“It did not seem scary to me.”
That’s what Santa Clara activist Harbir Bhatia said when she flew to Poland last March to help with Ukrainian refugee relief. Now Bhatia is heading back to Europe to continue the work, this time inside Ukraine. And she’s still not afraid, even though she acknowledges that she’ll be in harm’s way.
Three months ago Bhatia and her 74-year-old mother Gunee Bhatia packed seven suitcases of relief supplies, paid for by Santa Clara Rotary and lk Onkar Bridges, and headed to the Polish and Ukrainian border. They spent three weeks there doing relief work with United Sikhs and are returning to Europe, this time to Ukraine.
The Bhatias are like countless other volunteers from around the world who responded to the human suffering in Ukraine.
“They [the volunteers] packed up their bags and they just showed up,” said Bhatia. “They came here and had no idea how they would help people. But they knew that they could be a set of hands to help people. The most amazing thing was the number of people that came on their own without a single organization to work with.”
Ninety percent of refugees are women and children, said Bhatia. “There is a great need for baby supplies. Mom focused on the mothers and the children because they really needed a lot of reassurance.”
Bhatia herself coordinated the distribution of supplies among different nonprofits. “Dealing with whatever is needed,” is how she described it.
Crisis on Both Sides of the Border
The work at the border was grueling, but volunteers weren’t deterred by it.
“My Mom says this: ‘If you want to see angels, come to this border, especially at night when it’s so bitter cold,’” Bhatia said. “The volunteers might be shaking [with cold] but they’ll make sure that the refugees are warm even if they [the volunteers] aren’t.
“That’s when we started really seeing the need on the opposite side of that border,” she continued. “Some days, it was just a line of a few hundred people. Other days it was a line of 22 buses. We would be there until 4 a.m. serving food, giving out blankets and heating pads.”
Bhatia realized after a few days that the crisis was on both sides of the border. The more she learned about the dire relief needs in Ukraine, the more Bhatia felt she had to take her efforts to Ukraine’s internal refugees. A former American military volunteer helped her put her intention into action.
“He said that he wanted to join us to do more impactful work inside Ukraine,” she said. “We decided to go further in [to Ukraine] acknowledging that there was a risk to our lives. But the impact we would have with the supplies would be a lot greater. We filled up trailers and station wagons of supplies. We filled up all these vehicles, and we went across with a Foreign Legion escort.”
Bhatia and her mother went to several refugee centers inside Ukraine. “We met women from Bucha who had just come after the massacre. It was just horrific. There was a little boy with purple and red circles under his eyes who refused to look at anybody because he was so traumatized. And this was just one site we visited.”
Back to Ukraine
Bhatia is heading back to Ukraine, but this time instead of distributing help directly to refugees, she’s going to be distributing help to relief centers inside Ukraine.
“We’re building a network with Rotary clubs, and a network of Sikh organizations all across Europe,” explained Bhatia. “Rotary Foundation has raised $15 million and we want to help them know where to provide supplies. So I will be on an information-gathering mission as well as a supply mission. We’re raising funds so fast, yet we’re not distributing funds fast enough.
While many have cautioned Bhatia about the danger of being on the ground in Ukraine, she’s undeterred.
“My mom and I realized that whenever there’s a crisis, that is something we’re probably going to continue doing,” she said. “Because that’s just who we are. Not because we’re some heroes. No, this is what you’re called to. So you do it.”
To support Bhatia’s mission, visit the following link. All the money raised will be used to provide direct relief. Learn more about Rotary’s relief network here.
Human Trafficking Danger
Where people are displaced, there are plenty of wolves waiting to take advantage of them, and Ukraine isn’t any different. About a week after she arrived, Bhatia “observed a lot of people coming [to the border] offering free transportation. We saw a lot of people asking women and children randomly, ‘can we help.’ We soon discovered from local police that a significant number of people had gone missing.”
That led to a significant [hardening] of security.
“We started badging volunteers on the site end ensuring that everyone engaging with refugees is properly identified,” said Bhatia. “No volunteers were allowed in without being identified with a relief organization.”
Refugees are very vulnerable to human traffickers.
“We’ve seen the same things in Afghanistan and Syria, for example,” said Kelsey Syms, Combatting Human Trafficking Program Manager for the McCain Institute in Washington D.C.
“You have people who face the same challenges like language barriers,” continued Syms. “These are huge vulnerabilities for someone to take advantage of. Offering shelter is one we see a lot. Another is offering work. These are ways to mislead people into being exploited for labor or sex. They get told they need to hand over documents for safe keeping and don’t realize that under international law you are always entitled to keep your documents.”
In Ukraine, Syms’ organization is focusing on information.
“What are your rights, who do you call. This all needs to be in the language they speak,” she said, adding, “The people on the ground are doing a fantastic job. But these refugees are going to be vulnerable for the foreseeable future.”
To support the McCain Institute’s fight against human trafficking visit the website.