Former Utahn talks about working at a refugee center for people fleeing Ukraine

Yegor Shevtsov, Ukrainian-born former pianist for Ballet West, describes the ‘human circus’ in a one-time supermarket.

Yegor Shevtsov recently found himself talking to a man about the Bonneville Salt Flats.

What made the conversation remarkable was that Shevtsov, a former pianist for Utah’s Ballet West, was volunteering at a refugee reception center in Przemysl, a city in southeast Poland near the border with Ukraine — and the man was a refugee escaping the war there.

“He was shell-shocked,” Shevtsov said recently over Whatsapp video call. “I had to take him to the medical office to measure his blood pressure, which was extremely high.” The man, age 70, hadn’t been able to sleep for three days, he told Shevtsov.

They talked over options for the man to relocate — Poland was filling up with refugees, so Shevtsov suggested Belgium or France or Norway, where the pianist has lived since 2019 — and Shevtsov mentioned that he used to live in Utah. That struck a chord with the man, who had worked at a car factory and had been set to test their new vehicle at Utah’s famous Bonneville Salt Flats racing ground, until the government shut down the plan.

Shevtsov remembered thinking of this man: “You had such a life, and here you are. You [have] found yourself at the mercy of strangers.”

As a Ukrainian — though he considers himself a Ukrainian-born American — Shevtsov decided he had to leave Norway to volunteer to help those fleeing the country of his birth.

“I felt so utterly helpless,” Shevtsov said, adding that with such a feeling, “you should and are able to channel into something, however small.”

Shevtsov was born in 1977, and now has lived away from Ukraine for half of his life. He left his job at Ballet West in 2019, to join the Arctic Philharmonic, the northernmost symphony orchestra on the planet — splitting its performances between two cities in northern Norway, Bodø and Tromsø.

Sitting in Norway watching the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said, he felt weird not helping. He joked that the country is younger than he is — because Ukraine declared independence on August 24, 1991, and the Soviet Union (of which Ukraine had been a part) formally ceased to be just over four months later.

“My teenage years kind of [saw] the twilight of the Soviet era with all its ugliness and all its beauty,” he said, adding that he has watched Ukraine go through what he calls “growing pains.”

“I do think Ukraine is pretty unique in that it’s non-homogeneous,” he said. “Ukraine most reminds me of the States, because you could be anybody in Ukraine and still be Ukrainian.” (Shevtsov said his own ethnic background is “mixed,” because he has a Russian name and speaks Russian.)

Shevtsov said he’s struck by the reaction to Russia’s invasion, which began Feb. 24. “I think it’s really quite remarkable how unified all Ukrainians are, whatever ethnic heritage, against this aggression,” he said.

Ukraine, he said, is “proud, but humble” and that there’s a “certain humility to its people.”

Those people include his family who is still in Ukraine: His mother, stepfather and other family members — including his grandmother, who is 100 and has kidney problems. (The hospital had to take his grandmother down to the bomb shelter during a recent procedure, he said.)

Even with the risks, he said, he doesn’t think his family will leave Ukraine — though they may move to a smaller village closer to the border in an extreme emergency.

The families Shevtsov meets while working in the refugee center — called Tesco, because it’s in a former location of the European supermarket chain — tell similar stories, he said.

(Gema White Ortega | AP) Food is served for Ukrainian refugees in Przemysl, Poland, Tuesday March 15, 2022.

They are stories of people, particularly the elderly in small villages where they have lived their entire lives, forced to flee hardships almost unimaginable. Some take several days to cross the border into Poland, trips that in peacetime could be made in a day. Some travel only at night, for fear of attracting an air strike by day.

Volunteering at the refugee center, he said, has been “life-changing.”

His daily routine is “very changeable,” he said. “It could go from very calm for a while to frantic.”

One day he could be picking up “dog [excrement] in the hallway” and bagging up the bathroom garbage, before helping people line up for buses to Germany.

He deals a lot with logistics, such as gathering data on what the center needs, and then ordering shipments of those supplies. For example, the center doesn’t have any showers, so they have ordered underwear for people who arrive at the center and want to change.

“You realize that [for the refugees], it’s just actually a beginning of a new journey,” he said. “Now you’re entering the unknown, so, there’s a sense of people getting really panicked.”

Volunteers are having their own difficulties, Shevtsov said. Some work from 8 hours a shift to 12 hours. Some stay at the center themselves, sleeping on the floor, because hotels are too expensive. He’s raising money to help other volunteers.

The volunteers, Shevtsov said, are experiencing trauma similar to that experienced by those they’re helping. “Once you get over the initial shock,” he said, “you get quite a different arc to the narrative of this kind of reception center.”

He compared the center to a “human circus” on busy days, which is most of them. Because he speaks six languages — Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, English, French and Norwegian — he talks to a lot of people who come through.

Shevtsov said he has seen shell-shocked veterans, pregnant mothers near term, and elderly people who can barely move on their own. “People have anxiety attacks, and high blood pressure,” he said. Sometimes, he said, he is working “with people who end up looking like your family.”

On Monday, a week after being interviewed, Shevtsov provided an update via Whatsapp: “Yeah, things are still as they were — our center is running better and better, and we are all hoping for the quick end to this nightmare that is happening in our country.”

(Arctic Philharmonic) Yegor Shevtsov, former pianist for Utah's Ballet West and now performing with Norway's Arctic Philharmonic, has been volunteering at a refugee center on the Poland-Ukraine border.

No donation is too small to help those leaving Ukraine, Shevtsov said. There are many organizations providing aid to refugees; UNICEF, The International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders are among the most reputable.

Shevtsov noted the recent promise from the Biden administration to accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the United States, and urges Americans — like those he encountered when he lived in Utah — to take them into their homes.

“Just open your doors and minds to my people,” Shevtsov said. “I think they are wonderful. It’s a wonderful nation. I am really proud to be Ukrainian.”

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