By Joseph D'Andrea
On December 1, 2022, Adelphi alum Camille Pajor spoke to Dr. Martin Haas’ Postmodern Condition class regarding her experiences working with Ukrainian refugees on the Ukrainian-Polish border.
“Clearly the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a defining event of the past year,” Dr. Haas said in regards to Pajor’s work in the region, “and the personal experience of an AU alumni working with Ukrainian refugees on the Polish-Ukrainian border was invaluable.”
Early in her life, Pajor, ‘09, MBA ’16, was exposed to the importance of freedom—both her parents are Polish refugees who left their communist-led country for New York in 1981. They did not only seek economic opportunities, but were also attracted by the fact that they would have more of an ability to freely express their opinions, as well as not having to worry about being drafted into conflicts they didn’t agree with. To add to her familiarity with Eastern Europeans, her husband is a refugee from the Soviet Union who moved to the U.S. when he was five.
By the time Pajor was a senior in high school, she had become knowledgeable about the ever-changing dynamics of eastern European politics. Once she was studying at and living in Adelphi’s Earle Hall, Pajor decided to apply for the Peace Corps, a U.S. government agency whose initiative is providing assistance to other countries through the work of volunteers. Pajor was designated by the Peace Corps to serve in Ukraine from 2009 to 2011, during which time she taught English as a foreign language to those at the elementary to high school levels.
“It was really amazing to have the opportunity to do grassroots work in a space where I had a lot of authorship and ability to impact what was happening,” Pajor said. “The Peace Corps taught me about needs assessment and rigorously trained us in the Ukrainian language.”
Not only did Pajor work in a more personal space with those who sought to learn English–which would ultimately benefit these future refugees who sought to emigrate to the United States–she also became involved with other volunteers in counter-human-trafficking projects.
Speaking on this, Pajor said: “I was able to develop a nationwide project in which we collaborated with the United Nations. The campaign was about promoting a hotline that the UN still has to this day, which helps victims who have been trafficked, and also people who are looking to migrate or work abroad, and how they can do that safely.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about human trafficking,” she continued, “but it typically concerns people taking advantage of others somewhere along the way in the victims’ migration journey, as opposed to someone jumping out of the bushes and putting you in a truck… Essentially we’re talking about taking away someone’s free will, removing them from their community, and forcing them to work for free.”
The efforts she and the team she worked with aided in raising awareness about human trafficking and they did so partially through seminars—created in several languages to allow for more accessibility—which were shared with the UN.
Regarding the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, which began in 2014, Pajor currently works with Oxfam International, a nonprofit organization whose primary focus lies in poverty and disaster relief, migration advocacy, and other topics of the sort. Oxfam International was a product of World War II but, as Pajor noted, they have only recently begun to work in Eastern Europe. She serves in the “protection” sector, working directly with refugees, the majority of whom are women and children.
In 2022, Pajor joined a volunteer group called Russians for Ukraine, which was originally formed by a Russian-Kazakhstan man who, along with other volunteers, aided friends moving from Ukraine to Poland. As a part of this group, she translated for different delegations on the border, as well as civilians in hospital care. When speaking of the times when she’s been able to interact with others one-on-one, Pajor shared what seemed to be the experiences that have stuck with her the most, some conversations of which took place in these medical tents.
“I met a [Ukrainian] woman from an occupied area, and as we sat in front of the humanitarian center, I saw that she was distressed and crying, so I sat there and talked with her from a psychological first-aid perspective. She talked about how her house was taken over and looted by Russian soldiers… [Her family] felt like they didn’t have an escape; that was their reality.”
The impact that a war has on a community, no matter the size, does not always have to be military-related, or come from an oppressive state itself, though. As Pajor recalls, the civilian victims also face struggles of their own, on a more personal level.
“Some of my colleagues are refugees from Ukraine, and they often share what their children experience at school,” she said. “One of them was talking about her preteen who was being bullied, and forced by Polish children to admit that he was allied with Putin, as a Ukrainian… From my perspective, I think: ‘how will that child go on to perceive race, Polish and Russian people, their ability to trust others, and so forth.’ There’s a lot of sadness and tragedy, but a lot of reliance, too, I think.”
In winter months, in particular, volunteers and other workers must prepare for the climate, and aid those in need with resources such as hand warmers. “The UN is estimating that 500,000 to 700,000 people will cross this winter because they don’t have access to heat, hot water, or electricity 10 to 18 hours a day,” she said.
Pajor also explained that—harkening back to her prior quote—it sometimes took substantial convincing for victims to decide whether or not they could trust her and her colleagues, especially since they work for an international organization. As a result of this circumstance, word of mouth is an important part of allowing the work of those willing to help to be efficient.
“If you have lived through so much intensity and so many things are out of your control already,” Pajor said on the matter, “regardless of who you are, it’s not always easy to ask for help… It’s very important to be able to connect with people interpersonally [in order to make them feel comfortable].”
For groups of motivated individuals like Pajor, the incentive to provide aid for those in Eastern Europe has never been more prominent than now, and this current conflict goes to show that in times of misfortunate, there will always be those who feel obligated to lend a helping hand.
“To me, it’s mind-blowing, because I had seen so many war movies growing up and heard about all of these conflicts, and there’s been a lot of war in my lifetime, but it’s never been so personal for me,” Pajor said.