The hotel, rented by Nebraskans, that Ukrainian refugees now call home
Room 118 – Lincolnite Wallingford’s bedroom – has become a makeshift convenience store, with every possible surface, even her bed, piled high with toothbrushes, diapers, water bottles and donated clothes. At all hours of the day, families knocked.
Sometimes they were looking for medicine or snacks.
Other times they were looking for a shoulder to cry on.
“No one will ever know the sorrow I feel for them,” said Wallingford, who returned to Warsaw for a second time on Friday. “All they will know of me is love, safety, security and strength. During the day, everything was thrown into a box. And that box only opened when my door was closed and locked at night.
Now, at the beginning of May, the hotel has fallen into a kind of routine – breakfast in the morning, where families and volunteers greet each other in the hotel restaurant. Mothers enter and leave the newly installed laundry room on the eighth floor. Excursions to parks, zoos and museums in Warsaw.
There’s no knocking later that night on the door of room 118, Wallingford’s old room. A storage room on the eighth floor is the new corner store, the center of hotel activity.
Moments of chaos arise daily. Volunteer doctors come to visit and the hallway on the eighth floor fills with families clamoring to be seen. A translation app misses what someone is trying to say, spitting out “cat for clothes rain” in English when someone asks for laundry detergent in Russian. Locked-in children color on the walls of the hotel. They sometimes make noise too late at night.
Hotel life can be messy and complicated. But what humanitarian crisis isn’t?
On the ninth floor, a fluffy white dog named Mia flies down the hallway with a group of children trailing behind. The sound of a solitary violin floats from room 908. Matvii Pakholkova refused to leave kyiv without her instrument. His father is now on the front line in Ukraine. Had he been old enough, the 13-year-old would have stayed.
Katerina Oliinyk is watching a Zoom class via her phone in room 623. Her teachers are still in Ukraine. His classmates are scattered across the world. Downstairs in the hotel kitchen, her mother Olena is washing up, saving Polish zlotys so she can get away and stay with friends in Croatia.
On the eighth floor, Lincoln volunteer Mandy Haase-Thomas uses a translator app on her phone to match a Ukrainian woman’s symptoms with the correct medication. The drawers of donated over-the-counter medicines are labeled with a mixture of languages – Polish, German, Arabic – which neither the volunteers nor the refugee families speak.
At the same time, Don Hutchens and Tara Knuth, also from Lincoln, help distribute the meals. Sasha Yurievna runs up with her phone: “Let me help you,” says the translation app. The 14-year-old takes over and asks the families in Russian how many meals they need and if they would like soup and fruit.
Every group since the original trio that traveled to Warsaw has brought something new to the hotel world, Wallingford said. One focused on finding a constant food source. Another has held talent shows and offered women hair and nail appointments, trying to bring a dose of humanity to this hotel and the families’ lives.
“They made them feel like life was getting back to normal,” Wallingford said. “That they can fade away from their worries for a minute and focus on themselves and feel happy again.”
In April, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would allow 100,000 Ukrainians into the country. Glenn began lining up Lincoln businesses ready to welcome Ukrainian families and matching them with jobs. But not all displaced Ukrainians are yet ready to travel so far from their homeland.
He raised the money to run the hotel shelter until the end of June and added 10 more rooms. He would like to keep the hotel open to refugees until the end of the year.
“What are we doing in June?” You can’t just put people on the street. That’s not how we do things,” Glenn said. “But it seems the more I worry, the more people respond with their generosity.”
One evening in Warsaw, Haase-Thomas drinks tea from a hotel cup and eats chocolate chips on a napkin with Svitlana Pakholkova in room 908. In kyiv, Pakholkova loved to entertain. When she moves into a new apartment in Warsaw at the end of May, she will bring with her a new serving tray. This is a housewarming gift from Haase-Thomas.