ISU grad student helps Ukrainian refugees in Poland
An Illinois State University graduate student says he was amazed by the resiliency and hope among the Ukrainian refugees he helped for two months this summer in Warsaw, Poland.
Jeff Walsh is a second-year student in the Applied Community and Economic Development program at ISU’s Stevenson Center and went to Poland as part of his required immersive professional practice experience. He worked in a Red Cross cash distribution center and taught children in a UNICEF-established temporary school.
Walsh says he has a lifelong love of helping people. He went to Thailand and helped refugees following the 2004 tsunami there. He also worked with the UN teaching students in Kenya; he was a Peace Corps volunteer; and as an Army medic he worked with the Red Cross. He retired from the military in 2005.
In Warsaw, Walsh fully expected to hear tearful accounts of escape and family separation. But that wasn’t the case.
“There was a pharmacist. His wife was in England, his daughter was in England, and his son was in Kyiv and he was totally stoic – emotionless. It was amazing to me how composed the Ukrainian people that I saw acted in every situation.” At the Global Refugee Expo, he says the station that offered psychological counseling was often not busy.
Walsh suspects that he might have heard about more trauma if he was stationed in Ukraine, but he also believes the Ukrainian and Polish people as a population seem to be more emotionally reserved than Americans.
Three million of the 6 million people who fled Ukraine in July and August wound up in Poland. Walsh was surprised at how quickly Ukrainians assimilated into their new surroundings.
“If I was in a grocery store, if I was in a shopping mall, if I was in a hotel, there would be some Polish people working there but there would also be Ukrainians working there so they were very well assimilated and taken care of," Walsh said.
Reflecting on the warm welcome refugees received, Walsh said it provided a lesson in compassion and empathy not always exhibited in the United States.
He also points out, one in 95 people in the world are forced to flee their country. Half of the refugee population are children. Doctors Without Borders reports there are 82 million refugees in the world due to violence and war, natural disasters and persecution.
“We have a long way to go as far as accepting refugees," Walsh said.
While in Warsaw, Walsh was also impressed by the UN’s Global Refugee Center where he occasionally worked on weekends. It operated 24/7 with 20 different stations to provide help with housing, medical needs, job hunting, pet care, visa processing and transportation for those wanting to travel to another country.
One of the more interesting stations, according to Walsh, was established by companies who are engaged in corporate social responsibility which includes extending jobs to refugees. For example, Walsh says JPMorgan was looking to hire displaced individuals.
“That sort of breaks the stereotype of what you think of as a refugee. Refugees add to society, they don’t subtract. And Poland made me very proud because they made great strides to make the Ukrainian people feel comfortable and children will be integrated into the school system this year too.”
Walsh is of Polish descent and he says he grew up with Ukrainian neighbors so he feels a close affinity.
His favorite part of his experience was working at the UNCEF school with children ranging in age from 6 to 16. Walsh recalls they were as happy as they could be given their circumstances and he loved that they were able to share their hopes and dreams with him in that safe space.
“One kid wanted to be an opera singer, another one wants to work on 3D printing and Python (computer programming) so again, these are things that shatter the typical picture that people have of refugees.”
Wherever he was in service, Walsh made a concerted effort not to probe into the refugees’ experience.
“I wanted to be a compassionate listener if they wanted to tell their story,” Walsh says. Most were looking for practical help. For example, he was able to help one woman with a special needs son by going around the city to job boards and taking photos of opportunities and sharing them with her. Walsh also found a UN-UNICEF Blue Dot Center for her to get support for her son.
Walsh returned home for the fall semester at ISU. He says it was a proud moment returning home and sharing his experiences with family and friends. “Hopefully, I was able to help out a little bit.”