UMass Political Scientist Charli Carpenter Assists Ukrainian Refugees During Spring Break
In the weeks leading up to spring break, UMass Amherst political scientist Charli Carpenter had been closely following the war in Ukraine. Carpenter, who teaches a course on the rules of war and runs the Conflict, Violence and Security Workshop in the department of political science, has been published widely in the foreign policy press about conflicts, wars and global peacekeeping efforts, and for the past year has served as a columnist for the magazine World Politics Review. Upon seeing the flood of refugees crossing into Poland following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she made the decision to use her spring break to travel to the Polish-Ukrainian border to witness the situation first-hand, and report back on it in a series of essays for the magazine.
“It was very clear to me from conversations with my contacts in the humanitarian world that the big organizations hadn’t yet set up a significant presence on the border,” says Carpenter, a professor of political science in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Human Security Lab. “I had read about all of these Polish citizens setting up these grassroots efforts and three weeks in they were tiring and really needed backup from the government, and the big NGOs weren’t operational yet. It seemed wrong to stay at home and write comfortably in coffee shops over Spring break when I could lend a hand.”
With a plane ticket provided by her editor at WPR, Carpenter boarded a plane to Warsaw on March 14 and spent the week transporting necessary goods and medical supplies to the border, while also assisting refugees connect with emergency lodging, transportation and critical services.
Carpenter traveled on her own, but reached out to humanitarian colleagues, local journalists and other individuals who had previously volunteered in the region in order to get a sense of what it was like on the ground and the best ways that she could be of help.
“Once I said on Twitter, ‘I’m going to do this,’ people began reaching out to me, many of them folks from the region letting me know how to assist; folks from smaller NGOs, journalists or academics already there and people who wanted to just talk to me once I got there,” she says. “So, while I did plan my trip on my own, I already had a network of contacts by the time I arrived.”
Carpenter had posted a thread on Twitter the day prior to her departure to Eastern Europe explaining her plan, along with a link to a GoFundMe page to help collect donations for supplies and resources to assist refugees. Donations started rolling in almost immediately, allowing her to rent a nine-person van.
“I wanted to be able to shuttle the most people at once that I could, in the time I had, but the money just kept coming in,” she says. “Once I rented the van, I started responding to requests for supplies that I was getting from folks already on the border, most of whom I had met on Twitter. They knew I was coming so they would ask for the supplies they needed, mostly some to help out with refugees, but a lot of it was being run across the border to hospitals in Lviv.”
In total, Carpenter raised over $8,600 in donations, which covered hotel rooms for seven refugee families, 100 sleeping bags, 30 suitcases, thousands of dollars’ worth of medical supplies and the ability to provide critical supplies to a woman she met at the border who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and traveling alone while her husband and four-year-old son remained in Ukraine. Carpenter helped transport the woman to Amsterdam and checked on her as she passed through, ensuring she had comfortable accommodations and assisting in her effort to reunite with the young son she left behind.
Carpenter was joined by other volunteers who had heard of her travels through Twitter, including Bogdan Prokoyovich, a lecturer in the Isenberg School of Management, who returned from the region with a variety of ideas about how the refugee crisis could be better managed, and Meredith Pearson, a Providence-based emergency worker who had time on her hands and a desire to help and who traveled to the region to meet Carpenter after reading Carpenter’s tweets.
The three formed a loose association of grassroots help, sharing contacts and insights and pulling in other volunteers, crowd-funding and amplifying awareness of the crisis as they went.
“It was fantastic to meet another UMass faculty member there who I’d never met here in Amherst,” Carpenter says. “We all wanted to be of service, but we also came with our unique intellectual hats to look at the situation and figure out how to bring some kind of order to the chaos of folks just showing up without a coordinated government response.”
The three made the decision to rent multiple cars instead of just one and fanned out to different entry points in the region individually, while sharing information and rendezvousing for meals and lodgings.
Carpenter alternated supply runs and refugee transport, and also spent time at the central train station in Warsaw working with the local relief team there, later writing in World Politics Review about ways that AirBNB could improve their refugee housing program, based on her experiences.
“The helpers there, they’re just citizens,” she says, “people working with the refugees trying to assist them and getting them into housing around the train station – hotel rooms for the night for them to pass through. There was a phase of my trip where I was really trying to figure out how we can get more of these refugees off the floor and into a hotel room for the night with their children before they continue on to the next stop and that is, unfortunately, in a grassroots humanitarian effort a bigger coordination problem than you might think.”
Throughout her journey, Carpenter provided regular updates on her GoFundMe page and tweeted regularly, with many of her tweet threads aiming to provide practical advice for other volunteers who show up to assist in Poland’s ‘Dunkirk moment.’ Too often, she cautions, volunteers enter conflict zones in ways that actually prove disruptive, but the solution to that may not be to stay away altogether, she argues. Those with wide networks, disposable income, flexible schedules and the ability to travel, crowdfund and inspire others can add great value when government resources are scant and professional humanitarians still have not adequately established a presence. The goal should be to add the greatest value and leave the lightest footprint, she says.
For Carpenter, whose teaching and research includes the law of armed conflict, transnational humanitarian networks and the protection of civilians, joining the relief effort involved observing and participating in dynamics she studies and teaches, all too common in many other regions of the globe.
Prior to the outbreak of the Ukraine war, she says that the Human Security Lab had been focused on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Her seven-student research team at Human Security Lab has been consulting with the U.S. Agency for International Development on gender programming in Afghanistan, and she has recently received a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant to study attitudes toward women, peace and security in conflict zones. “It’s really important that we not lose sight of other complex emergencies like Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, or the humanitarian consequences of weapons development, just because the Ukraine crisis is so prescient,” she said.
Yet she says that there is something distinct about what is happening in Europe, partly because it has caught the humanitarian system off guard. Writing at World Politics Review, she referred to the situation at the border as “quasi-organized chaos.”
“Grassroots humanitarianism is inspiring, but is not an adequate substitute for an organized government response or professional humanitarianism,” she argues. “Participating to improve the structure of the effort can not only to help but to inform teaching, research and practice.”
Carpenter is currently working with staff from the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences organize a webinar about her trip, and her essays based on her experiences on the border about the broader implications of the Russia-Ukraine conflict are available at WorldPoliticsReview.com.