‘It’s Unspeakable, What’s Happening’: Texas A&M Law Student Shares Experience Working With Refugees In Poland
With a half-hour to wait before her train was set to leave for Krakow, Allison Byrd decided to spend this time at Warsaw’s central rail station talking with refugees.
The second person Byrd spoke with on this first day she spent in Poland last month was a Ukrainian mother with two young children. Like the thousands of others packed into the station, the woman told Byrd through Google Translate that she had to leave the rest of her family behind while fleeing Ukraine.
She began to cry after Byrd, who is a first-year student at the Texas A&M University School of Law, handed her a card printed with information on ways to stay safe, phone numbers to call for assistance and words of encouragement. More refugees told Byrd their stories of heartbreak following the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine.
“I just want clear skies for my children, not skies that are filled with bombs,” one woman said.
Just a few days earlier, Byrd, 22, was on spring break in Florida when she picked up a phone call from her mentor Susan Peters, global director of the nonprofit organization Unbound, asking if she would fly to Poland to educate refugees about human trafficking.
“I said, ‘No way, I’ve got to do school ─ I’m in the middle of writing a trial brief.’ But then as I slept on it that night I thought, ‘Anywhere there is need, there’s exploitation,’” Byrd said.
The next day she took a bus back to Texas and booked her flight to Poland.
In Byrd’s family, there’s a mantra: be the ones who run to places in crisis, not away. “That was the expectation growing up,” she said. She was in Greece during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2016, and in high school spent three months with Unbound in Indonesia working with local leaders and meeting with women working in red light districts.
Human trafficking is an issue Byrd feels called to. While living in Washington, D.C., as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, she spent time in government offices that worked in anti-trafficking policy.
“When you realize the prevalence of the problem, it’s gripping, and it’s hard to walk away once you know that it’s happening,” she said.
The United Nations estimated more than 3 million people had fled Ukraine as of March 18, putting them at risk of human trafficking. Reports soon started to appear in the international press about women and children being exploited during the chaos of the crisis, Byrd said.
She flew out to Poland with the goal of seeing the situation firsthand and providing refugees with information and tools to avoid potential traffickers.
“It’s unspeakable, what’s happening, just seeing the desperation of people who don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Byrd said. “People are shell shocked, they’re traumatized, they don’t know what to do next and they’re uncertain about where they’re going to go.”
One 15-year-old told Byrd that she was returning to home to Mariupol. The city was being heavily bombed at the time, but the girl was alone and unsure of where else to go.
Working alongside other volunteers, Byrd said she witnessed several troubling interactions that signaled potential trafficking. Knowing drivers transporting sometimes as many 100 people could reroute their buses to locations where exploitation was taking place, they paid close attention to the endless lines of people being picked up and dropped off.
Byrd approached drivers and asked their names, where they were going and if they would drive men along with the women and children. If they responded aggressively or changed their stories when questioned, it was a red flag they had bad intentions, Byrd said.
She instructed refugees how to ask these questions along with other tips: to never give passports or other important documents to someone else, make sure a friend or family member knew where they were at all times, and ask for identification before getting into a vehicle with a stranger.
One woman at a train station in Przemyśl was overheard telling a friend there was a man offering to drive them to facilities where they could shower and rest for the next week.
“We explained the concept of exploitation and traffickers. She said, ‘This whole time I’ve had warning bells going off in my head,'” Byrd recalled. “She didn’t know where else to go, but didn’t go with him. He got very aggressive and drove away. We found a secure place for her to stay that night.”
Byrd also spent a day in Ukraine. Once in Poland, refugees had access to food, SIM cards and other supplies handed out by a number of organizations. But on the other side of the border, this wasn’t the case. Byrd and other volunteers set up a station with diapers and formula for mothers who had been traveling with their children for days at a time.
Seeing the crisis firsthand will help Byrd and Unbound know how to respond in the coming weeks. After taking her final exams, she plans to return to Poland next month. Byrd said she’ll also likely be back in July to help Unbound set up potential long-term partnerships and services.
That’s on top of a summer internship with a Fort Worth law firm and a Blackstone legal fellowship in Washington. Byrd isn’t sure what her future holds after law school, but said she plans to remain engaged in human trafficking work.
“Just giving people the information and telling them what to look out for, I think is really helpful,” she said. “What’s not helpful is using alarmist language around people going through trauma, so giving information that empowers people to make decisions is a really effective strategy.”