With the war between Russia and Ukraine raging into its second month, more than 3 million refugees have already poured across the border between Poland and Ukraine. Many aid organizations have also set themselves up at that border, providing everything from hot meals to humanitarian supplies in order to assist the refugees as they come through.
But Sammamish resident Thury Foster, 53, may have found an item that has not yet been supplied for – a suitcase. Foster found out about this need after his brother, Lance, 45, flew to Poland to volunteer in March.
While volunteering, Lance reported back to Foster that many of the refugees did not have the time to pack a suitcase, so most of them had only brought what they could carry.
When the war first broke out, Foster said he felt “shocked that a democratic country [Ukraine] could be invaded by a totalitarian country [Russia].”
But from his home in Sammamish, he did not know what he could do to make a direct impact.
In early March, that changed. His brother Lance, who was based in Arizona, heard from a friend who had already flown to Eastern Europe to volunteer. Lance decided to join the effort.
Upon arriving, Lance spent his first few days in Poland transporting dozens of refugees from the border town of Medyka to the city of Krakow.
While volunteering, Lance discovered that very few people carried suitcases. Most of the refugees carried four or more fully-stuffed plastic bags in one hand, while holding on to their child with the other hand. This meant that they were not capable of accepting the blankets, first-aid kits, or other humanitarian supplies that were being handed out at the border. They simply could not carry any more.
The few refugees who owned a suitcase often required a new one by the time they had reached the border, as the wheels had been worn down beyond repair.
So on March 21, Lance, along with two local volunteers, came up with the idea to donate suitcases. They initially brought ten new suitcases to the Krakow train station. They were an immediate hit with the refugees.
At that time, Thury Foster was still in Sammamish. He decided to help out by searching for more suitcases to buy. He reached out to suitcase manufacturers in Poland and signed a contract for purchasing high-quality suitcases at half the retail price.
The Foster brothers, in their collective efforts from both Poland and Sammamish, have now distributed more than 750 suitcases to refugees.
Thury Foster left for Poland on April 5 to assist with the transportation of refugees and to increase the amount of suitcases that could be handed out each day.
He admits their current efforts are far from enough.
“You’ll be surprised because when you’re watching the news, you kind of get the impression that everything’s been taken care of… but when you go to the border, you realize there’s so much need and there are so many things that are not taken care of,” Thury said, referencing the scenes that were describe to him by Lance.
The brothers are in the process of setting up a nonprofit organization that would raise funds, increase transparency, and sustain their aid efforts.
They have already set up a GoFundMe page, with 100% of the donations going towards purchasing suitcases. All other travel expenses are paid out of the volunteers’ own pockets.
While their journey is far from over, with each day, the Foster brothers are a step closer to achieving their ambitious goal of providing a suitcase for every refugee who needs one.
“I’m just grateful to be a small piece of the big experience of helping these people during a tremendously difficult time,” Lance wrote in a Facebook post from Poland.
To donate money for buying suitcases for Ukrainian refugees, please go to this GoFundMe page.