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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Helping Ukrainians Reach Safety in Canada

Back in February the world watched in disbelief the images of what was happening in Ukraine and the resulting refugee crisis. Like many other people around the world I felt compelled to contribute something on a personal level. I felt a strong calling to bear witness, to see things firsthand and to try to support Ukrainians in some small way.

I did some quick research on the kinds of actions that were going on to support refugees in Poland and I felt I could complement these efforts.

The attack on Ukraine felt like an attack on my own people. and the response needed to be quick and global. Ukrainian culture was always close to us growing up in Edmonton, Canada so no doubt that childhood imprinting had some impact on my decision to take personal action.

There were moments of joy and laughter during my days in Warsaw. Distributing NASA pins and stickers while casually interacting with people at the railway transit centers proved to be an effective way to connect with refugees and generate smiles, both amongst children and adults. The somewhat odd idea of talking about NASA and space in the midst of that chaos was not something I was sure would work at all.

But the 900 NASA stickers and 200 NASA pins as well as other souvenirs donated by the Canadian Embassies in Costa Rica and Warsaw were happily received. These train station transit centers are very raw and intense places where the refugees have just arrived after their harrowing journeys from Ukraine. But in brief conversations and nonverbal interactions you could connect with people and help reassure them that they were in a safe place and there were people from other countries that cared about what they’re going through.

Through one of these brief interactions, I met a lady and her daughter with whom I introduced to a host family in Toronto, Canada. In another brief encounter at the Central Railway Station I met volunteer Roman Lakhnyuk with whom I have teamed up to bring Ukrainian refugees to Canada.

I had a number of opportunities to give workshops about outer space in permanent refugee centers as well as in private schools that created weekend extension programs for Ukrainians kids. They were extremely fun, and the kids and I enjoyed the banter between English and Ukrainian as we discussed the planets and other space concepts. It’s fortunate that most of the names of the planets are very similar in Ukrainian to English, not to mention the layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

The music jam sessions I hosted helped me connect with many Ukrainians and volunteers. Young Polish soldiers I met at the Torwar refugee center also enjoyed the music ( and had some cool song requests) but they had to keep a low profile about it as they were on duty. I am still in contact with some of the people I jammed with.

In the Torwar Refugee Center ( a converted hockey stadium where Iron Maiden performed in 1984) I met amazing gentleman from Kiev named George Tedoraze who accompanied me on the piano as we performed and sang Hallelujah. That song proved to be a favorite on many occasions and I remember one occasion five women were singing along with me.

After we jammed, George and I had lunch together and he told me in detail the experience of his city being under attack and his escape with his sister to Poland. A medical student specializing in psychiatry, George expressed gratitude for the generous support Ukraine is receiving but at the same time he wished it was not necessary. Ukrainians are hard-working and self-reliant people and they’re not used to being in such a situation.

I reflected that what’s happening to Ukrainians could happen to any country. It made me wonder how Canadians or Costa Ricans would react under a similar situation. One day you’re living your life normally, studying, eating lunch in a restaurant or whatever and then suddenly your world has turned completely upside down.

I saw people studying for exams and working remotely from railway transit centers and refugee centers, doing their best to hold the threads of their lives together. What I experienced at the Centrum Expo refugee center after hosting a jam session overwhelmed me. I had never seen 3,500 people camped out like that in such a compact place.

But they were safe, well fed and many would be on their way to their final destinations soon to make space for those just arriving from Ukraine. With music and quiet interactions you can break this mass of humanity down into individual moments and conversations. It was literally a beehive of activity.

On my last day in Warsaw I teamed with the Polish Star Wars organization that visits the refugee centers in full gear. We did a space workshop and handed out NASA souvenirs to the kids. A friend at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has since sent a package of NASA swag to the Star Wars people to distribute to Ukrainian kids at their upcoming outreach events.

There were many levels to my experience in Warsaw, and it took me a while to process them. The best part is the friendships made and having the opportunity to continue to help remotely with the air ticket initiative I mentioned at the beginning of the blog. Helping directly can help us conquer feelings of helplessness that can overwhelm and paralyze.

I invite readers to get involved. We cannot afford not to get involved in helping the people of Ukraine. Today it is them. Tomorrow who knows?

In this post I reflect on my experiences volunteering in support of Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw Poland from March 24 to April 16, 2022. My experience enabled me to start a program with fellow volunteer, Canadian /Ukrainian Roman Lakhnyuk, where Ukrainian refugee families with Canadian visas are matched with donors who purchase their air tickets to Canada.

Image: Bruce Callow

As of July 4 we have assisted over 20 Ukrainians to reach safety in Canada. Readers interested in purchasing an air ticket for a Ukrainian may contact me at this email: [email protected]

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