Like millions of other Americans, Paul Kanitra, mayor of Point Pleasant Beach, was horrified by what he saw on the news as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. As the tanks, APCS, and helicopters were rolling over the eastern, southern, and northern borders, and refugees began streaming westward, seeking safety in neighboring European countries, Kanitra felt that he had to go over to do something to help.
“There were a lot of factors in the decision,” Kanitra told Insider NJ. “My family is of Slavic background, my great grandfather came over from Slovakia, my great grandmother came over from Poland. I had previously traveled to that whole region as well. I’ve been in Ukraine, I met the Ukrainian people, I thought they were wonderful. Every single day I was getting more and more emotionally invested with a combination of anger and disbelief.”
It was when Mayor Kanitra started hearing about refugees in particular that he talked with some of his friends about flying over to help out. “I was thinking about all the Eastern Europeans that come over and help Point Pleasant Beach on our boardwalk every summer, and just decided to take the leap.”
Kanitra ended up right on the border of Poland and Ukraine, moving among a few different locations during his week-long stay. “We greeted the refugees as they came across. We were working with World Central Kitchen, helping to hand out hot meals a couple of days there and we were also shuttling supplies to the border crossing at Merdeka and shuttling some refugees as well.”
The mayor said that, in general, refugees coming over from Ukraine either went one way to meet with relatives waiting for them, or another way to await admission to a refugee center if they have no one. “If they have somebody to meet, they go down one pathway and then they have a reunion. It’s very emotional, obviously.” At the refugee centers, things were a little different. “If they see somebody that is elderly or significantly impaired in terms of being able to walk and not having good mobility, they’ll prioritize them and then they’ll flag down somebody like us.”
Describing the scene as a “rollercoaster of emotions,” Kanitra talked about the feelings of the refugees as they found themselves without a home and without a sense of direction in new lands. “For the people that had someone waiting for them, it was all these tearful reunions and it certainly made you feel good. You could see all the relief that their journey had kind of ended and they clearly had some place to go. But the flip side was the people who didn’t have anybody. You could see that it was the beginning of what was going to be a very tough period, a very tough journey. They needed to get it explained to them that they were going to a refugee center. And then what would happen from there? They were huddled out in the cold at the border crossing, it was very surreal.”
The atmosphere itself was grim, as the displacement took place during the winter. “All the time there was burning, everywhere. There was always ash in the air because of the trash campfires, but sometimes it was snowing, and then you couldn’t even tell the difference between the ash and the snow. It was very surreal.”
Not everyone coming over the border, were adults, or adults with their children. Kanitra talked about his experience at another border crossing, where orphaned children were being brought over in buses. “That was really difficult. They were running a lot of the orphans from Ukrainian orphanages across the border and you see these big buses coming across with 30 or 40 orphans on it and only two or three adult females. We wound up talking to some of the adults there to find out what the situation was and trying to figure out how we could help. It was absolutely heartbreaking.”
At the start of the invasion, the Ukrainian government declared martial law. Men of fighting age were not allowed to leave the country, but women and children could. For many of the refugees, they leave husbands, fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and sons behind.
While Poland and the neighboring countries are in some respects similar to Ukraine as fellow Slavic nations, linguistic and economic barriers pose a huge challenge for the refugees coming over. “It seems like when you turn on the TV they’re interviewing a Ukrainian who speaks English, but most of the Ukrainian that we met spoke virtually no English, let alone Polish or any other European language. So now they’re in a country where they don’t speak the language and don’t have any assets or resources. A lot of them are roughly middle class in Ukraine. They’re living lives very similar to a lot of people in New Jersey. They thought Putin was probably bluffing and it was saber rattling, things like that. Then all of a sudden, their buildings are getting bombed, or their neighbors’ buildings are getting bombed, or there are skirmishes on the outside of their town, or missiles coming in. Most of them had, at best, a small carry-on roller bag, a few had a big piece of luggage, but they had to drop everything and put their whole life in a bag.”
Some of the refugees, Kanitra said, are in a state of complete disbelief. Some think they will be able to go home soon, but the reality is, the war is still on-going. Peace negotiations are continuing, but not yet conclusive. When the war does finally end, these refugees will return to their towns and cities and find their homes and jobs in ruins, forced to completely rebuild.
Kanitra said they had distributed about $15,000 worth of supplies, from sleeping bags to socks to cell phone chargers so they could try to contact their friends and relations. “Nobody had enough socks, we just were constantly going through socks, hundreds and hundreds of pairs of socks, and then a ton of toys for the kids because that’s not the first thing that you’re thinking about packing. But yet you have to keep kids happy in a pretty uncertain situation. We got incredibly emotional every time a kid got excited, got a smile on their face because they got a teddy bear. It just made us want to clear out every store shelf and that’s basically what we did, to find Barbie dolls, coloring books and stuff like that.”
Most of the supplies that were distributed to the refugees were acquired in Poland. Kanitra said that shipping supplies over from the United States to Europe, and then getting those goods to exactly where they needed to be was prohibitive. “It’s a difficult situation because if you’re not handing out the supplies yourself, they wind up in a warehouse, they wind up in bags, they wind up in piles on the ground, they get rained on, they get wet. We tried to kind of merchandise it, we bought a bunch of plastic tables and were setting things up, trying to give some dignity to the situation a little bit, too.”
Back in Point Pleasant Beach, Mayor Kanitra thinks that the best ways for people to help Ukrainians in need is with monetary donations to reputable relief organizations. To that end, he said that a charity concert is in the works to help raise money. The upcoming Ukraine Charity Concert is set for April 10 at Jenkinson’s in Kanitra’s town of Point Pleasant Beach. “We’re working on a great lineup of Jersey bands and will be posting more details soon. We think we’re going to raise close to $200,000, or a quarter million dollars. Donating even if it’s $2, $5, it’s a way that people can help.”
Mayor Kanitra doesn’t think he will be returning to the border in the near future, but will be doing what he can here to help the support infrastructure which has taken form in Poland since his departure. “It is already a very different situation, we got boots on the ground not very long after Russia had started to attack. It was more wide-open then, less structured. I think I might be able to do more with my time being better spent helping to raise money here.”
As for the Ukrainians themselves, looking for a western response, when Kanitra was there he said they all had the same thing to say. “They all universally, were calling for a no-fly zone. They all were calling for more sanctions. They all were calling for more military aid, offensive military aid. That was pretty much across the board.”
It is unlikely, however, that a no-fly zone will be put in place. NATO is a defensive alliance which does not include Ukraine, and to enforce a no-fly zone would mean NATO aircraft and military assets would be compelled to shoot down Russian aircraft if they violated the zone. A direct NATO-Russia clash could have globally devastating consequences, a situation that no one wants to see unfold.
As for Kanitra, having seen the situation with his own eyes, he hopes that the Point Pleasant Beach Ukraine Charity Concert at Jenkinson’s will provide a way for New Jerseyans to help the Ukrainians who are facing their darkest hour since the Second World War.