SINGAPORE — Singapore Red Cross (SRC) official Sahari Ani was in Warsaw to help Ukrainian refugees when he witnessed the dignified resilience and love of a couple for their son, who is suffering from a potentially fatal disease.
In a recent phone interview with Yahoo News Singapore, Sahari said the 19-year-old son of the Ukrainian couple has epidermolysis bullosa, a rare disease which causes skin to blister easily. The trio were staying with a Polish family, one of many from several countries bordering Ukraine who have been hosting thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the outbreak of war on 24 February.
The 59-year-old Dean of Singapore Red Cross Academy, who is now into the third month of his assignment to help the refugees, recounted how the Ukrainian family had to carefully coordinate their escape route to the Polish capital.
The family were traveling in one car while the couple arranged for a second car to transport the medical items required for the daily treatment of their son, such as dressings and medication. The couple had to ensure that their son’s condition would not worsen during their long and arduous journey westward.
During his meeting with the family on 19 April, Sahari noticed that the teenager tried to smile at him while experiencing excruciating pain. “I cannot imagine what they went through, it's beyond our comprehension,” the Singaporean said.
Even when the family were living with their Polish hosts, the couple were helping another family in Ukraine with a child suffering from the same condition. They arranged for similar medical items that their son had been using to be supplied to their compatriots in the war-torn country.
“Both parents were in much distress yet their warmth and hospitality are truly humbling. I really admire and respect their resilience. They never give up in the face of adversities,” said Sahari, who is also Senior Director of Red Cross Youth.
Massive humanitarian crisis
Sahari’s experience with the Ukrainian family underscores the massive challenges that he and his ground partners face as they continue to carry out their humanitarian operations to alleviate the suffering of the refugees across eastern Europe. Besides providing assistance in Warsaw and other locations in Poland, Sahari has been helping Ukrainian refugees in towns and cities in Hungary, Romania and Lithuania.
Apart from the homes of host families in these countries, Ukrainian refugees are also staying in accommodations such as temporary shelters and the vast Global EXPO exhibition hall in Warsaw. The latter was housing as many as 20,000 people during the peak of the refugee crisis, according to Sahari. His team has also adopted a small shelter for 42 Ukrainian refugees.
These numbers are, however, minuscule relative to the colossal refugee crisis triggered by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. More than 5 million Ukrainians had fled their country since the start of the war, the United Nations’ refugee agency said in April, in the largest movement of refugees in Europe since World War II.
Since the deployment of its field team on the ground, SRC and its partners have provided support to more than 2,000 people in Poland and Ukraine. SRC has also deployed two psychosocial support practitioners to help mainly Ukrainian mothers and children at the EXPO hall.
Sahari and his partners have distributed a wide range of items such as care packs, walking aids, toilet packs and blankets to the Ukrainian refugees living in the host countries. They have also supplied hundreds of care packs to Ukrainians still living in their country in the first half of June.
Even with the combined daily efforts of SRC and its partners to care for thousands of Ukrainian refugees, many items have to be constantly replenished and are in short supply. The war has led to severe disruptions of food supplies from Ukraine, which was previously a major food producer.
“The needs are massive, with the continued destruction and disruption of essential services and infrastructure. We have continued dire need of medical care, and food security is a concern. Access to clean water is becoming more challenging,” said Sahari, who is still in Warsaw.
For Sahari, the unpredictable weather conditions in eastern Europe pose a big challenge to him, with the temperatures quickly changing from warm to chilly on some days.
Hopes and aspirations of Ukrainians
The task of helping the Ukrainian refugees is one of most challenging assignments that Sahari has undertaken, said the 20-year SRC veteran, who previously assisted in the relief efforts for the Indonesian province of Aceh and Sri Lanka during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
His ground operations across eastern Europe are part of the overall efforts by Singapore and SRC to provide assistance for Ukraine and the refugees.
On 10 June, Singapore’s government said it will contribute a humanitarian assistance package to Ukraine comprising nine ambulances, two fire engines, various firefighting protective gear, rescue equipment, mine detectors and medical supplies.
SRC has committed four tranches of humanitarian aid to support Ukrainian refugees totalling $6 million so far. At least 120 individuals and groups in Singapore had supported SRC’s public fundraising appeal to help affected communities in and around Ukraine, with more than $7.4 million raised since the start of the appeal on 25 February, SRC said on 6 June.
Sahari said that a number of Ukrainians have expressed gratitude to him for the assistance that they have been receiving from Singapore. SRC shared with Yahoo News Singapore a number of messages of support from Singaporean donors for Ukrainian refugees – among them, “Do my part to help and let them know that we care for them" and “The World is One Family”.
When asked about the hopes of the Ukrainians whom he has met, Sahari said that their wishes are simple amid their traumatic experience of war over the past few months. “They want to be reunited with their loved ones. And for those who choose to continue staying in Ukraine, they are hopeful that the conflict does not worsen, that they are able to return to some level of normalcy even though they know the journey of normalcy will take very long.”
Like the teenager who is suffering from epidermolysis bullosa, many other young Ukrainian refugees that Sahari has met are just as resilient despite their plight. They would work together in the host countries to help in any way they can for their families, friends and compatriots in Ukraine, said Sahari, who admires their “amazing” spirit and acts of kindness.
“That is the strength of the human spirit that will bind us together as we journey through this difficult time. I always believe that the goodness of people will always prevail.”
A message from the Singapore Red Cross:
“Singapore Red Cross would like to thank our donors for their generous support in this humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and the neighbouring countries.
We want to remind people that if they are willing to help the affected communities, we urge them to support the Singapore Red Cross’ operations in the region by making a donation - it can be done online at our website at redcross.sg, through PayNow or by cheque. More information can be found on our website.”
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