Sonia traveled to the Ukraine-Poland border to translate for and photograph refugees, and her experiences with them. She works directly with doctors who drive medical aid into Ukraine and has been raising money to buy them medical supplies. Sonia currently lives in New Jersey and photographs in New York City, Florida, and anywhere else she goes.


You can find more of Sonia's beautiful work on her website; www.soniagoydenko.com and visit her Instagram; @soniagydenko or @showmeyourduds. Make a connection and be inspired through her photography.



All photography Sonia Goydenko