A man and woman sitting in the front of a car with two children sitting in the back.
Pichel and a Ukrainian family that he picked up from Hrebenne, a village in southeastern Poland that borders Ukraine. (Frank Pichel)

Tales from the front line

Why was Frank Pichel compelled to head into a war zone? The animator shares his experiences helping Ukrainians displaced by war.

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This spring, Frank Pichel became a local news fixture when he traveled to Poland to help Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion.

But this wasn’t the first time Pichel, who teaches motion graphics in the Department of Kinetic Imaging in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, headed toward a war zone as others fled.

The first time was in 1999, at the very end of the Kosovo War. But back then he hadn’t gone intending to help displaced persons.

“[It’s] a strange thing to say about a war, but I just felt like there was probably some really elegant images that could be made out of that destruction that would tell a story about that war,” Pichel said. “And so, I decided over spring break that I would go and see what happened at that war and I took a lot of cameras to hopefully make some really large-format, beautiful images.”

While he did manage to take some pictures of the devastation, it was secondary to the life-changing connections he said he made with refugees while touring the warscape. 

“My mission just totally changed,” he said. The refugees “wanted to immigrate to the States and they wanted to go back into Kosovo [from Macedonia] to say goodbye to their families before they immigrated. … I basically gave rides to these refugees to go back to visit their families one more time before leaving the country forever.”

A crowd of people lining up at booths where food and clothing is being given out.
Volunteers hand out supplies including food and clothes at the Warsaw train station. (Frank Pichel)

When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Pichel felt a familiar pull. Only, this time it wasn’t about capturing the perfect image, but about helping people — in this case Ukrainians — who had lost their homes. 

Over spring break, he flew to Poland and rented a car. He didn’t know how he was going to help, but knew he would figure it out when he hit the ground. He realized fairly quickly that the refugees didn't need food or clothing or even medical supplies because of the work of aid organizations.

However, Pichel saw a need for transportation for refugees whose destinations weren’t on a public transit line.

“I realized once I was there that I could offer people rides,” he said. “I just started driving people around.”

The first day, he gave short rides to people from the train station in Warsaw to local houses where people had offered to let them stay. The second day, he decided to go to the Ukraine border from where people had much farther to travel. Daily rides took about five hours.

Why was Frank Pichel compelled to head into a war zone? The animator shares his experiences helping Ukrainians displaced by war.

Pichel learned a lot during those trips. Here are a few of his observations:

Stoicism as world falls apart

Pichel didn’t know if it was a uniquely Ukrainian trait or an effect of the circumstances, but he was surprised at how unemotional the Ukrainian people he encountered were.

“Everyone was very calm and all the kids were really well behaved,” he said. “Nobody was having emotional outbursts, which is kind of remarkable to me, but they all were super thankful for everything everyone was doing for them.”

Language was no barrier

A paper with ukrainian and polish writing on it.
Pichel consulted Google Translate to make this sign in Ukrainian and Polish reading that he could take three people and their pets anywhere in Poland. (Frank Pichel)

Communicating with the refugees was not a problem. Pichel consulted Google Translate to make a sign in Ukrainian and Polish reading that he could take three people and their pets anywhere in Poland (his rental car agreement did not extend to other countries).

“Usually, Poles or other international aid workers would see my sign, and they would already know of people that needed a ride,” he said. “They would connect me to these refugees and then we would just hop in the car and head off to wherever they wanted to go.”

Social rank still exists

Pichel said that his early passengers had friends in Poland they could stay with or some other kind of plan and the means to execute it. As the week progressed, people arrived who didn’t have as many — if any — resources, which is why it took longer for them to reach the border. They “didn't have a plan. They just knew they had to get out. I'm sure it's gotten worse [since] then.”

The last family Pichel transported were Georgian nationals who had been kicked out of their native country when Putin invaded in 2008. They had immigrated to Ukraine to get away from Russian forces and were now on the run again.

Surprising role of social media

One friend of Pichel’s posted his Venmo account on her Facebook page, which ended up raising about $10,000 in donations for Ukrainians. Another connected him with a friend who spoke Georgian, so during the seven-hour ride with his last family, they communicated on WhatsApp.

A child playing near a fire
A child plays at the Hrebenne transfer station. (Frank Pichel)

“I had two phones at the time,” he said. “So they were talking on WhatsApp — and I learned a lot from that conversation — but at the same time I was using Google Maps on my phone to figure out where to go. And then, at the same time, Venmo donations were coming in from all those people in Richmond so my phone was making that cash register tone — cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching — while we were driving across Poland.

“I just was struck by the technology and how I could have never done this trip solo without all of that technology. Social media can be really damaging to our community and our culture, [but] there's also wildly great benefits that we can get from it too.”

It was also a stunning contrast to his Kosovo experience, where he had to rely on paper maps and a Serbian/Croatian-to-English dictionary.

Pichel said he is “grateful” to have the means and resources to help when needed.

“When you feel like you're doing the morally right thing, it's really easy,” he said. “There's no second-guessing. … When you're in a situation like that, it just feels like there's the right thing to do and you just get in this flow.”

People walking across a road
Ukrainians crossing into Poland at Budomierz. (Frank Pichel)