Local Knight of Malta looks back on helping Ukrainian evacuation

BOSTON -- As the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine approaches, Benjamin Malec, a Knight of Malta and parishioner of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, recalled his experience helping refugees cross over from Ukraine to Slovakia during the first days of the war.

Malec was visiting his relatives in Slovakia when the Russians invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. He was supposed to return to the U.S. the following day, but as he was making a connecting flight, a Ukrainian friend called him to ask for help evacuating his family. Malec changed his destination and made his way to the Slovak-Ukrainian border.

From March 1-9, he worked with members of the Slovak Order of Malta auxiliary corps, Maltecka Pomoc Slovensko, on the border at Vysne Nemecke. He remained there for nine days, helping thousands of women and children flee from Ukraine and head toward the interior of Europe.

"The first couple of days, I did feel like I was going into a war zone. I remember having a lot of anxiety, thinking that we could die, or things could get into a violent conflict," Malec said.

In fact, the Order of Malta was uniquely positioned to help in the event of violence. Because they have international status, they would be able to cross the border if necessary, without causing diplomatic issues that a military move would.

While violence did not break out near them, they had their hands full facilitating the evacuation of tens of thousands each day. With a population of roughly 200, the border town of Vysne Nemecke was not equipped to care for so many people passing through.

"We had to move as many people as we could to the interior of the country where there were better facilities and connections to transportation," Malec explained.

Maltecka Pomoc Slovensko was one of the first groups present on the ground and was responsible for managing resources and helping refugees decide on their next steps.

"It was quite impressive to see that the auxiliary was the group brokering deals with the state, local government, and other volunteer organizations," Malec said.

Organizations like the Red Cross and scouting associations provided food and tent accommodations for refugees who arrived late at night and were too tired to continue.

At the time, Malec estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the Ukrainians coming through had relatives waiting for them and living situations sorted out. The remaining 20 to 30 percent needed help arranging travel and accommodations.

Working with Catholic Charities of Poland and other countries, the Order of Malta set up an ad hoc registry of people willing to house refugees. Hundreds of volunteers, hailing from many different countries, came to provide transportation from the border to larger urban areas.

"That was really impressive, to see the comradery of (people) trying to help," Malec said.

Malec was tasked with communicating with English speakers. In less than a week, he became part of the camp's management team, overseeing all Order of Malta functions, including transportation, housing, water supplies, and trafficking prevention.

One of the most common stories Malec heard was from refugees fleeing the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The trains carrying them had to maintain extremely low speeds, only 10 to 20 miles per hour, so that if the track blew up as they approached, they would be able to stop quickly without derailing. Traveling at this slow speed, and stopping every time there was a bomb raid, it took the trains almost three days to reach the border. The passengers had to sit on the floors and all lights had to be turned off. Malec said people from these trains had not slept in two to four days, and some suffered from hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and even mental breakdowns.

At one point, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Eduard Heger, made a surprise visit to the border. When given the opportunity to talk with him, Malec and the others emphasized the need for steady bus transportation for the evacuees. The government eventually established a center for Ukrainians to come through.

Malec estimated that during his time at the border, about 35,000 refugees went through their tents, and he personally helped over 1,000 individuals get to their destinations.

He left the border after nine days, but his work helping the Ukrainian refugees continued in a different way. He hosted his Ukrainian friend's family of five in his residence in Slovakia for two months and helped them sort out their legal paperwork.

He said an estimated 80,000 Ukrainians chose to stay in Slovakia, while about 500,000 passed through on their way to other countries.

Malec continued to do his day job remotely in Slovakia until returning to the U.S. in May 2022. He said that after coming home, he was able to sympathize more with veterans.

"You feel like you did this sacrifice, and you get home, and people either don't really understand or think that's something nice you did," he explained.

He had some difficulty adjusting to being home again. His day job, working as a supply chain engineering manager, seemed "pretty underwhelming" compared to actively helping thousands of people find safety and shelter.