A welcoming face at the Ukraine border

UCLA Health therapist Christie Nelson was compelled to aid war refugees

Photo: UCLA Health therapist Christie Nelson, right, set up a shelter on the Ukraine-Poland border for women and children refugees. (Photo courtesy of Christie Nelson)

The line to cross the Ukraine border into Poland stretches more than half a mile. It can take days to get through. Nearly everyone in that line is a woman or child. They sleep outside in the howling wind and freezing rain.

The route is littered with garbage. There are no bathrooms. Sometimes the moms set up makeshift play areas by throwing a blanket onto the cement so the young ones can crawl and tumble around.

When they finally cross into Poland, one of the first faces these women and children see belongs to Christie Nelson, LMFT, a recreational therapist at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, who has been volunteering at the border for the past month. “Welcome to Poland,” she tells them in Ukrainian. “You’re safe now.”

Nelson was on sabbatical in England when the Russian attack on Ukraine began. She offered to help drive a load of humanitarian supplies down to the Polish border, where refugees were flooding in. When she saw the situation there, she decided to stay and find a way to serve.

“Working in the hospital, it just puts you in a mode where you’re like: I’m a rescue worker,” says Nelson, 42. “So I feel like this is just my thing. This is just what I do.”

Building a Women’s & Children’s Center

When Nelson arrived at the volunteer site in Medyka, Poland, she noticed a small trash-strewn tent no one seemed to be using. She asked if she might claim the space and was told, “Please make use of it. It’s disgusting.”

"These women are crossing the border, holding their babies. Sometimes they have tears in their eyes because it’s shocking to cross into a new land and not really know where you’re going,” says Christie Nelson. (Photo courtesy of Christie Nelson)

She cleaned out the debris and declared her intention to turn it into a Women’s & Children’s Center, a heated, private place where mothers could nurse their babies and change their diapers while picking up feminine hygiene products and clean underclothes for themselves.

At first it was hard to convince those in charge of the critical need for such a service, Nelson says.

“It’s all run by men. And they wanted to put a tea booth where I am. They wanted to put tea instead of a baby-changing and period-changing station,” she says. “So I had to kind of level with them. My slogan was: Have you ever had a puddle of blood in your underwear?”

The refugees coming into Nelson’s tent fled their homes in terror, carrying their children and their most precious belongings. Most didn’t take along menstrual supplies.

“These people really are running away from bombs and being killed, and leaving their male family members back amid so much devastation,” Nelson says. “I am really impressed with the resilience of these women and children. These women are crossing the border, holding their babies. Sometimes they have tears in their eyes because it’s shocking to cross into a new land and not really know where you’re going.”

It was important to Nelson that they see a friendly, female face when they arrive, and have a private place to collect themselves.

Donations from the UCLA community

Nelson’s colleagues at UCLA Health have been major supporters of her work in Poland. “One of my best buddies in my department was like, ‘I’m spreading the word,’” Nelson says.

Nelson’s coworkers, friends and family have been sending money digitally, which she uses to buy diapers, tampons and pads and underwear. She’s also received some supplies and support from international humanitarian donors.

“The UN is donating a huge tent,” Nelson says. “So it’s going to be a bigger center where we can see more moms. Because (officials) are seeing this is a really useful thing.”

Christie Nelson has extended her sabbatical from UCLA Health to provide aid to Ukrainian refugees. (Photo courtesy of Christie Nelson)

Nelson’s center has become something of an oasis for women spending a few days in Medyka before figuring out what to do next.

“I’ll talk to some of these grandmas. Sometimes they’ll come and sit in my tent because it’s warm,” Nelson says. “I’ll use the little (digital) interpreter. And they’ll talk about things and kind of just be jovial and sweet. But a lot of times they’ll say, ‘My beautiful city — it’s all destroyed,’ and just talk about the devastation of actually seeing their city become rubble.”

Nelson says she’s keeping her spirits up by spending time with friends — an old college roommate recently flew out for a visit — and bonding with other volunteers.

Despite the 18-hour days, she intends to keep volunteering in Medyka, delaying her return to Los Angeles as long as she can.

“This feels different than anything I’ve ever done,” she says. “I feel really strongly about women’s issues and the protection of women. I just want to make some kind of contribution.”

Learn more about Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA.