MORE THAN A HUMANITARIAN EXPERIENCE: AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A SMALL DIFFERENCE FOR UKRAINIAN REFUGEES
When AID UKRAINE was spontaneously launched two weeks ago, ten of us enthusiastically signed up, all extremely motivated and grateful for this opportunity, which we knew, was not available to everyone considering the complexity of organizing a project like this one. As it was for some of us our first humanitarian trip, we were not sure what to expect in terms of the nature of the tasks, working conditions, and above all, regarding the actual welcoming of immigrants and what we will witness there. Looking back now, we realized these aspects were not to be worried about at all, since we all accomplished and lived this mission through our hearts, because we truly wanted to be there and help as much as possible, and not because we were asked to.
The hours we spent in Poland shopping for basic necessities, transporting and storing products, going back and forth by bus, distributing food, drinks, and various products related to hygiene, health, and baby needs, as well as toys and warm clothing; while smiling and trying to comfort the children were extremely intense. We didn’t have much time to sleep, no more than a few hours the whole weekend, and yet, none of us were dozing, none of us were willing to lose a single second of our 8 hours shift a day, none of us really wanted to leave when it was already time to go home on Sunday. Why? Because we saw. We saw children in tears, mothers, grandparents, and young people like us, arriving all day and all night, exhausted, hopeless, most with no more than a backpack.
I remember exactly the look in their eyes, the pain I saw in the eyes of this woman with a face full of tears consoling her 3 little children, or another one, accompanied by her grandmother, barefoot in sandals in the freezing Polish night. And the fear in the eyes of this little one, who refused everything that was offered to him, terrified. Not to mention the anguished look in the eyes of this very young woman, four months pregnant, or the one of this mother who was taking what seemed to be her first break in a long time while I was cradling her two-month-old baby in her pushchair. Similarly, the blank look on the faces of those elderly people who have left everything behind, even though they have worked hard all their lives for it, is simply harrowing. I must admit that those hours were mentally difficult, way more than physically, because it is hard to hold back tears or to keep smiling when you witness all this injustice and pain among people who did not ask for this war at all but who still suffer its direct consequences. You feel as frustrated, powerless, and heartbroken as them, especially when the war seems so far away from Western Europe, and you could not imagine yourself in their place because this kind of thing happens only to others.
This is typically something we only really realised once at the border, when we were welcoming the refugees in person: hearing about the war through TV and the media doesn’t really sound like reality; just as it doesn’t feel the same when you are actually helping people on the ground through your own action, as opposed to showing your support through social media platforms or donating money to an association (which is still always desperately needed and valuable) from your couch in Switzerland, for example. This weekend, we felt like we made a tiny difference to these people in need when we were able to bring back a smile or even a laugh, when they asked for a picture with us after we had taken care of them, or when they warmly thanked us for our support just before jumping on another bus to pursue their stressful journey, either in concrete English or through a few or many Ukrainian words, which were sometimes translated to us by another native speaker or sometimes roughly understood through gestures.
Therefore, for this reason, because we felt our action mattered to the refugees in a real way, and because we saw at which point this help was needed, we genuinely wanted to pursue this mission even longer despite the normal life and its professional obligations that awaited us back in Geneva. Indeed, eventually, we even found ourselves already missing these unique moments the morning of our departure, because we did not only spend time with and gave out a variety of different items to those people, but bonded with them in a special way, sharing their emotions, their pain, and the hope for an improvement of the situation with a better future awaiting them and the worst behind. In addition, this experience also brought our team closer, and strongly united the ten of us through what we lived, and I assuredly keep a lot of unforgettable memories from this adventure, for which I am so grateful.
Thus, if I had to cite some of the numerous things I learned from this experience, it would be that first of all, while enjoying the chance and privilege of living peacefully, away from such tragic situations, in the Western world, we should always try to make an effort to help those in need, whatever the scale because it actually does not change much for us while it makes a significant difference to them. Second, this kind of experience assuredly teaches you humility. I think here of the little boy I met on my first shift, who arrived at the border crossing with his family at about 5.45 am. I learned from his grandmother that it was his birthday, so I did my best to find a present and when I gave him a small green car, he was so happy that he hugged me and then asked for a photo with me and my colleague, all smiles. This child was fleeing his country, his home, must have been through so much on his journey to the border and yet, I had never seen a child smile as much as he did all weekend… In this sense, it also makes you think about your relationship with life, and the difficulties you may go through, which are nothing compared to the reality that some people go through. This experience has made me put things into perspective, and feel very grateful for what I have while giving me the desire to take part in new missions like these to continue to help even more people.
Concluding this testimonial, I would like to sincerely thank the Geneva School of Diplomacy for allowing us to take part in such a wonderful project, and more specifically Joanna Witwicka, admission officer of the school, who took the initiative and largely made our stay possible in Poland thanks to her connections. Likewise, I would like to thank The Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH, aka Polska Akcja Humanitarna) which hosted us during the mission and with whom we worked together with other volunteers; and lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues, with whom I lived this amazing experience from Geneva to Hrebrenne, namely Michael Richey, Elyza Dominguez, Askar Emami, Kassandra Fiore, Costanza Principe, Leilani Heinz, Nithanth Jain, and Martina Lugarà. Thank you.
Jade Wirth – BAIR Student