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'Nobody is crying. It’s just shock': Former Barrie photographer helping Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria (4 photos)

'We’ve got to be there for these people. It’s just the right thing to do,' says Don Komarechka, who now lives just outside the city of Varna

Former Barrie resident Don Komarechka, who now calls Bulgaria home, is pitching in to help displaced Ukrainian refugees who have been flooding into the eastern European country that's not far from the nation that has fallen victim to the brutal Russian invasion.

Komarechka is well known to many Barrie and area residents through his macro-photography of snowflakes and his art book on the subject of capturing the tiny ice crystals. These days, he's setting down his camera to help others.

In October 2021, he packed up his family and escaped the rat race of North America for a quieter and cheaper life in a small village just outside the city of Varna on the Black Sea coast with his wife, who is Bulgarian.

On Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, which sent waves of refugees to the safe havens of the surrounding countries.

Komarechka started seeing an influx of Ukrainian refugees in his area of Bulgaria about a week and a half after the hostilities broke out.

Struggling to house people, the city began utilizing a large sports complex as well as other makeshift refugee centres wherever they could.

“Many people just arrive on a bus with whatever they were carrying or wearing at the time and that’s all they’ve got,” Komarechka told BarrieToday. “And they are trying to piece together a network of friends and support and they don’t even know where to start. We’ve got to be there for these people. It’s just the right thing to do.

“I don’t want to put words in their eyes, but when I look at them, I know not a minute goes by that they are not thinking about the men in their lives who are back in Ukraine fighting or the people that they have lost," he added. "It’s almost like shell shock. Nobody is crying. It’s just shock.”

Komarechka says he didn’t think twice about whether or not he should help out.

“I just grab whatever it is we need most, throw it on my credit card and as quickly as we can drive a car full of stuff to these people," he said. "We’ve been doing that, on average, around three to five runs per week of aid to these people.

“It’s being financed by us. We are definitely in the red on that front, but also from people through the goodness of their heart have been throwing money at me and saying ‘I trust you to spend it wisely,’ and so I do. It’s not like I’m giving out charity receipts for this; it’s just part of the process as there would be no time to organize it any other way."

It is all very informal, he says. People post lists at the various refugee centres of what is most needed on that particular day, or volunteers will receive verbal instructions on what is needed at that moment.

And it’s not only food and toiletries that are needed, but items for children.

“We also get some art supplies, building blocks and puzzles and toys for the kids,” Komarechka said.

Why the generosity in his particular case?

“My heritage is Ukrainian, so that might play a part in it, but if I was back in Canada, I wouldn’t have a way to directly help other than give it to charity and have it disappear wherever and end up with a very small feel-good feeling for a bit," Komarechka said. "But here I can directly help. I have no military or medical training or anything like that, so I can’t go and directly fight, but I feel like you have to do something, and no matter how much you do, it’s never going to be enough.”

As an artistic photographer, there are other ways Komarechka can help the cause.

“You can create artwork as well, which I have. There are four images that I have released into the public domain, and anyone can do anything with those in the support of Ukraine, and I can use that awareness to generate some funds that will help these people that have nothing,” he said.

When asked about how friends and family back in Canada feel about the situation, a sense of helplessness creeps in.

“The general consensus from people in Barrie that I talk to is that they just don’t know what to do," Komarechka said. "And they say that they remember me from Barrie, and you are on the coast of the Black Sea, so maybe I can use you as some vessel to improve the world because we are so far removed from it. And I like to think that I can help facilitate that.

“A lot of friends and family from the Barrie area have been pitching in money and a few people have organized some fundraising they’ve pooled together and sent to me,” he added. “I’ve had some donations from single individuals of up to $600 and organized crowd-funding has gotten some donations from multiple sources up to $1,700. It’s been great because that keeps me going for a couple more days and a couple more runs.

“Some loads are for requests for toilet paper, other times it’s canned meat and that becomes quite a bit more expensive. I think on average I spend about $800 per day when we are doing a run. And it’s only been enabled by folks back home, so I thank you, and you know that it has gone right to the people that need it.”

His Facebook page, Don Komarechka Photography, has updates on his efforts and needs as he documents his experiences. Komarechka is also accepting donations for the cause and can be reached through Facebook Messenger from his page.

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About the Author: Kevin Lamb

Kevin Lamb picked up a camera in 2000 and by 2005 was freelancing for the Barrie Examiner newspaper until its closure in 2017. He is an award-winning photojournalist, with his work having been seen in many news outlets across Canada and internationally
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