Part 2: Australian nurse discusses her humanitarian mission to Ukraine's frontlines

Helen Zahos with a tank and her guide in Ukraine

Helen with a tank and her guide in Ukraine – Photo courtesy Helen Zahos

Australian emergency nurse, Helen Zahos, has just returned home after working as a humanitarian volunteer near the frontlines in Ukraine.

She kindly agreed to our request to share her latest undertaking. This is the second in a two-part interview. The first is here.

Kevin Rennie: You are experienced in emergency situations. What coping strategies do you have, and how were they challenged in Ukraine?

Helen Zahos: Great question. I had finished a paper on coping mechanisms and psychosocial needs for disaster medical assistance teams before, during, and after deployment. I headed to Ukraine with several strategies in place. I found very quickly being in a heightened situation, where I had planned to listen to some meditation or relaxation music, meant that I didn’t want to put anything in my ears. I was too busy listening out for the fighting, for sirens, for the alarm on my phone that told us to take shelter. There was a couple of nights that I felt really overtired and a bit overwhelmed but resolved with a good night’s sleep. Definitely no drinking alcohol because you needed to remain alert. I didn’t stick to most of my strategies, but one thing I swore I had to keep on top of and that was my vitamins and adrenal support medications and to eat fresh produce as much as I could. I also had a couple of good friends that I would reach out to and talk about my daily experiences.

KR: Were the people welcoming of volunteers being there? Was there any hostility towards you with some people being pro-Russian in the country?

HZ: In Moldova, the divide was much more obvious with protests while I was there and a caution to not discuss openly with people why we were there, or to at least be aware of the political tensions. In Ukraine because I was so close to the frontline, maybe because I was a woman, but I often got a double take or people who knew I was there volunteering were curious and the most common question was ‘Aren’t you scared to be here in Ukraine so close to the war?’

I found that local Ukrainian organisations were keen to provide assistance or information, they were grateful for us to be there. There was a real sense of comradery amongst people even on the road. It was like the whole country had banded together. Those that were pro-Russia had left or moved or would definitely not announce this out aloud in the area that I was in. The frequent checkpoints with the army and police meant that as foreigners we were scrutinised much more to make sure we were not spies, but we had no real issues as we were there with government officials but the waiting time for passport checks was often time consuming.

KR: You don't speak the Ukrainian language. Was this an obstacle?

HZ: It was actually draining, some days I found it frustrating I just wanted to be able to say something simple and it felt like it took forever. When I was tired, this seemed worse. One day I was getting money out of an ATM the driver was in the car, as the money was dispensed two soldiers started running past me and they were yelling out to someone, I instantly thought something was happening, the driver had stood out of the car and was walking towards me and I thought he was coming to tell me to run or get to the car. I grabbed the money and moved so fast I forgot my key card in the machine. I found out later that it was nothing. They were yelling out to a friend and running to catch up with him but when you don’t know the language and it’s a war zone you are hypervigilant and people start running and yelling you instantly think something bad is about to happen. So I would say that not speaking the language was an obstacle, but I found (having a) Greek heritage meant that culturally I found it similar whereas the coordinator from Switzerland had problems at times with the cultural differences.

Helen Zahos chats with Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița

A chance meeting with Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița. Photo courtesy of Helen Zahos.

KR: You have said that there is so much need both in Ukraine and Moldova. What are some of the humanitarian priorities? Any suggestions for how people from other countries can help?

HZ: In Ukraine, there was a need for infrastructure, consumables and equipment. The army is crying out for weapons and ammunition, but the hospitals are crying out for consumables. There is a need for clean drinking water, there is an outbreak of hepatitis and cholera, so medications and immunisations for those conditions. Equipment to stock up hospitals and shelters, generators, things you would need for winter, heating, blankets, general pharmaceuticals to stock in shelters, baby nappies and powdered milk, women’s sanitary pads. Many people have left but many women have stayed behind to volunteer, and cook meals for the men, or take their sewing machines down to the warehouses and sew bulletproof vests or camouflage material to cover vehicles and soldiers.

Logistically, it is difficult to get equipment in that is donated, taxes are charged to the organisation receiving them. Sending money to a trusted organisation is best. They can buy what is needed directly.

KR: You were involved in the 2015 refugee crisis; how did this compare with seeing refugees fleeing Ukraine and arriving in Moldova?

HZ: To be fair I didn’t witness the arrivals from Ukraine in Moldova at the beginning of the invasion but the Mayor and Deputy Mayor explained the difficulties they faced. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, so receiving refugees from Ukraine was difficult when their own people needed assistance. The influx was dispersed over many borders including Romania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Belarus, and Moldova. In 2015, Greece became the bottle neck of the flow and for many months up to 5,000 people arrived a day. Greece struggled with the arrivals, a country that had been hit with a financial crisis the year before, tensions arose when local people felt they were suffering and refugees and people seeking asylum were receiving benefits. To avoid the same situation in Moldova, the mobile medical services run by Adventist Help in Cahul ensured that all people could be seen and treated, both local Moldovans and Ukrainian refugees. As the frontline of the war in Ukraine moves and the fighting intensifies, the Moldovans are prepared for the day that more refugees cross into their country.

Ukrainian refugees were welcomed into Europe with open arms, the refugees that arrived into Greece and Europe in 2015 from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq struggled much more and were often left out on the streets in the cold and in the rain whereas people opened up their houses for the Ukrainian refugees. The focus and support on Ukraine has left other countries suffering from wars feeling forgotten. I can’t stress how lucky we are in Australia to not have to have these worries.

KR: What work will you be doing when you get back to Australia?

HZ: I have just returned and have hit the ground running. Two days after arriving I presented in Brisbane to 200 people. There are other presentations and workshops coming up in Melbourne and Sydney. I have been asked as the expert consultant for the Dart centre Asia Pacific in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to sit on a panel for the ICRC International Media Summit on war reporting. I will then help facilitate the workshop in Melbourne and then Sydney on Trauma Imagery and Humanitarian storytelling.

Once I return home, and the dust has settled, I will probably pick up some agency shifts as an emergency nurse on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Nursing is such an incredible career, it is only as restrictive as you chose to make it. The world is out there, your skills are needed, chances are it is you that is stopping yourself.

Helen Zahos at ICRC workshop

Helen Zahos at International Committee of the Red Cross workshop 3 Aug 2022 – Author's photo

KR: Finally, do you think that you succeeded in your overall mission?

HZ: Yes of course we succeeded. It is not uncommon for plans to change so this was not unexpected and the purpose of doing an assessment and planning. Did I want to stay on and do more, of course I did. I am still immersing myself back into normal life but still keeping in touch and in the not quite ready to let go phase. By next week, things will be back to normal for me here in Australia, but in the back of my mind now I have new found friends that I will care and worry about back in Ukraine. I will not forget them, or the people and hospitality of both Ukraine and Moldova. I would go back in a heartbeat.

While she was near the frontlines, Helen couldn't resist joking about her security arrangements compared with the Australian Prime Minister during his visit:

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