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Professor gets firsthand look at massive volunteer effort in response to Russia-Ukraine war

Feb 20, 2023

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn has seen firsthand the unprecedented role that volunteers are playing in Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine.

Ukrainian refugees sitting on cots in transit shelter Ukrainian refugees in a transit center shelter in Korczowa, Poland. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dunn

Dunn, director of the Indiana University Center for Refugee Studies and professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences, rushed to the Polish-Ukrainian border shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She was there when tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees were entering Poland daily, in what’s become the largest refugee movement since World War II.

“I spent about a week working in a transit shelter that had been a merchandise mart, and we had 5,000 new people a day spending the night,” Dunn said. “They would enter a large hall the next day where volunteer drivers were just holding up huge signs that said ‘Germany’ or ‘France,’ and people were getting into cars with people they had never met before, they were taking food from people they didn’t know.”

Dunn’s scholarly work focuses on responses to forced migration. She will return to Poland this spring with the support of a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to continue her research on the massive scale of volunteer humanitarianism related to the Russia-Ukraine war.

“I think what has been really unique about this war is how reliant it’s been on both volunteer aid to refugees and volunteer aid to the Ukrainian military,” Dunn said. “For most suppliers of aid and volunteers — both on the Polish side and Ukrainian side — there’s really no difference between humanitarian aid and military aid. They’ve been providing both food and water and shelter for people fleeing their homes, and things like bullet-proof vests for people entering the Ukrainian territorial defense.”

Elizabeth Dunn Elizabeth Cullen Dunn will return to Poland during the spring semester to continue her research on volunteer humanitarianism in response to Russia's war in Ukraine.The Fulbright will also allow Dunn to teach a class at the University of Warsaw that focuses on the role of refugees in American agriculture. She said the U.S. can learn a lot from how Ukrainian refugees have integrated into Europe. In addition to receiving temporary protection, Ukrainian refugees have also been allowed to work — a big difference from previous waves of migrants into Europe.

“I think that’s a real lesson for the United States,” Dunn said. “Look at how fast Ukrainians have filled holes in the labor market; they’re doing jobs in Poland that needed to be done. And they have actually boosted Poland’s economy significantly.”

Dunn will be working with organized groups who are helping Ukrainian families find housing, jobs and school placements while she’s in Poland this year. Her research there will be included in her book, “The Crowdsourced War.”

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Barbara Brosher

Executive Director of Storytelling and Research Communications, and Interim Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications

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