Since the war started between Russia and Ukraine, Embracing the World volunteers are in Budomierz in south-eastern Poland close to the Ukrainian border. Bearing harsh winter weather, they stay put to care for thousands of Indian students and other refugees who arrive after travelling long distances to escape the fighting.
The teams aid refugees of all nationalities by providing clothing, shoes, food, blankets, and other basic needs, and they find accommodation for those who do not have shelter. About 20,000 Indians were studying at universities in Ukraine at the beginning of the war.
Surya Narayan Das from Odisha arrived yesterday at the Amma Polska (Amma Poland) camp at the border between Ukraine and Poland. He and about 40 other Indian students endured intense Russian attacks in the city of Kharkiv. One of their colleagues was a 21-year-old Indian medical student killed when he left the shelter to get groceries.
“On February 26th, we all moved to bunkers [arranged by the Indian Embassy], and there we spent one week in the bunker with limited food,” said Das.
“We heard the bombing sounds and the firing. At night it was very intense bombing and we are all alone listening in the bunkers. Listening only.”
After a week, the students were able to make the 10 km walk to the railway station, but could not get a seat on a train. They returned to the bunker, and two days later on March 2nd, the Indian Embassy told them to leave Kharkiv by 6 pm. Their state governments arranged buses to get them to the border with Poland. Das is grateful for the relief camps there. They are safe now.
Marcin Krol is a volunteer with Amma Poland and has been at the border since just after the Russia-Ukraine conflict started. He was up until 4 am last night on the Ukrainian side to translate for an Indian student who just arrived.
The student suffered gunshot wounds on February 27th, but had reached a condition where he could travel from Kyiv. An ambulance brought him to the Polish border, and Krol coordinated with the Indian Embassy to get him on a flight back to India.
“Thousands of people are coming to Poland from Ukraine, escaping war. They are crowding the streets here. We are Amma’s children in Poland. When we saw the plight of these people, we immediately decided to extend all possible help,” said Krol.
“When we got to know about the Indian students in Ukraine heading for the Polish border, we immediately got active.”
Krol says the first priority is to get Indian students on buses to the Embassy of India in Warsaw, the country’s capital. Despite their devastating experience, Krol says he is deeply moved by the strength and resilience of the Indian students. They come, they rest a little bit, and then they immediately start to help the other people.
The Amma Poland camp is about 500 meters from the border checkpoint, and the refugees are given time to rest while volunteers work out options for them. The next travel points are in the cities of Warsaw, Lodz, and Krakow, but the needs can be staggering. Krol says there are elderly people and women with children who are alone, and they need assistance to carry their possessions after travelling such long distances.
“I was asked to go to the other side of the border by the border guards, because there was a young woman with two sons, one three and one five. They were sitting in the car, and her husband was not allowed to leave Ukraine, because men between 18 to 60 years old cannot leave the country,” said Krol.
“She had no driving licence, so the guards asked me to drive the family’s car and take her to the shelter. She was crying. She was in shock. But then I said that she has to be strong and brave for her children. That helped her calm down.”
In each destination city, the Amma Poland teams work with other volunteer organizations and government officials to provide refugees with shelter, supplies, and help with trauma recovery. The teams in Poland are in constant communication with Ukrainian cities and their hospitals.
ETW volunteers are also travelling from other European countries to assist organizations already at the Ukrainian borders. Eve Carter is from the UK and arrived in Hungary to carry out relief work in the city of Zahony. They are providing aid for refugees and collecting humanitarian supplies to send to Ukraine.
“At the train station, there are many people arriving with little possessions—many with just a backpack,” said Carter.
“We spoke to some Ukrainian women who had come from Kharkiv, and it was heart-breaking to hear the trauma of escaping bombs and leaving parents and husbands behind. They had been traveling for nearly 60 hours on various trains to get into Hungary with only the clothes they had on.”
Matthias Schneiderhan is a volunteer from Germany who made the journey with Carter. They brought about 800 kg of food, clothing, sleeping bags, and tents to Zahony.
“Here we are sorting and repacking food, so it can be sent to Ukraine. We are also shuttling people from the shelter to the train station and back. All small jobs but we try to help in whichever way we can,” he said.
To lend support to Amma Poland, volunteers with Amma Zentrum München—the Mata Amritanandamayi Centre in Munich, Germany—made their way to the Polish borders. Sreepriya Chalakkal and Rohit Kartha have taken time off work to join the efforts.
“We are so happy that we can be of some service to our brothers and sisters crossing the border,” said Chalakkal. “They have gone through so much in the last few days. The spirit of the volunteers has been amazing.”
The volunteers in Europe are working under direct guidance from Amma and the Mata Amritanandamayi Math officials in India.
“It is really inspiring to see the dedication of Amma’s volunteers in Poland, Hungary, and Romania in helping all the refugees and students who have crossed over to this side of the border,” said Swami Shubhamritananda who coordinates the activities in the European region.
Krol said at the Polish border, they have witnessed so much trauma in recent days, that the only way to get through it is to watch it like a movie. Despite that, there is still the commitment of human compassion.
“There are thousands and thousands of people who are escaping their homes to save their lives. So we experience a lot of tragedies, but also a lot of hope, a lot of love, a lot of different stories.”
Volunteers across Europe are coordinating donations for essential aid and helping to provide accommodation for refugees.
MA Centres across Europe: