Huard: ‘I just hoped and prayed that I would be up to the task of what I’d be asked to do’
Warning: This story includes mention of sexual violence and crime which readers may find disturbing. Parents may wish to use discretion before sharing this story with children.
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Women and children, bedraggled and exhausted, push roller suitcases full of clothing, household goods, and perhaps some canned foods, through an Eastern European train station. Mothers with sleepy, small children in tow hold infants. They’re either trying to escape war or to return to find the remnants left behind.
But this summer, before they reached their destination, many of them met Ashland resident Paul Huard, a 60-year-old history teacher at Ashland High School, who spent the summer aiding hundreds of refugees navigating the Przemsyl (pronounced “Shemish”) train station in Poland, 6 miles from the Ukraine border. Huard served as part of an international team coordinated by Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, a trip that his congregation at GracePoint Church of the Nazarene in Ashland helped fund. In Poland, he teamed up with individuals from Australia, Britain, Spain and France to help those most in need.
When classes started for all students at Ashland High School on Thursday, Huard had quite the summer to tell his students about, and he hopes to share the lessons he learned.
“As an historian, I’m an observer and an analyst and this time I was a participant,” Huard told Ashland.news during an interview at his home on Aug. 16.
“I just hoped and prayed that I would be up to the task of what I’d be asked to do,” Huard added.
Outfitted with a bright, neon vest, an ID tag, a wristband from the Polish National Police, an eagerness to help, and a bit of Russian language at the ready, Huard met individuals and their families when they got off the train, some at their lowest points of their lives. He helped them navigate the station in safety.
“Frankly, to be a refugee is essentially an exercise in a chain of events stripping you not only of dignity but of the simplest things in life,” Huard said.
They rolled suitcases ranging from 80 to 100 pounds down the train station platform, carrying everything they owned. Helping refugees with their luggage was akin to helping someone move out of an entire apartment every single day, he said.
“If they were leaving Ukraine, it was basically everything precious they could pack into that,” he said. “I talked to people … they were hopeful that they had something to go back to but it was an open question whether they did.”
Law enforcement and military presence was heavy and on the look out for those who shouldn’t be at the station. They often looked to see if he was wearing his assigned bracelet that allowed him to be there.
The Przemysl (Shemish) train station had all sorts of signs posted, warning people about the threat of human trafficking, and what to look for in terms of legitimate aid workers versus people trying to take advantage of refugees.
“A major problem at the beginning was there were really grimy attempts at human trafficking, and unfortunately, some people were successful,” Huard said. “Young women, children, either manipulated or … kidnapped for the sex trade.”
Wearing the bright vest helped show people he was “one of the good guys,” Huard said.
He estimated hundreds of people came through the train station each day, including one mother in particular traveling with two young children and an infant who found herself in a predicament. The woman’s stroller, which she also used to carry belongings along with her baby, broke. Her two young children fell asleep in the rain out of exhaustion.
“My Ukrainian counterpart Iryna identified specifically that family among others,” Huard said.
A new stroller was bought for the young mother and funding secured so she and her family could stay at a nearby hotel.
Stories like these during Huard’s time there were plentiful.
Huard befriended a 12-year-old girl and her family trying to find her medical attention. The girl was badly burned and needed to travel to a hospital in Warsaw, Poland for treatment, but lacked the funds.
“When I saw that child, I determined then and there, you are going to Warsaw … if it’s the last thing I do on this Earth,” he said. “I certainly was seeing plenty of people who were in desperate times, but there’s something about seeing a kid suffering.”
Huard stopped to share a photograph of her and her family with Ashland.news.
“This child needed advanced burn treatment, reconstructive surgery, a variety of things,” he said. “She will get that treatment — I was assured of it.
“I was able to secure funding for her,” he added. “There were nine specific families that I was able to acquire funding for in terms of short-term housing, rail travel, cab fare, food — they had no means for these things.”
As someone who had volunteered with the American Red Cross and a ministry organization building homes in Mexico, Huard packed for whatever might come his way.
At night, he slept in a modest bed with a sleeping bag and pad he had brought, in a storage room at a building that the organization leased. The room kept Ukrainian Bibles and furniture. While it wasn’t a fancy accommodation by any comparison, he said there was hot and cold water and essentials such as a refrigerator and hot plate — far better than accommodations he had while conducting humanitarian work in Mexico.
At night, Huard filled the silence with instrumental melodies of Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi. The tunes helped stabilize his emotions, especially after witnessing so much hardship and distress during the day.
For his own safety, Huard carried a trauma kit in case things went awry — which, as close to the Ukraine border as he was, he believed they easily could’ve in an instant.
Huard said the train station where he volunteered during the day is a place where supplies travel from the west to the east and into Lviv, about 70 miles from Przemsyl (Shemish). Part of his role was to help refugees safely get to the Polish police station where they could register for social services once they were processed to enter the country.
“Was I afraid? No,” he said. “Did I have moments of fear? Yes, and I think they were legitimate. I was 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away from a nation at war.”
Teacher answers call to help
Huard had wanted to help Ukrainians in the war waged against them since the latest Russian invasion began Feb. 24.
As an historian, he’s been intrigued by the history of Russia and the Soviet Union since he was in college and had continued to study it since. He can talk at length about the years in Ukraine and Russia leading up to 2014, the annexation of Crimea, and everything in between.
He was and still is struck by the cruelty and barbarity wreaked on civilians in Ukraine.
“I had people tell me stories about how every teenage girl in their village was gang-raped, or how they hid their daughters to make sure it wouldn’t happen to them,” Huard said.
As an historian, it reminds him of what Russians did as they moved across Europe into Berlin in 1945.
“This is well documented that the Russian Army frequently turns to barbarity and cruelty against civilians,” he said. “I’m just old-fashioned enough to be outraged by something like that.”
While in Poland, he traveled to Krakov (pronounced Krakow) twice to get somewhat of a reprieve, as hard as it was for him to leave.
He shared photographs of coming across a protest with between 50 and 60 Polish youth ages 15 to 30 years old, who were speaking out about what the war truly meant.
“These young people are saying, if Ukraine goes down, we’re next,” Huard said. “So there’s an entire generation of young people there … a significant number of them … They’re all in on the idea that Russia is a global danger under Vladimir Putin.”
Huard admitted he’s a risk-taker, but emphasized he was there for a specific purpose: he came to help.
“I’m just old-fashioned enough to be outraged by something like that being perpetrated on women and children,” he added later in the interview. “I said, ‘I’m going to help.”
The opportunity to serve was also a way for Huard to further practice his Christian faith.
“I wanted to show that my faith as a Christian meant more than words,” Huard said. “I do not feel that I am anything special. I do not feel that I did anything extraordinary.
“I wanted people to know that they were loved, that there are people who care for them. This is at the heart of my Christian faith. I’m supposed to love others as God loves me, I’m supposed to serve others in a sacrificial way.”
Huard described the coalition of volunteers aiding Ukrainians as a way to show Putin that, “Ukrainians are not being forgotten. There are people that are helping civilians so they can live another day, either to fight another day, or to rebuild their country.”
Will Huard return to Eastern Europe in the future?
“My goal is to go to Ukraine,” Huard said, noting the need for help in rebuilding is great. “They’re going to need people for reconstruction, they’re going to need people for logistics.”
During a farewell dinner for Huard before he left Poland, a Ukrainian volunteer named Kate gave him a note. It says: “I hope that one day we will meet in free Ukraine.”
“I started sobbing,” Huard said. “I look forward to seeing my friends in a free Ukraine and I will do whatever I can to help them rebuild their country.”
Huard is planning to share more about his volunteer experiences at GracePoint Church of the Nazarene in mid-September, with details yet to be announced as of Sept. 4.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.