On the fringes of the Ukraine war, he’ll sell his LSU football tickets to help refugees | LSU

The night he arrived in Poland, Hewitt Strange and his business partner went to one of the train stations in Krakow. Refugees fleeing from the war in Ukraine gathered there every day as they looked for somewhere to go, and hundreds of them waited along the platforms. They were mostly women and children, their families fractured by the conflict back home.

Trying to help people pouring out of the neighboring country, Strange and his associate, Mateusz Zguda, had rented a small hotel that closed because of the pandemic coronavirus. Around 10 pm on March 10, they quickly found 44 people who needed a place to stay and led them to the property they reopened that day.

With no food yet, Strange and Zguda went to a nearby grocery store. Strange, a 45-year-old LSU season-ticket holder, looked in the aisles for baby food. He used his phone to translate labels, hoping he bought what the weary mothers needed for their children.

“My Polish is awful,” Strange said.

Strange has been there ever since, spending the past four weeks in a city two hours from the Ukrainian border to house and feed refugees displaced by the war. He works with Zguda and two women to help operate their Polish-chartered foundation, Zero Camps, which has arranged 74 beds between three buildings. They can shelter up to 120 people.

Though relatively small, the project meets a need. More than 4.6 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24, according to the UN Refugee Agency, splitting families as they rush to safety. Recently, Strange’s organization found two women looking after six or seven children. The group had slept at the train station for two nights.

“It’s not hard to find people,” Strange said. “They’re still coming.”

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But this isn’t something Strange regularly does. A native of Mansfield, he graduated from LSU in 1999 and built a career in the energy sector. He enjoys listening to sports talk radio. He doesn’t use much social media. He has a quick wit. He leads a regular life with his wife in Charleston, South Carolina. They have a 4-year-old son and another boy due in early May.

“He can be a little disheveled,” said Patrick McConnell, a friend who donated and consulted Strange on his business plan for the organization. “I give him grief because he typically has a big mustard stain on his shirt at LSU games from his Tiger Dog and he sounds like he just woke up from a nap almost every time you speak to him. He can surprise you with what he’s capable of and how bright of a guy he is. ”

Strange felt pulled to the crisis by fond memories of the area and thoughts of his own son as he watched the war unfold on the news. In 2005, he lived in Krakow for about six months after working for former US Senator John Breaux. Strange shared a flat at the time with Zguda. They listened to music and enjoyed their 20s, the apartment costing each of them $ 90 per month.

The men hadn’t stayed in touch much over the years, but after Russia invaded, Zguda converted his company’s unused office space to house refugees. He wrote about it on LinkedIn. Strange already wanted to help, and when he saw the post, he emailed Zguda his ideas. They discussed costs for mattresses, duvet covers and linens.

“I’m proud that humanity is able to act like that,” Zguda said. “I wasn’t expecting this. Even from myself. ”

Strange had to develop a summary of the organization’s business plan and budget. He pitched the project to corporate contacts, and within days, he raised over $ 100,000, providing the majority of the funds for the foundation.

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Meanwhile, Strange prepared to leave his wife, who was seven months pregnant, and their son at home. He bought outlet convertors and made copies of his passport. He replaced his flip phone so he could communicate with his family overseas. And less than a week later, Strange boarded a plane.

“There’s a tragedy somewhere in the world every day. I can’t do anything about most of those, ”Strange said. “I did this because I knew how. I’ve been here. I knew some people and I knew I could help connect some people to make this happen. ”

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Since the first night, Strange and his colleagues have continued to operate the properties while looking for other buildings and helping the refugees who stay with them. Zguda, the head of his own IT company, makes business deals. Strange handles food. They often return to the train station to offer displaced people a place to stay, hoping to get everyone under a roof. Sometimes, volunteers call them.

Strange said they have fun most of the time. Half the people in the buildings are usually children, and they play with Legos or make up games, chasing one another through the halls. One day, two boys started tickling each other and rolling around on the floor. Strange tries to serve ice cream at night. The kids call him Santa Claus. The crisis hasn’t erased humanity.

But the situation is difficult. Ten people arrived one night after escaping deadly attacks in Mariupol. One set of young parents have a child with cerebral palsy who needs specific care, but the Polish healthcare system has been crushed by the influx of people.

Strange can count the number of times he cried in his life on one hand. A couple of them happened within the last four weeks.

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“These people are making incredible sacrifices to help each other get to safety and get taken care of,” Strange said.

Strange sees these families and thinks about his own. He copes by working, often focused on the next task ahead of him, and he talks to his wife every day. He also makes videos for his son, Henry, showing him Wawel Royal Castle and explaining the history of the second-largest city in Poland.

His presence there makes the war feel more personal for Strange’s family, even though he never feels in danger in Krakow. His wife, Elizabeth Sage, shields their young son from potentially horrific images, but while listening to NPR one day, the station aired an update on refugees crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine.

“Henry was like, ‘We should call Papa and he should tell the people that own Poland to close Poland so the armies don’t come there and everyone stays safe,'” Sage said. “I was like, ‘What a great idea.'”

Strange has to come back soon. Their second son is due in a few weeks, and he promised his wife he would make it home before the birth. She hopes the baby will hold on until then, giving Strange more time.

“It’s hard having him gone, and I’m not going to say it’s not,” Sage said. “We really miss him. But it’s also a really good thing he’s doing. I’m really proud of him. ”

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When he does return, Strange will still handle what he can from afar. Zguda recently closed on a fourth building. It needs work, and for now they have the other spaces secured until June. They’ll need to reevaluate the state of war, the flow of refugees and funding as they figure out their next steps, but they know the crisis won’t end anytime soon. Millions of people have been uprooted from their homes, some of which don’t exist anymore.

As he thought about how to support the organization, Strange decided to auction off his season tickets. He bought seats in the south end zone of Tiger Stadium the year after he graduated. He’s the kind of fan who watched the 2019 LSU-Florida game by himself at a sports bar in Rome while on a family vacation.

His fall usually revolves around football.

This project feels more important.

“I just happen to know some people and happen to have some flexibility with my job that allowed me to do this,” Strange said. “It simply came to our notice then. It was just something that could be done. ”

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