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Call of Duty makers aid refugees of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

(Washington Post illustration; iStock; Activision-Blizzard)

It was the tail end of February when Bogdan Vuitsik turned on the television and realized he was in a real life nightmare. Russia had invaded Ukraine. Vuitsik, a Ukrainian native, living and working in Krakow, Poland, needed to get his family to safety.

Vuitsik’s aunt, cousins, and mother-in-law all made the trek across the border. Seeking shelter for them, Vuitsik, a senior artist at video game developer Infinity Ward, heard from his boss, studio head Michal Drobot, that Activision would help with rent and hotel accommodations for a few weeks, until they could find a more permanent solution. But help from the developers at Infinity Ward’s new Krakow studio, opened to aid in the development of the popular war sim franchise Call of Duty, did not end there.

For nearly two decades, the Call of Duty franchise has digitally immersed hundreds of millions of players around the globe into increasingly realistic digital worlds of war. From the cartel-controlled streets of Brazil to the castles of Scotland, the first-person shooter game has featured numerous action-packed settings carefully crafted by the title’s development team. Now, the team in charge of creating some of the largest, most realistic battlefields in the gaming industry weren’t far from a real one, mere miles away.

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Back in 2018, Infinity Ward announced the opening of the Krakow studio to focus on research and development for Call of Duty alongside a team based in Los Angeles. Drobot, then a principal rendering engineer, was tapped to lead the new office, which was full of eastern European talent. History has made it more challenging than anticipated. After the team’s early years were disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion presented another challenge: the Poland studio is just over 500 miles from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

At the start of the invasion, Infinity Ward engineer Wiktor Czosnowski recalled the narrative being one in which Russia, “the second-greatest army in the world,” would overtake Ukraine in a matter of three days. Seven months later, the fighting continues with an endgame still hard to predict.

Shortly after the invasion began, hoards of scared, displaced Ukrainian refugees flooded across the borders of Poland. Drobot and his team of more than two dozen sprang into action, offering up their homes and resources, including those of the company, to protect people who left nearly everything behind. Drobot has seen blooms of fire from artillery explosions in the distance when working with refugees at the border.

Associate Principal Software Engineer Andrew Shurney and his Russian-born wife, Aleksandra Poseukova, lived near a train station where thousands of refugees had encamped. The engineer, originally from Seattle, said he felt little hesitation allowing refugees to utilize their apartment as long as necessary, offering up supplies and a friendly smile when he could. Despite chaos around them, hospitality was the least the couple felt they could offer to provide a bit of hope to those reeling from the conflict.

“Big picture-wise, there’s not much I can do, but I can at least help the person that’s sitting across from me, which maybe isn’t much, but it’s something,” Shurney said in a video interview with The Washington Post.

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Until a few weeks ago, Shurney hosted an expecting mother, nine-months pregnant, along with her seven-year-old son. When the mother, Katya, was preparing to go into labor, the couple was asked to do something Shurney never anticipated when moving to Europe weeks earlier: take care of a child.

“[Katya] knew us for two weeks and she had to trust us to take care of her seven-year-old while she was at the hospital giving birth to her daughter,” said Poseukova. “We bonded quite quickly, but by force. It was a major adjustment for everyone.”

After returning with the newest addition to her family, Katya named Shurney and Poseukova the child’s godparents. The couple cracked a smile during a video interview as they shared their new title, given by a woman with whom they had no prior relationship.

Shortly after Katya gave birth, Shurney and Poseukova relocated to a larger apartment with a guest bedroom. Shurney didn’t hesitate inviting Katya’s now family of three to stay with them in their new place until they could get settled more permanently elsewhere.

“The amount they’re having to suffer is so much bigger than anything I can take on,” Shurney said in an interview on Activision’s website last month. “If someone needs something, we’re going to do what we can. We’re giving them a room.”

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Infinity Ward’s Czosnowski has taken comfort in how the people in Poland have responded to their new guests.

“This is the thing that is beautiful in this whole situation,” Czosnowski said. “How naturally two nations merge together from the beginning. From day zero people started helping and maybe there were voices based on some historical issues between our countries, but it was drowned out by people who would like to help.”

Despite the small moments of happiness members of the Krakow office experience from time to time, the gaps are filled with numbness, anger and at times, a sense of hopelessness as civilians try to cope with the impact of the Russian invasion.

“There was a lot of fear and depression when the war started. I was personally afraid how it was going to roll out,” said Czosnowski, whose tone darkened when discussing civilian victims in Mariupol from an attack called a “war crime” by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Now, six months after, I think there is more anger with how things are going on and how Russia as a country is behaving.”

The tragedies of the invasion have continued to hound Ukrainians who have escaped across the border.

A family taken in by Czosnowski came to Poland because the son had previously lived in the country, but his mother was undergoing chemotherapy and needed to return to Kyiv for her treatment.

“A week ago she passed away [while in Ukraine],” Czosnowski said. “And now [her son] cannot even go to her funeral because if you go [back into Ukraine], he cannot come back here [due to a declaration of martial law]. It’s [expletive] horrible. When you see how people’s lives go upside down and it’s a war without any bigger reason from the Russian-side, it makes me angry.”

Read The Washington Post's full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis

Poseukova echoed that sentiment. For her part, she’s trying to offer whatever work she can to help refugees earn money.

“I’m trying to hire Ukrainian people for different types of services, whether it’s tailoring or watching after the dog or cleaning. Every week, I have people who come in to help with cleaning. One individual was a relatively successful travel agent, another one was a manager at a mortgage company and another one is a high school teacher. So it makes you humble to see how life can just crumble.”

Multiple individuals who spoke to The Post said that despite opening up their homes to complete strangers, offering up their own resources and donating dozens of hours to helping at fulfillment centers, they felt could be doing a lot more to make a difference.

“I think it’s just kind of an Eastern European thing,” Drobot said, regarding the views of his employees. “We don’t always take as much pride as we should with things we do.”

Despite the horrors the Infinity Ward team members have seen firsthand or heard by word of mouth, Czosnowski said he’s taken heart in some of the things he’s seen recently at the macro level (he referenced the budding friendship between Poland President Andrzej Duda and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky) and the societal level. As he walks his dog each day, he said he sees books now being printed in Ukrainian to help those experiencing a language barrier.

“Sasha, the 13-year-old boy who lived with us, goes to the local school now and was invited by the class,” Czosnowski said. “It was very, very lovely. [The students] started to learn a few sentences in Ukrainian before he came. When they knew that he was coming, the kids were waiting for him to help him and to treat him not like someone from the outside, but a real insider.”

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