Ukraine: One Year On: A Light in the Darkness
by Jeff Walsh (South Africa 2016-18)
When one of the Ukrainian refugees in the class I was teaching in Poland told me she was studying to become an opera singer, I didn’t know what to expect. She was a thin teenager with a slight build wearing a white pullover, safe from the violence she’d recently fled. She sang for a few moments and I was stunned. Her soprano voice was like a songbird. When I think of a “Soprano”, I tend to think of those rough and tumble, made-for-tv mobsters from New Jersey, not a beautiful talented songstress who can hit silky, satin high notes of every octave. Kate was my student at UNICEF in Poland, a safe haven for refugees away from war torn Ukraine and great place for kids to learn.
I had no idea that I had a songbird in my presence in the classroom and a young, aspiring opera singer to boot. The show-stopping high notes of Kate’s voice carried the hopes and dreams of a stoic and proud Ukraine people with hopes for a bright future. The brilliant clarity of her song and singular talent gave hope to all her Slavic countrymen that one day they will get to return to their homeland.
As we mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion [on Friday, Feb. 24], I find myself thinking of Kate and other refugees I met. Shortly after the war began, I left Illinois State University to serve as UNICEF Poland’s first foreign volunteer English teacher for Ukrainians. To my surprise, both the director and the deputy director of my Coverdell Fellows gave me the go-ahead to go to Warsaw, Poland. I also volunteered at the cash station at a Polish Red Cross center. As UNICEF Poland’s very first foreign volunteer English teacher during the war in Ukraine. I taught Ukrainian kids ages 8 to 17. During one of our first days of class, I asked the children “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Olaf wanted to be a fireman. Georgiana wanted to be a businesswoman. Tatiana wanted to be a shopkeeper. Kate said she wanted to be an opera singer. Just for fun I asked her, “Could you sing for us?”. Her beautiful voice seemed to carry for miles. All time seemed to stop. The word soprano comes from the word the Italian word “sopra” or “above” and Kate’s bright and sparkling voice indeed seemed to be ordained from heaven above.
I found myself thinking of Oksana. I also met Oksana, a young mother. We both attended a lunch following religious services at an international church near Warsaw’s Old Town. She was out of a job and had a son with special needs. I was able to send her photos of job listings I’d seen at a center at a train station. I also connected her son with a social worker at a center run by UNICEF and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for special needs refugees and others. My second trip was for her special needs son. UNICEF and UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) run something called a “Blue Dot Center”- a safe space for special needs refugees, the LGBTQ community and basically anyone who needs a safe space. I went to the one in Warsaw and spoke to the social worker there, on Oksana’s behalf.
I’m a former Peace Corps volunteer. Once a Peace Corps volunteer, always a Peace Corps volunteer. I answered the call of service in 2018 and now again in 2022. I traveled to help out in the war-torn region of the sovereign Eastern European nation of Ukraine. I found myself daily among millions of Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, Poland. Every day that I volunteered at the Polish Red Cross, another hundred refugee families waited in line for cash assistance. As an American volunteer, I stayed at Youth Hostels full of Ukrainian refugees. Refugees were in the local coffee shops and worked in the local grocery stores. I talked to and ate with the thousands of refugees that flooded the streets of Poland and then took refuge at the Modlinska Refugee Center in Warsaw. There was also Valentina, a young tech student learning coding and 3D printing, and Irina, the Ukrainian director of UNICEF in Warsaw, with whom I became friends. But there was only so much I could do and so many other people needing help. I was there for two months and never met most of the Ukrainians at the center. The Modlinska Refugee Center held 2000 to 4000 refugees at any given time.
At the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in February, 100,000 refugees crossed into Poland daily- a number not seen since World War II. The kind spirit of the Polish people cares about the general well-being of their fellow Slavic brothers and sisters by welcoming the Ukraine people into their hearts and their homes. As of February 2023, 7.5 million Ukrainians have sought refuge across international borders, 3 million of those refugees have been welcomed by friend and comrade Poland. Grassroots efforts by charities, NGOs, local businesses and individuals have channeled their resources to open user-friendly reception centers that allow Ukrainians to get jobs and apartments in Poland. Consider giving to World Central Kitchen, WCK Consider giving to the United for Ukraine charity on the one-year anniversary of the War on Ukraine to help the good people of Ukraine get back on their feet. Americans who share their compassion have excellent options for also helping these brave people. One of my favorite charities is World Central Kitchen, which has provided large numbers of hot, nourishing meals to Ukrainians, especially during this frigid winter. I also admire the work being done by some of my fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Ukraine and neighboring Moldova. Their organizations and others need your financial support.
More than 8 million refugees entered Poland and other neighboring countries. Most of them remain there, their lives upended, their homes gone, their days filled with worry or grief about husbands, sons and others left behind. We need to support Ukraine’s refugees in every way we can. Refugees add to a country’s value both culturally and economically. In the U.S, for example, a study the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 found that between 2004 and 2015, refugees contributed $63 billion more than the cost spent on refugees by local, state and federal governments.
Most of the refugees are still there. As Russia prepares to launch a major new military offensive, more may soon join them. A few have made their way to the Chicago area and other parts of the United States, and they need our continued support. But as we mark this anniversary, we must also recommit as a country and individuals to helping Ukraine and its people triumph against the terrible injustice we have witnessed this past year. Governor Pritzker is of Ukrainian descent. Pritzker pledged his support for Ukraine early on during the invasion.
We need Kate. We need hope. As we close in on February 24, the first anniversary of the War in Ukraine, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists just set the doomsday clock at ninety seconds to midnight. I remember the quote I learned from my time partnering with Desmond Tutu Foundation in South Africa, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.” Kate is that single candle from Ukraine. Kate is that songbird that lights the infinite darkness that gives Ukraine and the world hope
Jeff Walsh (South Africa 2016-18) a graduate student and Coverdell Fellow at Illinois State University, volunteered with Ukraine refugees at the Polish Red Cross, UNICEF and the Modlinska Global Expo Center in Warsaw, Poland. He is from Des Plaines, Illinois.