In the first week, I spent most of my time at a refugee camp in Przemyśl, a city next to the Ukrainian border in Poland. To get here, I had flown 16 hours from Singapore to Krakow (including a connecting flight in Helsinki).

Then, by divine appointment, I met a Singaporean couple who happened to also be heading to the border from Krakow. What was meant to be a five-hour ride on several trains and buses became a two-hour ride in their rented car. 

Temporary accommodation at the train station that many refugees arrive at before heading to the camp.

Stepping into the refugee camp, one is immediately met with soldiers managing the entries and exits, volunteers milling around, tired and sometimes downcast refugees, as well as kids just doing what kids do.

The refugee camp is an overhauled Tesco supermarket, with shop spaces repurposed into cramped sleeping spaces with safari beds. The compound is sizeable — about 100m in length and width.

It is merely a transitory space for the refugees, many of whom had spent days or even weeks making their journey out of Ukraine.

They usually arrive at the train station in Przemyśl or drive through the border before heading to the camp, where they will spend a few days before being sent on their way. 

Passing medical supplies donated from Singapore to a Red Cross doctor at the train station; children are also meaningful occupied.

Their next destination is usually within Europe, where they will receive temporary protection or asylum statuses.

Naturally, one is fraught with uncertainties about the road ahead. 

But just as Jesus came to serve, so were we here to serve.

Helping out at the refugee camp; building a bench with volunteers from Engineers Without Borders.

In the span of a week, I found myself mixing disinfectant, cleaning kitchen floors, serving food, building a wooden bench, restocking pillows and blankets, running a “minimart”… the list goes on.

There were infinite jobs to be done, and it would have been easy to be caught up with just attending to these needs everywhere. 

The simple catalogue that Wesley created for refugees so that they could more easily obtain the items they needed at the “minimart”.

Yet, we weren’t just here to do jobs, we were here to love people.

This meant slowing down ever so often, talking with the refugees, playing with kids and even filling the camp with song, joined by refugees themselves and volunteers from other organisations. 

The harrowing journey from Ukraine to Poland

In one encounter, I met a family (a mother and her son and daughter) who had just arrived in Poland a day before after escaping from the devastated city of Mariupol.

Before they left, they had the windows of their house destroyed, and had to sleep on the floor of their house to avoid detection in subzero temperatures. To get water, they were crawling to wells to dodge bullets.

On their way out, they were met with countless Russian checkpoints, many of which saw rifles being pointed at their faces. Roads were also sometimes lined with dead bodies and feasted on by dogs.

It quickly dawned upon me that no human words would suffice.

Their descriptions were vivid, and their recounting was almost cathartic for them. What they told me really left an impact: I wish I could just delete all my memories, I wish I could unsee everything and move on. 

As I sat and listened to the mother of two unload her burdens, it quickly dawned upon me that no human words would suffice.

I sensed in my spirit that the mother felt responsible for the ordeal her children had to go through. So I simply encouraged her that she had already given her best as a mother, and that they’re fortunate to have a mother who is so strong for them.

She was moved to tears by this simple encouragement — God indeed knows the hearts of people better than we ever could.

Later, we also found out that her son had just turned 18 on that very day. We realised how miraculous an escape from Ukraine it must have been for the family as men in Ukraine who had turned 18 were not allowed to leave the country.

Upon hearing this, some of us went to the McDonald’s nearby to buy pastries as a birthday cake substitute and some grabbed guitars to sing him “Happy Birthday”.

The surprise celebration for a refugee’s 18th birthday.

Although once reserved, the boy was grinning from ear to ear, hugging all of us individually and then all at once, before remarking that this was his best birthday ever.

The mother of two was once again moved to tears that despite all they had been through, she could still see her son this happy. It was almost as if, even if for a brief moment, they had really moved on from the atrocities they had just witnessed. 

I valued deeply such moments where I got to connect to the refugees as people — and not just seeing them as a headcount or a sea of needs to be met.

It is these moments that put a face to the refugee crisis on the other side of the world. It is these moments that allowed the nation of Ukraine to hold weight in my heart, seeing what she means to these people. It is these moments that God’s compassion for His people comes alive in my heart as He allows me to see them as He does. 

More must be done

One day, while playing with the kids, I sat down to read my Telegram messages.

I saw a news update on the final bastion of Mariupol, where civilians were being kept underground and Ukrainian soldiers were bravely holding the fort while surrounded by Russian forces.

I started tearing and then crying. Feelings of abandonment gripped me, and I cried out to God in my heart on their behalf. 

The kids surrounded me as my emotions showed on my face. They wondered why I was crying, and had no qualms asking.

While it would have been conceivable to find myself sweeping the floors of the refugee camp, never would I have imagined myself weeping on the floors of the refugee camp.

I explained to them I had just read the news about Mariupol — they nodded with understanding, shrugged in acquiescence and went back to playing their ball game named “Frogs” in Ukrainian.

That’s when I realised that they had managed to preserve a blissful innocence, while God had indeed grown my burden for the nation of Ukraine at the same time.

Spending this much time with the refugees, one starts to realise the nation of Ukraine is more than a byword in international news, but a society and a land that holds weight in the hearts of many real people. 

While it would have been conceivable to find myself sweeping the floors of the refugee camp, never would I have imagined myself weeping on the floors of the refugee camp.

Spending the past week loving these people and forging deep personal connections, God is aching my heart as His does, and enabling me to love not at arms’ length, but as close as He is to the broken-hearted.

My personal investment in Ukraine has shifted my posture from one where I was “just happy to help” to “more must be done”.

Being part of this transitory phase of the refugee journey has surfaced a realisation that there are many more needs to be met, such as support within Ukraine and for refugees as they rebuild their lives in their next destinations.

The Lord is increasing His burden on me for the latter, and I believe He has a new assignment for me — stay tuned to find out where the wind blows next! 

  1. When was the last time God moved you to compassion for someone or something?
  2. How can you love the broken-hearted with actions and words where God has placed you? 
  3. This week, what is one practical thing you can do to obey and live out the Great Commission?