Nebraskans help Ukrainian refugees find safety, comfort in Warsaw hotel

‘These people just need love,’ says founder of Operation Safe Harbor

By: - May 14, 2022 4:00 am
Ukraine refugee

As part of a Nebraska-led effort to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland, Vasyl Pokotylo — wearing a Nebraska cap — gets help with his wheelchair from his wife, Tatyana, during a medical examination. (Courtesy of Kathleen Nene Nolan)

In the hallway of a Best Western hotel in Warsaw, a nurse from Nebraska reached out to a refugee fleeing the war in Ukraine.

“How can I help you?” asked Kathleen Nene Nolan, using her “best friend,” the Google Translate app on her cell phone, to transform her request into Russian. 

The 32-year-old woman, a mother of two young children, had a “look of lost hope in her eyes,” according to Nolan.

“I have no money. I filed the documents, but have to wait. I cannot do anything because I have no money,” said the woman, Illina.

She began to cry silently, Nolan wrote on a Facebook post on Tuesday, “embarrassed that she was doing so with a stranger.”

500,000 refugees in Warsaw

Ukrainian refugees
Arts and crafts are one way Ukrainian children are being occupied while staying at a Warsaw hotel through Operation Safe Harbor. (Courtesy of Kathleen Nene Nolan)

Nolan, an infectious disease nurse from Omaha, is among more than 20 volunteers who have dropped what they were doing in Nebraska to travel in the past few weeks to Warsaw, to give comfort and assistance to some of the estimated 500,000 Ukrainians who have fled to the Polish capital to escape the bloodshed in their homeland.

She’s there as part of an effort called “Operation Safe Harbor,” launched a month ago in Lincoln by Steve Glenn, the owner of a travel agency, Executive Travel.

Glenn said that after watching the war unfold on the television screen, he had to do something.

I feel like a witness at the Holocaust

– volunteer nurse Kathleen Nene Nolan

His answer was do what his company does for clients across the world: obtain hotel rooms at a discount. But this time, it was for families fleeing the bombs, the air raid sirens, the death and destruction in Ukraine.

“We’re kind of the housing of last resort. The whole idea is to give them a safe harbor, where they feel protected, and their children feel protected,” Glenn said. 

Operation Safe Harbor has helped nearly 300 people, mostly women and children, find temporary shelter at the Best Western Felix Hotel in Warsaw. The idea is to provide comfort and safety for a month or more, before they can transition to more permanent homes.

Raised more than $250,000

This week, Glenn expanded the effort from 50 to 60 rooms at the hotel, which is about two hours from the Ukraine border. Operation Safe Harbor has raised more than $250,000 to pay for the rooms, and Glenn’s company has given $50,000 toward air fare for volunteers to travel to Poland.

Nolan is part of a new aspect of the effort, enlisting nurses to provide health care for the children and others who find their way across the border to the Warsaw hotel.

In Facebook posts and in an interview, she detailed her work, which often extends into the middle of the night:

  • Helping a 3-year-old named Stasik, a “very shy, blond-headed little guy,” recover from pneumonia by storing his medicine and making sure he takes it every 12 hours.
Ukrainian refugees
Kathleen Nene Nolan, a nurse from Omaha, comforts a Ukrainian refugee named Tatiana Mikhailovna during her volunteer work at a Warsaw hotel.
(Courtesy of Kathleen Nene Nolan)

  • Assisting a 72-year-old named Tatiana Mikhailovna, who has a history of osteoporosis and back fractures, manage the pain that worsened in the long bus ride out of Ukraine. Tatiana got the last seat on the bus, Nolan wrote, adding that she had never heard of Lidocaine patches, which luckily Nolan had brought from the U.S. 
  • Ministering to a “serious” 10-year-old boy named Orson who fled the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with his mother, Natalia. Orson’s coughing and sore throat were improving, Nolan wrote, after he was given some cough medicine. He had tested negative for COVID-19 using a home test she brought from Omaha.
  • Helping an elderly woman navigate the Polish medical system to obtain heart medication.
  • Giving Ilina some money that had been provided by Nolan’s friends, unsolicited, during a women’s guild meeting at Omaha’s St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church before she left.  

‘I can’t take this money’

“Illina said, ‘I can’t take this money. This is embarrassing,’” Nolan said. “I tell them, ‘This is not from me. This is from God. There are people back in Nebraska who love you.”

Nolan arrived May 7, paired with another nurse volunteer, a Omaha Holy Name grade-school friend, Margie (Mundy) Hageman, who now lives in Minneapolis. A retired Lincoln IT consultant, Ed Bruening, is also part of the current Operation Safe Harbor team in Warsaw.

This weekend, a group from Union Bank in Lincoln will arrive to help occupy the displaced children, shuttle newly arrived families from the border, distribute clothing and food, and provide aid and comfort.

Glenn said Operation Safe Harbor is focused on giving families something other shelters cannot — a separate room, with showers and some privacy, as well as medical help.

Few belongings

Nolan said she can see the worry in the eyes of the mothers when they arrive. Most have a only of bags of belongings, they have no money, and their kids are often sick after traveling in crowded buses or trains, or walking miles through rain or snow.

“These women are fearful. They’ve been uprooted,” she said. “They’ve left their homes, and they’ve left their husbands behind. They talk to them on their cell phones every night, and they know they’re in danger.”

“I feel like a witness at the Holocaust,” Nolan said

One recent arrival had just lost her husband in the fighting. Another showed a TikTok video of her bedroom, before and after it was gutted by a Russian attack. When a siren went off in Warsaw, one child asked her mothers if the bombs were coming.

 Nolan said that she believes her role in Ukraine is not only to provide help, but to become a “messenger” for the heart-wrenching stories of the refugees.

“Instead of sitting and watching this war like it’s a sport, we have to do something,” she said. “These are real people. They need help.”

Rotary Clubs have helped

Barbara Bartle of Lincoln, one of the earlier volunteers who went to Warsaw as part of Operation Safe Harbor, got in touch with an English-speaking Rotary Club in Warsaw that provided evening meals for the refugees at the hotel.

Bartle, who will be a district president of Rotary International in the U.S. next year, also enlisted help from other Rotary Clubs in America to provide disaster aid and medical supplies. And Glenn struck up a partnership with a Baptist Church in Warsaw, which helps steer displaced families to the refugee shelter in a hotel.

Bartle and Glenn said it’s amazing to see what Poland has done to help the refugees, converting office space into housing, providing free or reduced health care to refugees and providing aid to residents who take in those fleeing the violence — people who may be complete strangers.  

The world cannot expect Poland to take this on alone

– volunteer Barbara Bartle of Lincoln

Many of the mothers who have fled have never been in the workforce, Bartle said, so they’ll need training for jobs to provide for their children. Operation Safe Harbor is now providing Polish language classes, to help the Russian-speaking refugees navigate their new world.

“The world cannot expect Poland to take this on alone,” Bartle said. “We’re going to have to help with the resettlement of these refugees.”

Seeking more volunteers

Glenn, a former Nebraska football player who’s well known in the Lincoln business community, said Operation Safe Harbor has been embraced by Nebraskans seeking to help. 

He said he has received several offers to provide goods to send to Poland, but when it can cost $50-$100 to transport a set of luggage, it makes more sense to donate money.

That can be done via the website   

Glenn said he’s hoping to recruit more nurses to go to Poland and is still looking for volunteers to go in June. 

“These people just need love,” he said. “We’re there for them. We’re there to help them in any way we can. And now they’re safe.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.