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Kim Kur: holding the hands of refugees

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, Johannesburg interior architect Kim Kur decided to form a circle of support to get South Africans home. But in the past few days, she has taken on an even more harrowing task without skipping a beat: helping South Africans and others to escape the invasion of Ukraine.

“There’s fear beyond what we can comprehend,” says Kur. “Many are too scared to move. We keep appealing to people to consider their options while they still have them. But people are paralysed with fear. Many South Africans refuse to leave as they have family members who cannot flee.”

Kur is seeing a side to the conflict few are aware of – that Ukrainian males over the age of 18 have to join the fight. This has led her to families who are literally hiding from their own forces as they are terrified of sending their sons to war.

One of those is a South African man married to a Ukrainian woman who has an 18-year-old son. He never adopted the children, so he cannot protect the son with his South African nationality. He would rather stay and try to keep the teen out of the war than escape to South Africa. The man cannot leave his hiding place. Kur hears him breathe a sigh of relief on the phone every time cluster bombs hit the city and he survives. They are rationing their food. She continues to work with him.

She is surprisingly calm for someone helping desperate people to navigate the second once-in-a lifetime event to occur in the past few years. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report while trying to evacuate students from Sumy, Ukraine, she’s interrupted by calls from ambassadors and refugees a number of times. All this while working at her own busy job, being the mother of two young children and even being “class mom” – because she clearly isn’t busy enough.

“There are only two South Africans in this group of students in Sumy, but someone asked us to help get them all out, so we agreed to help,” Kur says. “They are very near a nuclear power station, which is dangerous. We also need to move them before we lose contact with them altogether due to lack of power in the country. We need to get them out now.”

She says her life changed on Thursday, 24 February 2022, when the country was invaded by Russian forces. Kur already has networks all over the globe thanks to her volunteer work repatriating South Africans during the pandemic. So, she was one of the first people who families began to call as the refugee crisis began to unfold within hours.

“The drama of Omicron wasn’t that long ago, but things were quietening down,” she says. Within the first hours of Russia attacking Ukraine, Kur stepped back into the fray and used her well-worn networking skills to create a web of support around the globe. South Africans in Ukraine were quickly put on to online chat groups and their details logged and tracked.

Every time Kur and her team are made aware of a new South Africans in distress, they ask them to send a pin of where they are and this information is continually updated. She believes there are about 200 South Africans in Ukraine. They are supported administratively and emotionally every step of the way. In many cases, this means literally, as Kur has been on the phone with people walking thousands of kilometres to borders. She has been the one encouraging them to take just one more step.

Kur says many of those she has helped are medical students, as Ukraine has excellent medical schools that are sometimes easier to get into than those in South Africa. They are a good example of why people didn’t leave before the invasion. For example, one student is just four months away from graduating. “Would she jeopardise that by leaving?” Kur asks rhetorically. “People ask why they didn’t get out, but it’s not that simple. Also, many don’t have lives in South Africa.”

She has heard a lot of horror – people pushing each other off trains, stampedes and injuries. “These are the same photos as World War II, just in colour,” she says. “It’s two degrees [centigrade], with wind chill. People are wet, cold, hungry and thirsty. Their feet are bleeding. If they stop too long, their muscles seize up. Think how we feel after a 24-hour fast, then add walking for days in the freezing cold. They call me on the phone crying. I tell them to dig deep and push forward – it will be worth it.”

The enormity of suffering is hard to comprehend and one has to ask how Kur manages not to be overwhelmed by it. “You have to stay calm and take it on, but not in. We can’t say: ‘We’re evacuating our kids from Sumy.’ These aren’t our own children. If you think that way, you won’t sleep.”

She barely sleeps anyway and says: “My husband probably doesn’t remember what I look like.” But she’s grateful to him for carrying the load of their household while she carries the load of these unprecedented times. Often she’s woken by a call in the middle of the night and she’ll quietly take it, trying not to wake her family.

She thinks “politics and logic are like two people at a dinner table who won’t sit together, even if you introduce them to each other”. She has encountered countless illogical political decisions that have affected people’s lives for the worse. Yet, she approaches everyone, from ambassadors to children, as equals. That may be why she’s so good at what she does – because she sees others’ humanity and they see hers – and then they work together.

Kur says the pandemic and the current crisis have “given me a new appreciation for ‘Saffas’ and their spirit of ubuntu around the world”. The South Africans who have joined hands in Ukraine “have fought war together, banded together, hidden together, bled together and crossed borders together. They are brothers and sisters,” she says. Other South Africans have given the clothes off their back to fellow refugees. People have helped one another in so many ways, large and small.

Why does she do it? “I don’t have a choice,” she says. “I’m not Spiderman, but I seem to be good at this and with ability comes responsibility. To those who reach out, I just hold your hand. I can’t physically help you across the border. My magic wand isn’t working that well and there’s no genie coming out of a lamp. But let’s dig in and work it out. Tell me who you are and then we go.”

Finally, she says: “If a child fell into a pool next to you, you wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t want to get my dress wet’. You would jump in. If a lot of kids were drowning, I wouldn’t be able to save everyone, but I sure as hell would try to save as many as I could.”

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