Fleeing their homeland, taking refuge in a foreign country, being responsible for their young children, trying to make ends meet—all the while worried that their husbands would be killed in the war. Hearing what these women and mothers had to endure and yet having to remain strong brought tears to my eyes at almost every distribution.
Tzu Chi volunteers, people from Caritas, Taiwanese students, and Ukrainian participants of a Tzu Chi work relief program joined hands to hold distributions for Ukrainian refugees in Lublin, eastern Poland.
I live in Germany. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, I often saw news reports of people driving back and forth between Germany and the Poland-Ukraine border to help ferry more Ukrainians to safer places. In Hamburg, where I live, the city government also took action to help. They set up large exhibition halls with partitions and beds, planning to put up about 2,000 displaced Ukrainians for one to two weeks. During that time, the Ukrainians could go to designated places to register for further accommodations.
The Hamburg city government had taken in Syrian refugees before and drew upon that experience this time around. Officials first called on those who had offered to put up displaced Ukrainians, determining the composition of the would-be host families and confirming whether the offered environment would be suitable or not. Once they ascertained the accommodations were satisfactory for refugees would they assign them to displaced Ukrainians.
Ukrainian refugees started arriving in Hamburg in early March. Fellow Tzu Chi volunteer Huang Bao-lian invited me at the time to accompany her to visit the exhibition halls that were serving as temporary shelters. We wanted to see if there was anything we could do to help. We discovered that the shelters were very well set up with a sufficient supply of food. Our help didn’t seem to be needed at the moment.
The Ukrainians who had fled the war in their country were mostly women, older people, and children. Most of them had escaped to Poland. When visiting the temporary shelters in Hamburg, I secretly prayed that I’d be able to participate if Tzu Chi launched distributions in Poland. Thankfully, my prayers were answered. I arrived in Lublin, eastern Poland, in May. I took part in 30 distributions over two weeks, starting on May 16. More than 4,000 gift cards were given out through these events.
In addition to volunteers from Germany, others had arrived in Lublin to help from Austria, the Netherlands, and France. Most of them were older. I, in my 50s, was one of the youngest. I immediately set to work the day after I arrived, including attending meetings with people from the local chapter of Caritas Internationalis, one of Tzu Chi’s partners in its Ukrainian humanitarian response. The organization was providing lists of recipients and the space for our distributions.
On the night of May 15, a Taiwanese student who was studying in Poland passed our distribution venue and saw that people were already lining up for the distributions the next day. Susan Chen, a fellow volunteer, immediately took a few of us there to check it out.
Spring was giving way to summer, but early mornings and nights were still very chilly in Lublin. Almost all those lining up at the venue were women. We tried to persuade them to go back home, but to no avail. They insisted on waiting through the night. It’s easy to see from their insistence to stay in line how important the financial aid we were providing was to them.
The Sound of Love
We held seven distributions on that first day, because the venue was small. It could accommodate fewer than 50 people at a time. A group of Taiwanese students who were studying in Poland, assisted by some Ukrainians taking part in a Tzu Chi work relief program, took care of most of the distribution work.
Young mothers who had fled Ukraine with their children were the main recipients at the distributions. Some mothers had as many as four children, others had kids suffering from severe disabilities. They were all separated from their husbands, who were back home in harm’s way defending their country. Not only did these women have to take care of their children on their own in a foreign country, they had to do it while worrying about the safety of their loved ones. They faced an uncertain future. My heart went out to them for all that they had had to endure.
When the Ukrainian refugees first arrived in Poland, many people offered them free accommodations, including hotel owners. However, as their stay dragged on, some places wanted to start to charge them. This was particularly worrisome, because they had no source of income. That explained the looks of gratitude on their faces when they received our gift cards, worth 2,000 Polish zlotys (US$450) each. Some of them told us, when they were still waiting in line to receive their aid, that they could feel Tzu Chi was very different. They said they felt greatly respected at our events. I saw many cry during the distributions, not just because of their current situation, but also because they were so grateful for the care and help that had come to them from afar.
We were giving out many cards every day, but were able to keep track of everything because we had a clear list of which card went to whom. I have a background in finances and accounting, and so I knew we had a good system in hand, a system that allowed us to easily check if something went amiss. We could immediately find out if someone was trying to receive multiple cards, or if something wrong happened with a card, we could immediately determine the card number and the person receiving it, and take care of the problem without delay.
I went onstage during the distributions to speak to and interact with the Ukrainian families. It was my first time doing so at a Tzu Chi event, and it took me a lot of courage. We played a song sung by a Ukrainian band that had won the championship in a European songwriting competition this year. We were hoping that the song might bring them some comfort and make them temporarily forget the pain the war had caused.
Volunteer Zheng Ci Lu helped operate the sound system at the events. She’d play songs according to the atmosphere on-site. Sometimes the attendees asked us to play their national anthem, during which they’d arise en masse, put their right hands on their hearts, and sing along out loud in tears. I burst into tears very easily, and cried at almost every distribution during the first week.
I also mustered my courage and used my rusty English to introduce Tzu Chi’s signature eco-blankets to the participants during the distributions. The blankets, which attendees were receiving, are made from recycled plastic bottles. We wanted them to know that Tzu Chi is working hard to help leave a beautiful Earth to our posterity. Since most present were mothers, what I shared resonated with them. I also shared how Dharma Master Cheng Yen had founded Tzu Chi by inspiring 30 housewives to each save a little of their grocery money every day in a bamboo coin bank to help the needy. I said that when we dropped money into our Tzu Chi coin banks every day, we made a good wish. “Our collective wish now is for the war [in Ukraine] to end soon so that you can return to your homeland and reunite with your families.” Many children came forward to the stage to drop their coins in our banks before I even finished what I was saying.
“This is the sound of love,” I said, referring to the sound of a coin dropping into a bank. I told them that every penny they donated would be used to help the needy. This is because Tzu Chi volunteers pay for their own transportation and accommodations when they go out or travel to a different country for Tzu Chi work.
“We have different skin colors and ethnicities, come from different countries, even believe in different religions, but the same red blood flows in us, and we all live under the same sky and on the same Earth. We are family,” I said. When the Ukrainian version of the Tzu Chi song “One Family” played, our volunteers led everyone in signing the lyrics. Many Ukrainians stood up, sang along, and signed the lyrics with us.
Tzu Chi volunteers visit refugees who are planning to wait overnight at a distribution venue so as not to miss Tzu Chi’s aid.
May Our World Be Free of Hatred
There is so much to talk about what happened in the distributions, I could never cover it all. But what moved me the most was how quickly the Ukrainian mothers had removed their children from the war zone. This was evident in the innocent smiles on the faces of the children who came to our distributions. I sincerely pray that the war will not plant any seeds of hatred in the children’s minds, and that all they will remember is the love people have shown them.
When we said “Thank you” to the refugees who came to our distributions, they always responded: “It’s us who should thank you!” A woman told me she was greatly impressed by Tzu Chi, that our volunteers have a heart of Great Love (unselfish love that embraces all humanity), and that she hoped Tzu Chi will set up a branch in Ukraine in the future. I told her she must have a lot of love in her heart too, and I encouraged her to seize every opportunity to put her love into action.
Right after that first day of seven distributions, Caritas offered a larger venue for us to use. The new site could accommodate 150 people, so we only needed to hold two distributions a day. May 21 was the only day within those two weeks in which we didn’t hold a distribution. Other Tzu Chi volunteers broke into two groups on that day to visit two shelters for Ukrainian refugees with disabilities. I, on the other hand, accompanied reporters from Tzu Chi’s Da Ai TV to visit some of our Ukrainian helpers. Two women approached us on our way and began to sign the lyrics of “One Family.” Tears started to flow down their cheeks as they signed. They ended by saying, “Thank you,” to us in English.
There was an older man, who appeared to be in his 70s, who recognized me as a Tzu Chi volunteer too and walked towards us with a smile on his face. He was able to speak German, and told me Tzu Chi had given him tremendous, tremendous, tremendous help. These generous expressions of gratitude stirred up endless ripples of joy in my heart. I believe the gratitude, respect, and love we showed them in our distributions struck a deep chord in them. That’s why they gave us such heartwarming feedback.
I’m so thankful I had this opportunity to work with our European volunteers, Ukrainian helpers, Taiwanese students, and people from Caritas to pull off the distributions. Though the work was physically tiring, our entire team worked great together, and had a lot of laughter together. After this experience, I was even more convinced that we must seize every chance to give and leave meaningful marks on our path in life.