TAMPA, Fla. — As Russian soldiers continue to wage war in Ukraine killing more innocent civilians, a Florida pastor just returned from the region and shares what he witnessed and why it hits so close to home.
The images Florida Pastor Joel Tooley captured during his visit to Poland recently take you there.
For nine days, the Melbourne pastor was in Przemysl, a southeastern town in Poland at the edge of Ukraine, just 10 miles from the border.
In that city, signs of fear and despair are meeting help and hope, as desperate Ukrainians flee their war-torn country.
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"I describe this as a really wonderful experience and a completely horrible experience," Tooley explained upon his return.
As a member of the Church of Nazarene, Tooley along with members of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries are on the ground in Poland offering hot food, warm beds and new starts to fleeing Ukrainians, most of them women and children.
"You’d see a mother just focused on finding the next thing for her and her kids, and she was determined and had this resolve and you would see others who had just lost all hope and despair. Then, there were those who just had no idea where they were going," he described.
Images and videos that Tooley captured while on the ground show Ukrainians lugging around suitcases while making their way to the next train to freedom. Other shots show people waiting, wondering what’s next.
In one picture, Tooley captured team members speaking to two Ukrainian sisters in their twenties who fled their homeland but had no place to go.
According to Tooley, the volunteers connected the sisters with a church in the Netherlands where they are now safe.
At one point, Tooley and his team came upon three teenage boys.
"They were all 17-year-old. They and had traveled from Kiev. They had no connections. Their parents sent them out of the country," he said.
The stories of children and teens fleeing Ukraine hits close to home for Tooley, who for years, has worked with unaccompanied migrant children who enter the United States without their parents in an attempt to find freedom and escape violence in their homelands south of the U.S. border.
But as an ongoing immigration feud between the DeSantis and Biden administrations thickens and threatens Florida's future of welcoming unaccompanied migrant children here, Tooley said his trip to Poland serves as a reminder of the need to find immigration solutions here at home.
"The resolve that I left there with was a greater determination to look at the solutions we need to make in our own country for people who are trying to cross our borders because their stories are not that different," Tooley said. "In Ukraine, we can name the enemy Putin and the Russian regime. In some countries, we can't name the enemy but the suffering is the same and the oppression is the same,” he said. “It gave me greater resolve to continue speaking out."
For more information on how Florida's current crackdown on illegal immigration is impacting unaccompanied children, click here for reporter Katie Lagrone's recent documentary "Unaccompanied & Unwanted."