Earlier this year, countless people across the globe watched in disbelief as Russian forces invaded Ukraine. To mark this year’s Refugee Week, it seems fitting to focus on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and speak to staff who have been doing all they can to help.
Story by Charlotte Davidson
Here is just a small selection of stories from across the University community.
Helping at the border
Jacek Mendrychowski is a Technical Officer in Bioresearch and Veterinary Sciences. He spent seven days volunteering at a Poland-Ukraine border crossing called Budomierz in March.
“Krakow train station was one of the most difficult things I’ve seen,” says Jacek. “There were hundreds of people from Ukraine, exhausted, stressed, pale and you could see resignation in their eyes. They did not look homeless – it was very strange as all of them had nice clothes, suitcases but at the same time they were sitting or sleeping on the floor on cardboard boxes. It was very moving to see them so completely lost.
“I found an organisation called Folkowisko which received donations from all over Europe. I started helping there and stayed for next five days. We would sort food, medical stuff, clothes, tents, sleeping bags and prepare vans with most needed stuff to go across the border.
“Every day there would also be teams of first aiders and medics and they would need to be stocked up. The van would take sandwiches, baby food, water and wheelchairs to drop it off just behind the border. The place offered a simple sleeping place and food for volunteers.
“It’s heartbreaking what is happening but also very rewarding to be there and be able to help a little.”
While Jacek was moving donations in Poland, Steve Downes, Services Manager, and Graham Strachan, Senior Janitor, both in the Estates team, have been helping sort and transport donations from Edinburgh.
“I asked Graham to check if the forklift was being used,” explains Steve. “I arranged for it to be collected from Edinburgh College of Art and taken down to Pewex supermarket at Granton to help load the tonnes of items that were there.”
Graham accompanied the forklift and helped to sort and load the supplies needed to send to Ukraine.
“Like hundreds of other people around the world have done, if I can help in the smallest way to make a bigger impact then to me that is important,” says Steve.
Pavel Iosad is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and English Language in the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Languages Sciences. He has been volunteering at the welcome desk for Ukrainian refugees at Edinburgh Airport as well as providing vital immigration application support, both online and face to face.
“I am horrified at the carnage brought to Ukraine by the Russian invasion,” says Pavel. “Offering a measure of help and support in a language the displaced Ukrainians can understand, from a position of having already navigated being an immigrant in the UK, is the very least that I can do.
“Although I am Russian, albeit with some Ukrainian heritage, I have spent quite a bit of time in the country, and like so many others I have numerous relatives and friends there; I feel this also means I have a responsibility to do what I can to help those fleeing the invasion.
“Volunteering with displaced Ukrainians means being touched, however briefly, by some of the terrible stories they bring, so it is all the more gratifying to hear expressions of thanks, however small, for making their life just that little bit easier. I am especially moved by the little moments of joy when hosts and guests, or even families, are reunited at the airport, when Ukrainians finally arrive, after a long and often perilous journey, to a place where they know for sure that they are safe.”
Chernobyl Children Lifeline
Avril McIvor is a Lecturer in Social Work in the School of Social & Political Science. She has also been helping support Ukrainians.
Avril has been volunteering with the Chernobyl Children Lifeline charity for seven years, organising health holidays for children across Russia and Ukraine. Although the pandemic bought a halt to their work, they quickly sprang into action after the invasion of Ukraine.
“We all felt that we wanted to help and set about refocusing the group,” explains Avril. They reached out to provide emotional and practical support for the families they had been working with previously, and in some cases provide financial support and sponsorship. The charity has helped numerous families flee Ukraine to Scotland, or other safer countries where they can wait for their visa approvals.
“This is very important to me as a humanitarian,” shares Avril. “If we cannot help others in dire need of the basics in life such as safety and security, then what is our purpose in life?
“Our compassion for others is at the core of life both in my personal life and work life in social work. Children are our future and if we do not attempt to balance the atrocity of war with kindness and compassion then our future children and young people will only be left with the impression of a world that does not care.”
“For me personally, I feel a sense of peace that I have supported and helped a family. With that comes a great deal of pride as I can see they are happier each day. I have learned a bit about myself, that I had forgotten, I can contribute to making a difference; even a small difference in a small group of people’s lives is huge.”
Dr Ekaterina Popova, a Teaching Fellow in Russian in the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures, has also been helping to support families recently arrived in Edinburgh. Working with her students, she has provided a range of educational support for Ukrainian refugees, particularly children.
“The crisis in Ukraine has deeply affected my students and myself personally,” explains Ekaterina. “I was born in Russia, but part of my heritage is Ukrainian. My immediate thought was of the people fleeing the war. Many Ukrainian families have lost everything and the education of children has been interrupted.
“There was a desperate need for educational support,” she continues. “For instance, a refugee family with three children struggled to get places in schools and student tutors volunteered to visit their accommodation each morning and to offer fun activities from teaching basic English skills to drawing, singing and playing games. When school eventually started, the students continued to visit the family in the afternoons offering after-school activities to the children, such as help with homework and local trips.”
“Overall, it has been an invaluable experience for myself, students, other staff, hosts, parents and children. My students and I will continue to do our best to make sure that Ukrainian refugees feel supported by offering further educational activities in the next academic year.”
Inga Ackermann is an Online Learning and Leadership Coordinator in the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program in Edinburgh Global. She has been involved in supporting students and staff affected by the crisis in Ukraine from the very beginning both professionally and personally. When not working in Edinburgh Global to coordinate the global emergency response, Inga was helping the 100 Ukrainian refugees that moved into her neighbourhood in Leith.
“I moved to Scotland just seven years ago and as I understand Ukrainian and speak Russian, it was quickly clear to me that I could help ensure a proper Scottish welcome,” says Inga. “I have focused on what I do best – building communities, connecting people with opportunities and advocating for those in need.”
Inga’s work has involved countless members of her local community: “I started connecting local people who wish to help with the newly arriving refugees. I reached out to community Facebook groups, charity organisations, businesses, friends and family. People have been absolutely amazing and every time I have asked for support, people were eager to give more.
“With the help of Volunteer Edinburgh, I have managed to get sim cards, bicycles and laptops for children. Volunteer Edinburgh also helped me raise the issue of food provision for newcomers on the Super Sponsor Scheme during their first months. The amazing Leith community and my neighbours donated scooters, high chairs, clothes, children’s books and toys. My hairdresser and her whole family donated Easter chocolate eggs to children to celebrate their first Easter in Scotland. A community baker baked traditional Ukrainian Easter cakes.”
“I have family and friends in Russia and Ukraine,” she continues. “If a tiny bit of my actions could bring back a bit of normality to a displaced person, restore a tiny bit of trust or bring joy, it is worth all the effort.”
The University Chaplaincy is extending the Guerilla Peace for Ukraine initiative to share solidarity, vigilance and hope for Ukraine, with others in Scotland and around the world. They are inviting people to gather for vigils on 28 June 2022, Ukraine Constitution Day, and to plant a sunflower on the website map at any time and from wherever you are in the world, to help track and show the shared support. Our Ukrainian friends and students say that every prayer, word, and action of solidarity and hope is immensely important and is often a lifeline.
To explore how you can get involved, or to share your own volunteering story, visit the Ukraine volunteering and help SharePoint.
You can find out more about what the University is doing to support the crisis on the Ukraine webpages.
Find out more about Refugee Week on the Edinburgh Global website.