English and Russian interpreter Karolína Sýkorová studies, works and is the mother of a two-year-old girl. Nevertheless, after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, she did not hesitate and went to help on the Slovak-Ukrainian border. She was one of the first people fleeing the war to come into contact after the border. She talked about weapons and human stories in an interview for Drbna.
Have you followed the whole situation in Ukraine for a long time? Did you really expect the war to happen?
Like everyone else, I hoped that wouldn’t happen. But honestly, Putin’s rhetoric has been going on for so many years that I have to admit I wasn’t that surprised. Although I thought it would only “take up” a bit of territory. And not that he’s going to get worse and get into that strength. It came as the biggest shock to me that such a thing could still happen in Europe today. On the other hand, I find it a bit hypocritical to claim that it’s so amazing when such things happen all the time in the world. War is terrible, of course, but there are areas where war is constantly going on. But we don’t notice that much because we are far away.
Karolína Sýkorová is a speaker, interpreter and translator. He is currently preparing a Master’s degree in interpretation: Czech – English and translation: Czech – Russian at Charles University in Prague.
Did you decide to help immediately? You left the border just days after the Russian attack, didn’t you?
Everything was quick. During the first days, various initiatives and groups began to emerge. It was in such a rush that I registered in x databases. Then came such frustration, constantly waiting for someone to call and nothing. But it made sense, as organizations were inundated with offers and didn’t respond.
So when was the decision to go to the Slovak-Ukrainian border?
This happened on Monday (February 28, editor’s note). I was just at school. In fact, it seemed strange to me to learn in such an atmosphere. However, at that time it appeared on social networks that they were looking for interpreters for the border crossing in Ubže.
At first, I thought to myself that I couldn’t leave everything and go, especially if I have a two-year-old child. But it kept eating at me, so I called my husband if it was a big deal, he told me to go. So I wrote that I could leave, and she didn’t really expect them to call me. But during the seminar, the coordinator called me to see if I could leave, ideally within two or three hours.
So it was really fast.
Exactly. But I had to go back to Jablonec, pack my bags. The whole family helped me and within hours I was picked up by a car with two volunteers.
On the way to the border, everything hit me
From the reports you wrote on the way to the border, it turns out that it was quite demanding. In one of them you also mention a meeting with the sale of arms. Can you zoom?
We were driving on Polish territory when we stopped at a gas station and there were simply weapons on display. Certain knives, air rifles and others. I don’t know if that’s normal, and other times I might find it interesting, but then it hit me. At the time, I was really wondering if I should buy something like this, or if I would need something like this. At that point, I started to feel a little tired and realized that it really wasn’t funny. Packing and leaving was so quick that I only had time to think about everything along the way. It all escalated when we started encountering military hardware.
Was your goal to cross the border at Ubže?
Yes. When we arrived I became so anxious that I couldn’t even speak. But as soon as I started working, it fell apart. As volunteers, we helped with everything. From helping with a suitcase to arranging drivers who could pick up refugees.
So you (along with other volunteers) were one of the first people the refugees came into contact with after the border?
Basically yes. People waited long hours on the Ukrainian side of the border, on the Slovak side it was faster. The firefighters brought them to us from the border. We took care of the pickup, showing them where they could find food or clothes.
Can you describe what the people who fled before the war looked like?
It was different. Most people who had a plan, maybe knew someone would pick them up or go to relatives, were a little calmer. On the contrary, people who crossed the border and did not know what to do next were worse off. It was very strong for me to see exhausted mothers. It was obvious that they had had enough, but they couldn’t crumble because of the children.
They were also often afraid. They were reluctant to communicate with us, fearing it was safe. Many refugees were without money and their cards did not work, they were afraid that someone wanted something for them, for example.
I realized how we affect refugees
It’s probably difficult, but could you remember a story in particular?
I try to filter all these stories, it’s such a defense. But one stuck in my head. The lady in her thirties had been at our post for some time and most people tried to leave as soon as possible. I asked if he was expecting someone or if he needed help. And she talked about not knowing what to do.
She could go to Georgia with her family, but at the same time a long-time suitor offered her to go to Italy to see him, that he wanted to marry her. But she felt that if she went to see him, she would close the door on her family. She kept asking us what she should do, what we thought. At that moment, I realized how much influence we have over the refugees and how much power we have over them. That we tell them something and that they can make a decision that will affect them for life.
Karolina spent the day at the border. In addition to Ubla, she also headed to the Velká Sľemence border crossing, then returned to the Czech Republic to join the Regional Assistance Center for Ukraine (KACPU LK).
How did it end?
We advised him to go to his family. We even found her connections, but she was still hesitant. Suddenly an interpreter started calling bus departures with a megaphone, one of which allowed this woman to go further into Slovakia and on to Georgia. At the last moment, she decided to grab the suitcase she had put her whole life in and left.
i was watching mascots
Did you share a photo of the border with the mascots on social networks, who were there mainly because of the children, how did you perceive it?
It was two boys digging up some mascot clothes somewhere. They didn’t even belong to each other, they just had the same idea of going to the border to cheer up the kids. When I saw them, paradoxically, I probably had the most nerves, it was touching in such a strange and bittersweet way.
You helped arrange transportation to the border. Have you received any information that some people take advantage of such situations and try to get money from refugees?
I didn’t really think about security until people at the border asked me about it. It was one of the reasons I left. I realized that I could never guarantee these people that it would be safe. We also had our own experience with this.
Currently, Karolína Sýkorová is trying to combine work, personal life and volunteering, not only at KACPU. In addition to interpreting himself, he tries to support other volunteers and draws attention to the importance of psychohygiene.
On the way to Prague, we drove a Ukrainian to Bratislava by car. You could see him being scared all the time. She was probably worried if we were really going to get her where we promised. She kept calling relatives, they even wanted to talk to me. When we dropped her off, she was relieved. At the same time, however, she still remained in such tension. It was only later that I understood that she had always been afraid that people wanted money for her.
So when you came back, did you join KACPU?
Yes, I tried to go there as soon as possible. I arrived in Prague about two hours after my arrival, then I arrived home in Jablonec and in the afternoon went to the center. At first I wasn’t there anymore, now I go there as often as time permits. Unfortunately, there is still a shortage of interpreters.
With the last question, I would like to ask you about the discussions that take place mainly on social networks. How do you perceive the fact that refugees from Ukraine benefit from free public transport or, for example, entry to the Liberec zoo?
The vast majority of refugees we meet want to get involved in the work process as early as possible. Of course they have to get to work one way or another, and a lot of them are completely penniless, so it makes sense to me to have free public transport based on this special visa.
I don’t even see a problem getting into the zoo. This seems downright absurd to me. I wonder if the people who criticize him so hard would really change with them. That they would have a ticket to the zoo every day, but they were losing their loved ones, their home, their job, in short, everything. I don’t think that’s an enviable situation. Personally, I have not encountered a single case where I would say that this person has nothing to do here and should not be helped. It’s sad that someone thinks that the Ukrainians want to live on it, they don’t want a war with them.