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Uncovering A Mass Extinction Event: The Lake Rototoa Mussel Survey

Water quality scientist Ebi Hussain led a Project Baseline citizen science team to determine what was happening to New Zealand’s Lake Rototoa mussel population. Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive, No!! Here are the deets.

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By Ebrahim (Ebi) Hussain
Header photo courtesy of Oliver Horschig.

Lake Rototoa, a cold, monomictic1 dune lake in a rural area northwest of Auckland, New Zealand, is in peril. With a maximum depth of 26m/85 ft, Rototoa is the largest and deepest of a series of sand dune lakes along the country’s western coastline. Known for its increasingly rare, diverse population of native submerged macrophytes i.e., aquatic plants, and large, freshwater mussel beds, this lake is under increasing threat from a deteriorated water quality. Although the exact cause of this deterioration is unclear, the likely culprit is a combination of factors: eutrophication, land use activities, pest invasion, and climate change.

In late 2019, the Project Baseline Aotearoa Lakes team noted signs of a freshwater mussel population collapse as well as other evidence of environmental degradation. This was alarming, as freshwater mussels are rapidly declining in New Zealand, and globally, with 70 percent of the species considered at risk or threatened.

Many people are unaware that freshwater mussels are an important part of a lake ecosystem; as biofilters and bioturbators, they filter out nutrients, algae, bacteria, and fine organic material which helps purify the water. The loss of these keystone  species has likely contributed to the decline in water quality seen at Lake Rototoa.

The team’s observations prompted the design of a collaborative project between Project Baseline Aotearoa Lakes and the Auckland Council Biodiversity Team. This project is the first of its kind in New Zealand; it aims to fill critical knowledge gaps and, for the first time, quantify mussel populations in Lake Rototoa in a scientific manner. 

Ebrahim Hussain installing the transect. This peg marks the beginning of the first transect across the mussel bed. Photo by Oliver Horschig.

This project is the first of its kind in New Zealand; it aims to fill critical knowledge gaps and, for the first time, quantify mussel populations in Lake Rototoa in a scientific manner. 

The first objective was to assess the mussel population statistics, including species composition, abundance, size class, and recruitment success. The second objective was to determine habitat preferences, bed locations, and bed limiting factors. In order to satisfy the project objectives, the team designed a bespoke survey methodology to collect all the required information in a standardized way.

Digging Into The Data

The initial series of dives focused on habitat mapping and collecting bed scale survey information. The team has mapped almost 5 km2/3.1 mi2 of lakebed and 2.2 km2/1.4 mi2 of mussel bed so far. This information provided critical insight into mussel bed formation and habitat preferences which the team used to inform the site selection for the more detailed follow up surveys. 

The first phase of surveys has been completed and the results are frightening. A total of 1604 mussels (Echyridella menziesii) were counted. The combined density across all three survey sites was 41.4 mussels per m2/3.8 mussels/ft2. Out of the 1604 mussels found, 1320 (82.3%) were dead and only 284 (17.7%) were alive. The dead mussel shells were in a similar condition to the live individuals indicating that they may have all died during a recent mass extinction event.

No juveniles were seen during the surveys and all the mussels were larger than 51 mm/2 in. The surveyed population is composed entirely of mature adults, 64.1% of live mussels were larger than 70 mm/2.8 in in length, 30.6% were between 61 to 70 mm/2.4 to 2.8 in and the remaining 5.3% were in the 51 to 60 mm/2 to 2.4 in size class.

Measuring an adult Echyridella menziesii, this individual is 78mm in length and approximately 15-20 years old. Photo by Oliver Horschig.

Individual dead mussels were not measured but were placed into approximate size classes, all dead mussels were larger than 51 mm/2 in with the majority of them being placed in the 61 to 70 mm and >70 mm size classes. The average age of the mussels surveyed was estimated to be between 20 and 30 years old based on their size. Some larger individuals were 80 to 100 mm long and were estimated to be around 50 years old.  

This aging population and lack of younger individuals indicates limited-to-no viable recruitment in the surveyed area for more than a decade. Considering that most of the live mussels were at the upper end of their life expectancy and that there was no evidence of recent recruitment, the long-term viability of the surveyed population is low. 

While the exact reasons for this population collapse are not known, recent lake surveys (fish, water quality, and macrophytes)  provide some indication of possible causes. Recent fish surveys indicate a significant drop in the number of  the primary intermediate host species. Both galaxiid and bully species are declining due to predation by pest fish species. Without these native fish, the mussels cannot effectively complete their life cycle.

The declining water quality of the lake is also a contributing factor. The lake’s change from an oligotrophic state, which is low in plant nutrients and high oxygen at depth, to a mesotrophic state with moderate nutrients, subjected it to increased eutrophication.  

Eutrophication causes an increase in bioavailable nutrients which stimulates algal growth and in turn causes high organic silting. This silt settles on the lakebed and decomposes creating areas of low dissolved oxygen, which can cause animal die offs. 

Some studies suggest that these mussels cannot survive at dissolved oxygen concentrations below 5mg/L and it is possible that the lake undergoes prolonged periods of low-dissolved oxygen during seasonal stratification. The wide scale coverage of benthic blue-green algal mats further points to periods of anoxia, or absence of oxygen, and general eutrophication. 



Mussel Mania

Due to the low nutrient concentrations and the filtration capacity of the extensive mussel population, Lake Rototoa historically had good water clarity. Mussel filtration rates generally match their food ingestion rate, but once they reach their food ingestion rate, no further filtration will occur. If there is a high concentration of food (phytoplankton and zooplankton) in the water, the filtration rate is likely to be low. This means that as the lake becomes more eutrophic, the algal biomass increases, and the mussel’s filtration rate will continue to decrease. 

An Echyridella menziesii bed, showing a mixture of live and dead adult sized mussels. Photo by Ebrahim Hussain.

This decrease in filtration rates will contribute to the declining visual clarity. The significant loss of mussel biomass and ultimately the loss of mussels in Lake Rototoa exacerbated the situation and may have facilitated a higher rate of eutrophication.

Sediment is also known to affect mussel populations, and there are signs of increased sedimentation; however, no clear evidence of smothering or suffocating was observed. The combination of the organic silt, sediment, and benthic algal growth can clog the mussel gills, so there are likely to be some sediment-induced population stressors.

In terms of bed extent and bed limiting factors, the team made several key observations. The mussels tended to prefer gentle slopes and did not occur in great densities on steep faced slopes/shelves. Water level, riparian vegetation extent, and wind/wave-induced disturbance appeared to dictate the upper extent. Mussel beds were generally established at a depth just below the permanent water line a short distance away from the end of the riparian edge. Fewer mussels were observed in shallow, exposed areas with visible signs of wind/wave-induced substrate disturbance. 

The establishment of aquatic plants, changes in substrate, thermoclines, and potentially anoxia limited the lower bed extent. Mussels were commonly found in lower numbers in amandaphyte stands within the wider bed area and were not found at all within dense charophyte meadows. Mussels tended to establish around isolated macrophyte stands rather than in them. The lower extent of the bed mirrored the start of the deeper charophyte meadows. The littoral zone had clearly defined sections of mussels in the shallower areas (1.5 to 5 m/5 to 16 ft ) and dense macrophyte dominated areas in the deeper portion (6 to 10 m), which were relatively devoid of mussels. 

Ebrahim Hussain counting and size classing mussels in a 0.25m 2 quadrate. Photo by Oliver Horschig.

In the absence of aquatic plants, the thermocline separating the warmer epilimnion above from the colder hypolimnion below appeared to dictate the lower bed extent. Almost no mussels were found past the thermocline, which was between 6 and 7 m/20 to 23 ft deep during the survey period. Since mussel bed establishment is not known to be thermally regulated, the limiting factor here may be anoxic conditions, commonly associated with hypolimnetic water. This assumption has not been validated, and a more detailed investigation of stratification profiles are planned for this upcoming year.

A clear limiting factor is the change in substrate seen past the 7 to 10 m/23 to 33 ft depth contour. The substrate changes from sand with a surficial layer of silt to a semi liquid silt/soft mud. No mussels or macrophytes were found in these areas, and the substrate does not appear to support bed establishment. Benthic algal mats covered the lower extent of some beds but did not clearly limit their establishment; since these mussels are mobile, presumably they will move if they are being smothered.

In Conclusion

Despite the concerning results, this project is a landmark event as it is the first study of its kind in New Zealand and the first detailed survey of the mussel population in Lake Rototoa. This project highlighted the pressures faced by our aquatic environments and exposed the ugly truth of what is going on below the surface. We have uncovered a mass extinction event that is currently occurring in our back yard that no one even knew was happening. 

We have uncovered a mass extinction event that is currently occurring in our back yard that no one even knew was happening.

Now more than ever, projects like this are critical. Our environments are under increasing pressure, and it is up to all of us to take action to ensure that we preserve these ecosystems for future generations.

The follow-up phases of this project are planned to be carried out this summer. The data we have collected thus far has enabled the Auckland Council to make informed decisions on how best to manage these threatened species and preserve native biodiversity. We hope that our continued efforts at this lake will contribute to preserving this ecosystem and prevent the complete extinction of these threatened species.

Footnotes:

  1. Cold monomictic lakes are lakes that are covered by ice throughout much of the year. During their brief “summer”, the surface waters remain at or below 4°C. The ice prevents these lakes from mixing in winter. During summer, these lakes lack significant thermal stratification, and they mix thoroughly from top to bottom. These lakes are typical of cold-climate regions. 

Additional Resources:

InDepth V 1.6: Bringing Citizen Science To Lake Pupuke by Ebrahim Hussain

Learn more about Project Baseline
View their online database
Get involved 


Ebrahim (Ebi) Hussain is a water quality scientist who grew up in South Africa. As far back as he can remember he has always wanted to scuba dive and explore the underwater world. He began diving when he was 12 years old and he has never looked back. Diving opened up a new world for him and he quickly developed a passion for aquatic ecosystems and how they work. The complexity of all the abiotic and biotic interactions fascinates him and has inspired Ebi to pursue a career in this field.
He studied aquatic ecotoxicology and zoology at university, and it was clear that Ebi wanted to spend his life studying these subsurface ecosystems and the anthropogenic stressors that impact them. After traveling to New Zealand, Ebi decided to move to this amazing country. The natural beauty drew him in, and even though there were signs of environmental degradation, there was still hope. Ebi founded Project Baseline Aotearoa Lakes with the goal of contributing to preserving and enhancing this natural beauty as well as encouraging others to get involved in actively monitoring their natural surroundings.

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Divers Helping Divers: Next Stop Ukraine

What can one diver do to change the world? Ask tech diver and fitness instructor Kenzie Potter Stephens, who is completing her undergraduate studies at KIT in Germany. Kenzie and her impassioned team reached out with open hearts to help fellow Ukrainian divers. The results? They conducted ten 1500km car caravan trips, ferrying supplies to the embattled country. They also bravely rescued and found homes for nearly 200 Ukrainians. Divers make a difference!

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Text and images by Kenzie Potter Stephens. Lead image created by Rico Besserdich.

Divers Helping Divers

As divers, we often speak of community, teamwork, the effective use of energy, and applying a holistic approach to both our dives as well as our lives. I would have easily said I knew why these principles were so important; however, it is only recently, when under fire, their true meaning became clear to me.

News of the war in Ukraine is a constant in our lives. We are inundated with images of unimaginable crimes against humanity and are horrified to witness mass genocide in this country. In Europe, massive crowds of refugees needing help is a common topic of concern. It is exhausting to be confronted daily with our own fragility and mortality and to be disturbed in our own little worlds with our own little problems—problems that pale in comparison to those of those refugees.

I can fully understand anyone who is overwhelmed or even annoyed by the constant coverage. When the war first broke out, I found myself glued to my phone in utter and complete shock. I had trouble sleeping and would even awake at night to check the current death toll. Nowadays I, too, flinch as soon as I hear news concerning Ukraine, and my first instinct is to turn off the radio. So what changed?

Two months ago, feeling nervous on the morning of my last final exam for the winter semester, I was brushing my teeth when I realized I could no longer ignore the misery that surrounded me. I had grown up in the US Army; both parents served in one way or another. My father had done a few tours in Kuwait. My childhood had been spent with reminders of war—harrowing tales of tragedies, traumas, and heroism were part of my life’s narrative.

In spite of, or perhaps because of this upbringing, I had avoided both war movies as well as political discussions about “right” and “wrong.” But this was different. This war was within driving distance for me. This invasion was happening to people who shopped at the same stores I and my friends did, visited the same cities, and worked in the same businesses. This was personal.

Setting The Wave Into Motion

In a series of events that now seem surreal to me, I was able to set up a small team via social media (including platforms like Craigslist) consisting of equally motivated individuals within a 100-mile radius of my town. My husband and I canceled the much-needed vacation that was planned to bring us stress relief from our busy, safe lives, and I spread the word. I couldn’t quite place it at that moment, but something about shouting my mission out into the world seemed so daunting at that moment. Like a loose area of snow you somehow know is going to send off an avalanche that will change everything. And change everything it did.

Within a single day, hundreds of people reached out, made donations, sent well wishes, and our hallway began to fill with boxes–supplies and sleeping bags. The response was overwhelming, and I canceled my fin-swimming training in order to process and sort the sheer volume of donations. As a dive instructor in training, I am generally in close contact with other diving instructors, and one has become a great mentor to me. Immediately, he connected me with a dive colleague of ours, Igor Siryk, located in Poltava, Ukraine. Within minutes we had aligned our missions and created a joint plan on how to get him humanitarian aid. My thrown-together team asked me if I knew him personally, to which I said: “The world is full of divers who are close friends that you just haven’t met yet”.

The financial support following my shout out was so massive that I made two of the largest in-person purchases I had ever made in my life (aside from my drysuit). Never would I have imagined myself walking into a German army shop and plainly stating, “I need to equip an army with protective gear. Here is $2000.” After loading up on boots, camouflage nets, propane stoves, backpacks, binoculars, and such, I headed over to an electrical shop and bought every single external battery pack and heavy duty flashlight I could find, amounting to around $1500.

Both shops gave a 5% discount and wished us good luck. Still, the final stop to the grocery store in the same building for food for the next few days was what really touched me. As I pushed my cart full of electrical supplies past the cashier, I was prompted to produce a receipt. In doing so, I explained the mission and on the spot, the cashier opened her wallet and with tears in her eyes, handed me the last 10 Euro she had. 

The next day, our team packed their cars and finally met for the first time. Rolling up to the tee: The managing director of “Carbon-Scooter,” who was also part of our local diving community, whose daughter had photographed my wedding, and who now had a bus load of valuable medical supplies for our new friend, Igor Siryk. 

Our convoy consisted of four cars with 16 free seats, seven drivers, and a ground crew that supported us from our starting point in Stuttgart, Germany. Despite being complete strangers, the meeting felt familiar and exciting, like old friends who were casually loading up buses to head off to a place no one had actually been before. Around 8 pm on Friday evening, about a week after the invasion of Ukraine, we were off.

The Helmet City

Twenty hours later we arrived in Chelm, (pronounced: Helm, literally meaning helmet–quite fitting to our mission) Poland, which was 10km/15 miles from the Ukrainian border. Igor had given us the contact information of a Polish logistics company that would bring our donations directly into Ukraine and to the cities needing it most. After finally finding the correct truck lot and office, we then engaged in a conversation between all parties in six different languages: Polish, German, English, Ukrainian, Russian.

The initial confusion and exhaustion from the road was so large that it even took us a full 15 minutes to understand that one man spoke only Dutch, and could not, in fact, understand a single word of the information we had translated into Polish for him. After a good laugh, the mission continued. One team unloaded the boxes, the next worked together to label each box in Ukrainian, and the last loaded it into the storage space where it would be held for the night, before getting driven to Poltava, Ukraine.

Seeing our boxes stacked up, ready to go, with a team full of strangers working together hand in hand was really quite moving. Finally, we had the feeling that we could actually make a difference. 

A List Of New Homes

Knowing we had to be exhausted, but unable to feel it, we jumped back in the car and headed over to the local refugee camp, where it had been suggested we would find refugees wanting to travel to Germany. The lobby of the converted gym was full of people with yellow vests, smiles, and rosy cheeks and, in contrast, those with exhausted eyes, small children, and trash bags and suitcases filled with the only belongings they could carry.

As soon as I stepped foot inside, my diver brain immediately shut down any feelings of panic and grief. This sight triggered my full task-solving mode. I, along with two other drivers, found our way to the head volunteers and stated our case. Anton, one of the only English speaking volunteers there, nodded and told us that borders were chaotic, the people were scared, and the realization that they were homeless had oftentimes not yet set in.

A new busload of people poured out into the parking lot and hurried in from the cold, and Anton made a list with 16 free seats. Seconds later, we were surrounded by a crowd of people all trying to “buy passage” to a new home. Ann, 17, spoke English and said she would take anything that got her and her mother somewhere safe. Lena had her six-year-old daughter’s hand clenched in hers as she desperately explained that two additional families would be arriving in the night. If we could only wait, they would go with us, she promised. Olena was a 40-something-year-old woman with a stern, calm face, who said she was alone and had no family to be tied to. She had only one question: “Is it safe?”.

Finally, there was one place left to offer. Lilly, a young mother who fought back tears and panic, had a four-year-old daughter and asked if we would take her child alone, that there was family waiting, and she needed to get her little girl 900 km/550 miles to Dresden, Germany. Unable to imagine allowing that child to travel all that way without her mother, the other mothers agreed to squeeze together in order to make room for one more.

Still more people had gathered around us, talking to Anton, or to me, or anyone who would listen, but our cars were more than full, and we were forced to turn them down. When our part was done, we spent a short night in an old barn that had been converted into guest rooms. Sitting together before bed, we all agreed this would not be our last trip. 

The next morning, we picked our 17 people up from the camp and set out on the journey “home” – 17 hours, 1500km/900 miles, away. At about halfway, we met up with Lilly’s brother-in-law. As soon as Lilly and her daughter got out of the car, the brother-in-law’s own daughter who couldn’t have been older than four herself, hugged the Ukrainian girl tight, stroked her hair and told her that everything would be okay, she was safe now. 

Before leaving with the other 15 Ukrainians, Lilly asked me via Google Translate if I could pick her up the next week on my way back to the border for the second trip. She explained that her son and husband were still over there, but that she needed to bring her daughter to safety. (Note from the present: Lilly ended up spending three days with her daughter and family before we brought her back to the border, where she got a ride with our truck driver back to her husband and son, where she remains to this day).

Finally, around 5 am on Monday morning, we arrived in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, Germany, where friends and family of ours had previously offered to take in anyone needing a home. Despite the exhaustion, the Ukrainian families all perked up once more as they met their new families and realized for the first time that we were in fact helping them, free of cost, no strings attached. I was convinced I saw the mothers breathe for the first time in days, knowing their little ones would have a bed instead of a train floor to sleep on. Olena hugged me with teary eyes, before she gifted me her cloth bracelet in Ukrainian colors and hurried off into her new room.

After more than 50 hours of driving and little sleep, our team who started as strangers felt like a family that had always known one another. Without bureaucracy, more than two days of planning or meetings, we had changed 17 lives and had seen the worst and best of what this war meant. Finally, sinking into my safe, first world fluffy bed, the mission without “deco stops” fulfilled, I was able to decompress, sob, and realize what had happened.

A Status Update Grown Into A Full-Blown Operation

The week after our first tour to Poland was by far the hardest. There was a severe sense of some sort of culture shock or perhaps secondary shell shock from something so significantly different from the kind of life any of us had previously experienced. Everyone was certain that we needed to help more, better, and bigger.

Now that we had physically been there, had talked to people in the middle of it all, and had seen it with our own eyes, we knew there was work to be done. Any sign of government help had been missing in any and every place where it was obviously desperately needed. Thus, while the state heads were busy talking, we got to work planning and doing. 

Cars

One point was clear: driving private cars required a high investment of drivers and small capacity for those seeking refuge on the way back. We needed to obtain some minivans or small buses in order to maximize our ability to help. In Germany, a car license allows you to drive with a maximum of eight passengers, besides the driver, before a commercial license is required. Thus our team made it a priority to find nine-seater buses. 

Donations

Once we overcame our initial difficulties communicating with the logistics company, the head of the operation there – Anastasia – proved to be an absolute sweetheart and a real asset. Although we had no real proof yet that our donations would actually be arriving where they were needed most, we all shared the distinct gut feeling that they were on their way. We knew of the challenges even the largest organizations and governments faced in transporting goods into Ukraine, especially into the most affected cities. Our supply chain was certainly something special and unimaginably valuable. With a clear mission in mind, gathering donations continued. 

Return trip

I must preface this point by saying that our drivers accomplish a huge feat. The trip to Chelm (Helmet City) takes about 20 hours, one-way. It is extremely taxing. It is difficult to sleep, the mind is riled up, the car is uncomfortable, and being a good co-pilot is a serious task. Still, the trip is harder yet on our travel guests. These people have been traveling via any and every mode of transportation: on foot, in buses, overfilled trains, trucks, tanks and even inside the occasional trunk. We tried our absolute best to make the transit to their “final” destination as comfortable as possible, but arriving after 20 hours of driving at 5 am was simply no longer an option. Mainly, this gave our Ukrainian guests no time to get to know their host families before they had to entrust their children, grandchildren, friends and themselves to complete strangers in the dead of night. Additionally, we were forced to face the reality that our first tour was full of people that had mainly fled before the war. The next waves of refugees would consist of increasingly traumatized and sick families and individuals. 

By luck, chance, or perhaps fate, it just so happened that a fellow yoga teacher reached out to me. She had friends in Poland who wanted to help house the drivers or perhaps some of the refugees on our travels. These friends ended up having other friends, who had bought a house in need of renovation that was sitting empty until the craftsman shortage let up. Within just a few days, this group of friends rallied together and were able to come up with 30 cots, blankets, pillows, cribs, electrical heaters and children’s toys. They fixed the running water, and every weekend since then, the local kindergarten has supplied us with bucket loads of “Bigos,” a Polish national dish. Today, this place is proudly called “The Wroclaw Stop” (TWS) and is filled with memories from the travelers who have passed through.

Thanks to them, only one or two buses had to drive to Chelm to drop off donations to Anastasia’s firm “Magnolia Plus,” while the others drove to Wroclaw (Breslau), 600km/400 miles closer to home. Saturdays were spent gathering the Ukrainians, bringing them together in TWS, spending time with them, and creating a good foundation of trust and friendship. Sunday mornings at 8 o’clock, the TWS crew brought pancakes and toast, and the buses rolled out at 9 am. We arrived around 10 hours later with enough time for the Ukrainians to enjoy a warm meal with their hosts and get acquainted with their new surroundings before falling into their real beds.

Host families

A wonderful thing about placing Ukrainians with our friends and family is that their circles of friends and acquaintances witnessed the journeys of these desperate people, and they saw how they too could help. The circle widened. Today, we have an extensive list of hosts that we fall back on weekly. Many hosts reached out through the company “Bosch’s” intranet, others found us via news articles, our website, or Facebook. One of the saddest parts of many testimonies people give us when offering their homes is that they registered with their local city offices only to be told that creating a support network would take weeks. After more than ten weeks of experience, every single one of us can confidently say that the government had unfortunately failed in creating an effective network.

The application process for both sides is grueling. It’s slow, and almost impossible to understand. Private organizations have been more effective in helping many people out of refugee camps, off the streets, and into environments that actually allow integration. I myself took a group of our very first Ukrainians to register at the local city office where there was a serious lack of a clear plan on how to go about the registration process. Today, I am happy to say, many cities have been able to streamline the process, and welfare often arrives after just a few days or weeks. Unfortunately, the streamlined process is wholly unhelpful for thousands of people waiting in refugee camps unable to connect with host families due to government restrictions and bureaucratic red tape in Poland and Germany.

Refugees

Personally, I avoid this term wherever possible because I feel it is dehumanizing and strips these people of their personal identities —all of the experiences they’ve had, the skills and abilities they possess, as well as their unique opinions, beliefs, and feelings. Many of those who have traveled with us have since become great friends to whom I look up to, with whom I can enjoy a sunny day, or nonverbally share in their children’s most precious moments, without needing to share a language. These friendships motivate me to work toward making the trip easier for both sides. Nowadays we have many channels through which those seeking refuge can reach out to us and receive support.

Each week, the aim has been to get the full list of travelers by Thursday, generally amounting to something between 15 and 30 people. This allows time for us to find fitting host families. The assignment takes place on a basis of information such as the number of children, their ages, allergies, pets, stairs up to the rooms, medical conditions, personal needs such as peace and quiet vs. the opportunities that a bustling city offers, friends in proximity, level of assistance needed, and much more. Still, each week, no matter how much we planned and sorted, unexpected things happened. There was little left that would shock me at this point. Chaos has become a constant, and I have learned to live by the idea of “Plan the dive. Dive the backup plan x, y, and also z.” 

The result? As of today, we have made 10 tours to Poland and have helped almost 200 Ukrainians travel to Germany and find refuge in private guest families. Within the first few weeks, our team and operation gained so much traction, that we finally founded our own not-for-profit organization. This allowed us to prove our legitimacy toward Ukrainians and donors, to apply for special NGO offers, and to issue donation receipts needed by many companies.

We have been able to borrow buses from various clubs and organizations, as well as from private individuals. We have received many generous monetary donations, and the best part is that every single cent goes 100% to the mission. There are no administration fees, no salaries to be paid, no rerouting: every dollar that goes into our account, leaves our account to help Ukrainians. We buy medicine at reduced prices for Poltava, Ukraine, shoes and diapers, canned food, and even bought a birthday cake for Igor, as a little surprise, in the height of war. 

Season Tickets To The Hospital

Heartbreakingly, the war follows the people on their escape, and only one week of war was enough for us to feel the repercussions in Poland. Suddenly, almost every child we encountered seemed to be sick. By the time they arrived at TWS, their eyes had glassed over and their little bodies were hardly strong enough to hold the bucket in front of them, into which they threw up every ounce of fluid or solid food they consumed.

Our first experience was quite terrifying. A little boy could not even keep water down, and apparently hadn’t for a day. Upon asking, his mother admitted that they had been on a train for over 30 hours with no breaks. The small amount of food that was available on the train was soon gone. The children had thus been forced to live off chocolate and candy bars, their mothers thinking sugar being what they needed. In reality, their children were entering a dangerous state of malnourishment and their bodies were so out of balance, store-bought electrolytes had no effect. 

We spent the better part of the night at a small local hospital, and while the boy was wheeled from doctor to doctor, I simply collapsed onto the most uncomfortable hospital chair, feeling overwhelmed, sad, and scared. Thankfully, the cocktail of vitamins, salts and other good stuff was able to get every child back to their strength. We have since become regulars at the hospital and often end up leaving families with sick children in Poland, and picking them up a week later, when the little ones had their strength back. What a sad thing to be in the habit of doing.

WARNING: The following text contains graphic and potentially upsetting information.

The Hardest Stories

A few weeks into our operation, I received a call from a stranger who had gotten my phone number from who-knows-where. This was normal by now and no surprise. I spent hours on my phone every single day communicating with Ukrainian people, hosts, drivers, companies, team members, and donors. The woman on the other line was Olga, who had married a German years ago and lived an hour or two away. She called requesting help to get her friend who was still in Charkiw, one of the hotspot cities on the eastern front of the war. The friend, Julie (not her real name), and her husband had decided to stay in Charkiw with their two children, one and four, in order to help cook for and feed the military.

One day, a Russian invasion group hit their building. Julie’s husband immediately grabbed the children and his wife and ran with them to a nearby bomb shelter, always staying a little behind and shielding them from the bullets. Just a few yards from the life saving shelter, Julie’s husband was shot dead while his children watched him collapse. In the shelter, Julie had to be put under sedation and was not responsive for days. By the time we picked her up from the border, we could hardly recognize her from the photos we had previously received of her. The children were fine. As far as they knew, their Daddy was in the hospital waiting to get better and would follow later. Today Julie lives with her children in Germany and is learning to cope. 

Another call we received two weeks ago was from Igor. In general, Igor is a very sturdy, big guy. He doesn’t show much emotion, and he is lucky enough that his wife and children are also living in Germany with extended family. Igor has been in Ukraine since the beginning of the war and coordinates the humanitarian aid that we, and others, send to his organization “Humanist Poltava.” Every few days we receive short status updates from Igor mainly consisting of what is needed. The most recent have been tourniquets used to stop the bleeding with severed limbs and open wounds as well as a recent call with Igor close to tears, begging us for food, any kind, as the people are starving. 

We have had fathers who were diagnosed with cancer in Ukraine, which prompted their wives to return with their children to spend the last days with them. We have had mothers who were so confused and scared by the unfamiliar language they returned to Ukraine in search of doctors that could help with simple medical conditions. Anna (not her real name) is also a mother of two with various problems that had already been serious before the war. She was left with two children born of situations beyond her control, leaving her to earn money by any means possible, and eventually using substances to cope, all the while loving her children and her country. The war has forced her to flee her home for the sake of her children, but her innate wish to fight for her country has left her confused and unstable. She had been passed around multiple homes and brought the best of people to their maximum helping capacity. The system has no place for people like Anna.

She is not in an abusive relationship which is “required” for many support offers; rehab would cause her to lose her children, refugee camps add horrific amounts of stress, and she has not been stable enough to register, so child services cannot work with her. How many more Annas have fallen through the cracks? Angela (name changed) is another gentle soul. She quickly became great friends with her host and the pair of them went through their days together as if they had known each other for years. The family dog loved her, the friends of Angela’s host loved her and her German skills had significantly improved in the past months.

A few days ago, she received an email from her work: she must return immediately or lose any rights to her job. With two dogs, a sister and a nephew relying on her to pay off the house, she was forced to pack her bags and take the next bus. Angela’s mother, who we had previously retrieved for her, remains in Germany, and Angela’s host communicates with her daily, their lives forever intertwined from now on. 

NOTE: End of potentially triggering content. Please read on for the heartwarming part.

The Silver Linings

As I said at the beginning of this article, yes, I flinch when the news mentions Ukraine. I turn off the radio when they report where the troops have moved and how many civilians are left unevacuated. It does not make me, or anyone else who avoids the topic, a bad person. The reality is traumatizing and it can be suffocating to a point where daily chores feel difficult. But the reason we do it is for the beautiful moments. Seeing four-year-old girls consoling one another; knowing Angela and her mother have been reunited on German soil after weeks of fear, watching Anthony, the eight-year-old son of the family I look after in Karlsruhe racing to the German ice cream parlor on his new bike, reading Igor’s messages about how great a difference we make for Ukrainians’ lives, and having a picnic with all the Karlsruhe Ukrainians on a warm, summer day with only clouds in the skies. There are many more memorable, heart-warming experiences. 

Our mission truly attracts the kindest-hearted people who give all they can with their entire heart and soul and who radiate genuine love. Today, we have been able to personally help almost 200 Ukrainians. But even if that number was only one, it would have been worth it. I have had the honor of meeting people who will inspire me for the rest of my life. Olga, Julie’s friend, has become a guardian angel who is just a phone call away from anyone I am struggling to communicate with or help. Dorota, Marek, Zu and the rest of the TWS crew have become partners. Ann, the 17-year old daughter from our first tour has become a great friend. I truly believe she is the strongest person I have ever met, and seeing her flinch in pain at loud noises and planes, breaks my heart. 

Together we will win this war. We will stand together, help one another with every last penny we have and when this is all over, we will take a long trip through Ukraine, and let all of our new friends-for-life show us their life and culture. Slava Ukraini, and may the skies over your heads always be clear. 

In Ukrainian: Разом ми переможемо в цій війні. Ми вистоємо разом, допомагаючи один одному останнім пенні, що в нас є і коли все це закінчиться, ми будемо довго мандрувати по Україні і наші нові друзі покажуть нам своє життя і свою культуру. Слава Україні і мирного неба Вам.

Additional Resources

The team’s website is here: Süd-West Sonne für die Ukraine e.V. (South-West Sun for the Ukraine e.V)

Follow us on Instagram: @Suedwestsonne

Follow us on Facebook: Suedwestsonnefuerukr


Kenzie Potter Stephens is a production artist for InDepth as well as part of the GUE marketing team. She is currently working on two BS degrees in Industrial Engineering and Marketing, as well as Biochemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany.
In addition to her activities as a yoga teacher and an underwater rugby trainer, she has completed her GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 training and is on her way to becoming a GUE instructor. As a scientist, she is currently working within the Phreatic Organisation based in Cala Gonone, Sardinia, to research and protect the extensive cave system in the Gulf of Orosei.

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