Ukrainian children who perform at a charity concert in Warsaw for Tzu Chi’s aid hold sunflowers, their homeland’s national flower, symbolizing “Resistance, Solidarity, Hope.”
Written by Ida Eva Zielinska
Photos by Tzu Chi Team
On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine, leading to a mass exodus of citizens fleeing their homeland. According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as of June 10, the number of Ukrainians who have left surpassed 7.3 million, with more than half arriving in Poland.
Observing the rapid escalation of the conflict and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, Dharma Master Cheng Yen highlighted the plight of those escaping when she addressed volunteers worldwide on February 28:
The horrors of war result in trauma that can affect families into the next generation. And for those who escape, leaving everything behind, including loved ones, compounds the suffering caused by this human-manufactured disaster.
The Tzu Chi global community responded to the needs of Ukrainians arriving in Poland quickly. Just days after the invasion started, Tzu Chi USA announced its “Love & Compassion for Ukraine” fundraising campaign. In Europe, Tzu Chi volunteers contacted agencies and partners along the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Tzu Chi volunteers in Taiwan rushed to make eco-blankets, committing to ship 20,000 to Poland. Meanwhile Tzu Chi England immediately prepared 900 eco-blankets and 1,200 eco-scarves that they had in stock and sent them to Poland. Disaster relief materials from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany were also being amassed in Hamburg, from where they were shipped to Poland.
Distributions Begin in Poznań, Szczecin, and Lublin
On the ground in Poland, Tzu Chi volunteers were purchasing food and other supplies. They began distributing the goods in the Poznań area as early as March 5.
On March 19, the volunteers visited Elizabeth Convent Church in Poznań, where the Catholic nuns were sheltering 29 Ukrainians. Since supplies were dwindling due to the convent’s limited resources, the Tzu Chi team delivered food and daily necessities to support 40 individuals for two weeks.
Between March 26 and 28, Tzu Chi’s aid reached government-designated sites in the village of Skórzewo, in Poznań’s suburbs. There, Polish volunteers and members of the Taiwanese community had purchased and packed relief supplies into 300 kits, thoughtfully in easy-to-carry bags since the care recipients would arrive mostly on foot.
Simultaneously, Tzu Chi learned that hundreds of Ukrainians had reached as far west as Szczecin, along Poland’s border with Germany. Volunteers contacted local agencies and began collaborating with a temporary shelter in the University of Szczecin stadium, distributing 1,260 sleeping bags there.
Since the start of the Russian invasion, the Polish city of Lublin has also been among the principal transit points for those fleeing from Ukraine. Officials are doing their best to accommodate them, yet resources are limited. At one military shelter, while there were enough beds to house 400, the facility only has two bathrooms. To begin the relief mission in the city, Tzu Chi donated 1,500 sleeping bags to the Polish Red Cross.
Tzu Chi then partnered with Poland’s Biedronka chain of supermarkets to obtain 15,000 gift shopping cards, aiming to distribute them all in different cities by the end of May. The first cards were given out in Lublin on April 2 and 3, benefiting 451 Ukrainians.
An International Team Assembles in Warsaw
By April 21, an international Tzu Chi team had gathered in Warsaw. Flying in from Los Angeles was Debra Boudreaux, CEO of Tzu Chi USA; from New York, Ting Fan, Director of the Culture and Communication Department; and from Hawaii, Johan Alwall, Specialist with the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation’s Global Partnership Affairs Department. Husband and wife Faisal Hu and Nadya Chou, Tzu Chi Turkey volunteers, drove three days through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia to reach Poland.
The team’s goal was to activate large-scale aid plans, activities that would involve assessing the scope of needs, determining distribution sites, and attending meetings to establish partnerships. They began by visiting the Polish Red Cross, where Arkadiusz Kus, its representative, confirmed, “We’re really looking forward to the partnership with you. It’ll be really nice to switch from the in-kind support that we mostly provide at the moment to cash assistance programs like this one.”
The team also surveyed large-scale exhibition venues suitable for aid distributions and connected with the staff at information centers established for Ukrainians at transit points such as Warsaw Central Station. They saw firsthand the amount of care the Polish government and various organizations put into greeting the weary new arrivals from Ukraine, introducing available resources, offering phone cards, and helping with transportation costs. Some of these organizations could be potential partners too.
A Historic Moment
The day after the team assembled in Warsaw, April 22, marked an unprecedented agreement. In a virtual gathering via Zoom, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and UNICEF signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate in aiding children affected by the war between Russia and Ukraine. As part of it, Tzu Chi made a historic ten-million-dollar contribution to UNICEF’s Humanitarian Action for Children Appeal.
The agreement with UNICEF is vital for the relief effort as 90% of those leaving Ukraine are women and children. On February 25, the day after the Russian invasion started, the Ukraine State Border Guard Service had barred Ukrainian male citizens aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country.
The following two days took the team to visit NGOs in Lublin and then to the Medyka border crossing. Since the war, it has been one of the busiest entry points into Poland from Ukraine and the only pedestrian border crossing. Many NGOs are stationed there to receive Ukrainians and offer whatever type of help their organization can.
While the team came to witness the exodus from Ukraine and connect with potential aid partners, people’s immediate needs at the border didn’t go unnoticed. Given the long lines for those crossing by car, people often have to wait up to four days, sleeping in their vehicles, roused every 40 minutes or so as they advance to the checkpoint. Touched, the Tzu Chi team offered whatever snacks they had to people in the queue.
Back in Warsaw on April 25, the team cemented a collaboration with two NGOs, the Camillian Mission of Social Welfare (Kamiliańska Misja Pomocy Społecznej) and Polish Women Can Foundation (Fundacja Polki Mogą Wszystko), each doing their part to support the arriving Ukrainians.
Since the outbreak of the war, the Camillian Mission of Social Welfare, which aids those experiencing homelessness or housing exclusion in Poland, has been tirelessly providing 10,000 hot meals daily at its Ukrainian refugee assistance post in Warsaw Central Station. Given their need for support, a partnership with Tzu Chi was precious.
For the Polish Women Can Foundation, which focuses more on the needs of mothers and children, a collaboration was equally cherished.