Annissa Essaibi George’s mother Barbara was born in a refugee camp in Germany just after World War II. Her parents, displaced by the fighting between Hitler’s army and Stalin’s Russians, never made it back to their homeland in Poland.
This month, the former Boston city councilor and mayoral contender journeyed to Poland, accompanied by her sister Sonia and 26 hockey bags filled with supplies for Ukrainians who continue to pour over the border seeking refuge from Vladimir Putin’s murderous assault on their country.
On their eight-day visit, the Essaibi sisters made their way to a border crossing near Przemysi to assist arriving Ukrainians, most of them pedestrians carrying whatever they could with their hands.
“My big takeaway— and I’m still reflecting on it— is that one person can actually make a difference in this situation,” Essaibi George said. “I was very surprised to not see as visible a presence as I expected from some of the international humanitarian organizations like the United Nations or the Red Cross.”
“I saw people like us just there doing the work," she added.
In addition to the hockey bags stuffed with supplies — donated by Dorchester Youth Hockey, BU, Boston Fire, the Bruins and other leagues in the Boston area— the Essaibi sisters brought along about $25,000 that they had raised before their trip to buy necessities like diapers, hygiene products, and medicine to send into Ukraine.
They even crossed the border into Ukraine to give the supplies they had purchased at the Polish equivalent of Costco to a contact who ferried the goods deeper into the stricken nation.
Essaibi George is careful to emphasize that her excursion into Ukraine wasn’t a long one, nor very far over the border. “Other people are taking tremendous risks,” she said. “The Polish people have really stepped up as a country.”
But, she added: “The mood is one of concern and of worry, really. Polish people know what this means for the Ukrainian people, but also for the Polish people and their sovereignty. The implications are that democracy is very much at risk.”
Her instincts to help and willingness to take action aren’t new to the Dorchester-born councilor, who has been working as a substitute teacher, answering an urgent call for reinforcements in the Boston Public Schools.
Essaibi George plans to return to the Poland-Ukraine border again soon, this time with a better understanding of the needs and with better contacts to make a difference. She and Sonia met people who run orphanages and others who are focused on caring for family pets who have been abandoned.
All of it, she says, is inspired by her own family’s long-ago experience.
“It’s what pulled me to do it,” she said. “When I think about that experience [my mother] lived through … for me, it was an opportunity to pay back the people who helped my mother in her time as a displaced person.”
This story was originally published by the Dorchester Reporter.