COLORADO, USA — Shaughn Varnell has learned a few things since he arrived in Ukraine.
First, the language barrier is more difficult than he imagined.
“I don’t speak Polish or Ukrainian. I am currently trying to remedy that. I’m taking some intensive Ukrainian courses just to get a leg to stand on," he said.
Second, the same technology that allowed him to follow the news and developments of the war from the U.S., is necessary for him as he now tries to move about a foreign country.
“It’s been tough to navigate through [Ukraine], and honestly, I don’t know how people did it before cell phones and technology," he said.
9NEWS first met Varnell a few weeks ago, as he prepared to travel to Ukraine.
A technician-mechanic at Mercedes-Benz of Denver, Varnell hoped he could use that skill set to help as the country defends itself against the Russian invasion. He wondered if he could help repair emergency vehicles used in war efforts, or use his skill set in some other way.
Varnell flew into Warsaw, Poland first, then traveled across the border to Ukraine. He has been in the western city of Lviv for several days.
“I’m in the city center in Lviv, and there’s a refugee center not far. I’m just volunteering there, doing basic stuff. We unload trucks and things like that, with humanitarian aid,” he said.
“I wanted to use my skills as a mechanic," he said. "I’ve reached out to aid organizations, and individuals here, trying to set up some work. And I think I’ve set up some work for an organization called SMART. They’re taking in ambulances from around the world that are being sent into hot spots, and hopefully we'll be checking those out, making sure they’re good to go and repairing them if necessary.”
Varnell said right now, Lviv feels safe. He hears air raid sirens several times daily, and said everyone has a plan to shelter if needed, but that hasn’t been necessary since he arrived.
There are other signs of war.
“It is interesting being in a country at war. There’s [anti-Russia] signs everywhere,” he said.
“Being from America and living my whole life there, I’ve never had to deal with any kind of foreign invader on our soil. So it's kind of an eerie feeling, for sure,” he said.
There are also so many Ukrainians fleeing other parts of the country for safety.
“I’ve seen a lot of refugees and a lot of displaced people, that have no idea where to go, no idea what to do. When I crossed the border it was a lengthy experience,” he said.
“I remember seeing cars backed up for miles waiting to get out of Ukraine. And there’s honestly huge groups of refugees here. You don’t see them milling about on the streets as much, but when you get to the refugee center you see a lot of people with kids, and a lot of people that just had to drop what they were doing and leave.”
In his first few days, Varnell said he was touched by the level of warmth and kindness Ukrainians have shown to their visitors like him. He said they are also eager to learn how the rest of the world feels about the war.
“I’ve taken a number of Uber rides where the driver barely speaks any English and still tries to have a conversation – still wants to know what America's take on this war is, what America’s take on Ukraine is, what we know about the region. They’re very curious about our understanding of the conflict. And they’ve all been very welcoming and kind.”
“The spirit of this people – it's amazing,” he said. “And I’m glad to be here doing what I can do.”
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