For days, Chan Mun Leong had watched devastating footage of the invasion of Ukraine on his television screen. Seeing war survivors having to abandon their homes and flee for their lives struck a deep sympathetic chord within him.
And he was sick and tired of sitting at home doing nothing. There had to be something more he could do to make a direct, tangible difference, besides donating money.
But how could he help?
Chan was no humanitarian hero or crisis relief doctor. The Ipoh-born senior financial services executive, who has been living in Britain since 2000, had never been involved in any sort of aid mission before. He also couldn’t speak a word of Ukrainian or Polish.
Yet the more he learnt about what was happening to the people of Ukraine, the more Chan knew he had to act. He contacted his friends in Poland, a country that served as a safe harbour for displaced Ukrainians escaping the war.
They put him in touch with Caritas, the humanitarian, social and human development arm of the Vatican, which had been carrying out relief efforts in Poland and other neighbouring countries.
And with that, Chan joined the volunteer brigade of Caritas Polska, a local Polish partner of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC).
From London, he would travel to Poland, where he would spend eight days helping Ukrainian refugees at Przemysl (pronounced ‘sheh muh shl’), a major city and railway hub not far from the Polish-Ukrainian border.
“There’s a saying, ‘all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing’. Like many others, I wanted to make a more direct contribution to the ongoing international effort in whatever small way I could, to help the innocent and brave survivors of this senseless war,” said Chan, who currently lives in London with his family.
Chan recalled that when he first arrived at Przemysl, he saw “a scene of organised chaos”: a train had just unloaded a full group of displaced Ukrainians.
The station – about one-fifth the size of Kuala Lumpur Sentral train station – was soon overwhelmed with women, crying babies and toddlers, children, teenagers, the elderly, the infirmed and pets.
Not many men were there, as most male citizens aged 18-60 were not allowed to leave, with many choosing to stay back to defend their country.
“Some looked dazed, many were in tears while the rest were simply too tired to show any emotions.
“For the few happy faces relieved that their escape ordeal was finally over when they disembarked at Przemysl, the fleeting joy was soon turned into despair at the thought of fathers, husbands, brothers, boyfriends, or elderly relatives left behind in Ukraine.
“This scene would be repeated in the many uncertain weeks and months ahead,” reflected Chan.
Chan adapted quickly to life as a volunteer there. He described his role as a “shepherd”: basically doing “anything and everything” that was needed to help the new arrivals at Przemysl station. This covered everything from helping with heavy luggage to just listening to people unload their woes.
Mostly, it consisted of “crowd control” to ensure people boarded trains in an orderly fashion, and ensuring that nothing (and no one) got left behind.
“There’s no job description for a volunteer, no handbook on what to do. You just figure it out on the ground. You have all sorts of situations. There are large groups of people, who you have to make sure don’t get separated. There are old ladies carrying bags of up to 40kg.
“You have to learn to prioritise. Decide who you need to help first, with the finite resources that you have,” Chan recalled.
Communication was a challenge there, as most Ukrainians only spoke Ukrainian or Russian.
Thankfully, the Google translator app came in handy.
Chan also discovered that in many situations, words weren’t necessary. Sometimes, just a pat on the shoulder and a smile were enough to forge a connection.
Amazingly, Chan discovered that many skills he had picked up from his international career in banking were very useful in Przemysl.
“Humanitarian relief work requires a high degree of multi-
tasking, and requires flexibility, adaptability, attention to detail, good planning, and more. These attributes were constantly put to the test every single day during my time there.
“A volunteer needs to have a high degree of mental resilience and boundless empathy in order to continue to function optimally after being constantly exposed to the vicious cycle of endless human suffering,” Chan said.
The volunteers worked in shifts. On one particular night, Chan was on duty from midnight to 8am at the Korzcowa border crossing. It was one of the coldest nights in March, where the temperature plummeted to -8ºC.
He tolerated the discomfort, however, by reminding himself that these were the harsh conditions Ukrainians had to face when fleeing into Poland or other neighbouring countries.
Even when their shifts were over, the volunteers would still dedicate themselves to helping out wherever they could. This wasn’t a holiday trip, this mission was to help people, Chan told himself.
Most of his fellow volunteers would spend all their time serving those in need at the Przemysl train station, only returning to the Caritas base just to sleep for a few brief hours before the whole cycle repeated.
“It was a very high intensity environment and it was really wearing the volunteers down. But we kept going, because we didn’t want to let our Ukrainian friends down. We thought, if you feel tired, think of the nine-year-old child or 85-year-old grandmother who had travelled for days by train to get here.
“You find extraordinary strength you never knew you had when you harness that inner motivation. You draw on mutual strength from other volunteers, who had all chosen to be there,” Chan said.
While conditions were indeed difficult, moments of hope and human connection were also aplenty.
Chan made friends with many of the other volunteers at the train station, who came from all over on a singular mission to offer aid.
One of Chan’s most treasured memories from his experience was his time with Masha, an eight-year-old girl who had come with her family from Donetsk in the Donbas region.
When Masha and her family had to charge their phones, Chan gave them his powerbank.
In gratitude, Masha offered him one of her few possessions, a mechanical pencil, to ensure he would always remember her.
“How sweet and heartbreaking it was at the same time! Just recalling the memory of that special moment always brings a tear to my eyes and a smile to my face – unsolicited generosity from an innocent child. Even in times of war, there is still such courage and generosity to be found,” said Chan.
In just over a week there, Chan experienced both the highest and lowest that humanity could offer.
He did not realise that his short time in a foreign train station would leave such an indelible impression on him.
Upon returning to London when his stint was over, Chan decided to pen his experiences down in an effort to help raise greater awareness about the invasion of Ukraine.
It was also a cathartic means to release his pent-up emotions after such a life-changing experience. Doing so, he said, lifted a great load off his soul.
Chan eventually wrote out his whole story, which soon turned into a four-part journal series, “Diaries From Przemysl”, which can be found on LinkedIn.
“Sometimes, I think we become desensitised to everything because of all the headlines about doom and gloom. We forget that in all these stories of war, there are people involved. I hope to help the individual voices in these difficult situations be heard,” he said.
Life has pretty much gotten back to normal for Chan after his experience.
He still keeps in touch with some of the people he had met: Masha and her family, for example, have since settled safely in another country, and she is already back in school and slowly adapting to life in a foreign land.
Chan made sure to send her and her family a big parcel of school supplies, including of course, a replacement mechanical pencil.
And whenever Chan finds himself in tough times, he remembers Lyudmila, an 80-year-old woman whose apartment in the suburbs of Kyiv was destroyed by Russian artillery fire. The resilient woman packed up all she had left into a medium suitcase, and left her home and country.
“After a long journey that would have probably taken her four to five days, she was still all smiling and energetic at 2am in the morning when I met her at the border crossing.
“From now on, whenever I’m tired, feel like giving up or think that I’ve been dealt a bad hand by fate, I will think of Lyudmila to put things into perspective.
“She reminded me of my late grandmother, a kind and resilient woman who will make sure everyone else is okay first before she tends to herself,” Chan said.
Would he embark on another humanitarian mission like this? Chan doesn’t rule it out, especially since he now has some experience.
“In my time there, I met volunteers from all walks of life and from all over the world. They all contributed to the relief mission and all of them made a difference.
“There’s a lot that we can do when we all get together and combine our strengths,” he said.
Chan shared this advice: “Don’t worry about things like language barrier. The language of humanity is universal. The only thing you really need is empathy. As long as you have the heart to help, everything will sort itself out.”