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A Ukrainian Twitch influencer's community rallied around him when Russia invaded

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The livestreaming platform Twitch is where you can find a Polish Ukrainian influencer who's raising money for refugees fleeing the Russian assault on Ukraine. He goes by Bobi. And he grew his fan base on a popular Russian war simulation game called Escape From Tarkov. When the bombing started in eastern Ukraine, his online community helped him to escape a real war. Here's Micah Loewinger from WNYC's On The Media.

MICAH LOEWINGER, BYLINE: Bobi is an expert at Escape From Tarkov. He started playing several years ago to get his mind off the war in Donbas, just 70 miles from his home, where Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBI: No, PMC (ph). Guys, be careful - PMC.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're dead?

BOBI: I'm dead. PMC.

LOEWINGER: It's a first-person shooter set in a fictional Russian war zone, kind of like Call Of Duty but way more hardcore. Bobi became obsessed with Escape From Tarkov for a couple reasons. First, he loved the brutal challenge. You have to be tactical and deliberate. If you let your guard down for a moment, you're dead.

BOBI: It clicked with me because buildings are looking like - I'm used to seeing this Eastern Europe in real life. And the story was matching place I was living.

LOEWINGER: For instance, in the game, you can play as one of two private military groups just like the early days of the war in Donbas, which was fought by militias formed by Ukrainian oligarchs. Over five years, he racked up 18,000 hours. That's two years of game time inside Tarkov.

BOBI: I was like a zombie using Tarkov as the only drug to keep me out from having any contact with reality.

LOEWINGER: When I think of an escape, I think of going to some fantasy land that's so unlike real life that it gets your mind off of it. But this sounds like you were just escaping into a gamified version of the world directly around you.

BOBI: In real life, majority of things are usually taken away from your hands if you like it or not. In Tarkov, majority of your outcome depends on you.

LOEWINGER: He began streaming on Twitch as a full-time job in early 2020, averaging about 40 regular viewers, a tiny but devoted following.

KEEFY: You fall in love with Bob.

LOEWINGER: This is Keith Bodinnar (ph), a 41-year-old operations manager living in the U.K. He goes by Keefy (ph) online. Keefy and a Canadian woman named Charlotte Wallans (ph), who goes by Lottie (ph), became his biggest fans.

KEEFY: Everybody says the same, he's infectious.

LOTTIE: Bobi takes everybody in who's kind and genuine, and he makes them a part of his family.

LOEWINGER: On February 24, just before 6 a.m. Ukraine time, bombs started to fall all around Bobi as he was live on Twitch playing Tarkov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBI: I love you, guys. Thank you for whatever you've done.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wish you good luck, brother.

BOBI: Thanks, brother.

LOEWINGER: Bobi bid a tearful goodbye to his online community and began a treacherous four-day, 900-mile journey with his family, as they navigated their way towards Ukraine's western border.

BOBI: The first night was terrifying because we were in the middle of nowhere. And missiles started falling around us. We didn't know what to do.

LOEWINGER: Bobi checks Discord, an app popular among gamers, and sees that Keefy, Lottie and some of his viewers were checking in on him.

LOTTIE: We spent some time explaining, you're not alone. You're never going to be alone. We will be with you every step of the way. And we will watch over you guys over the internet while you're sleeping.

BOBI: I actually felt alive. I don't feel I'll die lonely because I'm surrounded with people who I've spent so many years and so many hours speaking together.

LOEWINGER: They woke up to shelling around 4:30 a.m. From Tarkov, he'd learned to estimate the distance between himself and his enemies by listening for their gunfire. In the midst of that morning's chaos, he realized that the time between explosions seemed to be getting shorter.

BOBI: I told my family, we're leaving. And everyone was shouting, where are you going? They're bombing. I said, the shelling is around one-half kilometer away from us and is coming towards us, so we will go opposite direction.

LOEWINGER: Friends advised Bobi to stop using GPS apps. Instead, Lottie and Keefy fed instructions to him over the phone.

BOBI: Because I had their information - turn here, left, turn here, right - they were able to guide me through the countryside, which I never been before.

LOEWINGER: While he was focused on the immediate dangers of his journey, Boby had no clue that that emotional clip of him saying goodbye during his last livestream had gone viral.

BOBI: I was told that this was actually become so viral it was in the Singapore television, in Spain, in England in TV.

LOEWINGER: Hundreds of new fans were pouring into his Discord server and showering him with emotional and financial support.

BOBI: They were calling me a hero. And I was always saying, no, guys, I'm not. I'm just a runner who's running away from his life, and I'm doing nothing special.

LOEWINGER: As they approached western Ukraine, Bobi's online community warned that the borders were super clogged up.

LOTTIE: The vast majority of the Ukrainian refugees are fleeing through Poland. It is a 5 to 7-day wait right now in a car.

LOEWINGER: Lottie and Keefy found a small town where the family might be able to safely wait out the logjam. And when they arrived, they learned that a bread shortage was starting to take a toll on the town's elderly population.

BOBI: And this was the instance when I said, I'm done running. I said, we have money. Let's use this momentum, what we have. Let's stay here and help those who are really forgotten in this whole conflict because if I run to Poland, I would - news from Ukraine, I would hear your mom or grandma, who is blind, suffering, going through it on her own without us, I would feel like a coward. I will not be able to watch myself in the mirror.

LOEWINGER: Bobi says he and his family will stay in this village to do humanitarian work with a nonprofit that Lottie set up called gamers4ukraine.com - that's four like the number four. He sent me pictures of packed grocery carts he says are for families passing through. And he told me he's already driven countless people to bus stops and train stations. They've also begun renovating a building which will serve as a free hostel for refugees.

BOBI: For last few days, we are actually actively helping families to run to safety. It changed my life forever because the mental and moral reward for help with no interest cannot be replaced by any other action or activity in life.

LOEWINGER: When this is all over, if it's all over, do you think you would go back to playing Tarkov 20 hours a day?

BOBI: (Laughter) Yes, of course. I miss it. I wish to be there.

LOEWINGER: At night, his family often stays in a bunker while Bobi volunteers, sitting in a watchtower to make sure Russian troops aren't coming down the main road into the town. If you go to his stream, twitch.tv/bobuubi, you can see him sitting in the dark in that tower, his face lit by a flashlight, chatting with his viewers - just chatting, he has no way of gaming right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBI: Hello, Fifi (ph). Hello. How are you doing, Fifi?

FIFI: Hello. Hello.

BOBI: How are you doing, brother?

FIFI: I'm fine. Thank you. What about you?

BOBI: I'm just cold. I'm fine, just cold (laughter).

LOEWINGER: For NPR News, I'm Micah Loewinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET'S "PEACE PIECE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.