Ukraine crisis: Spirit of Sewa resonates across Europe

Ukraine crisis: Spirit of Sewa resonates across Europe
BAPS volunteers at work

As a devastating humanitarian crisis unfolds in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands are fleeing the war zone seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. This includes thousands of Indian nationals, mainly students, who are desperately trying to return to their homes.

It once again brought the global Indian diaspora efforts to the fore, including student groups as well as charity organisations such as BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha and Sewa International, who have been working round the clock to do their bit in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict. This has involved the distribution of food, coordinating evacuation logistics and relief and rescue efforts across the eastern European region.

Public service

Keyur Bhatt, a lead BAPS volunteer from London, said: “The situation in Ukraine is desperate and tragic. The priority is to support those seeking refuge by providing them with food and shelter. We are working closely with transport networks and logistical agencies to ensure the safe and timely delivery of essential services to those in need.

“Our volunteers are inspired by the ethos of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who personified the motto ‘In the joy of others lies our own’, and there has perhaps never been a more opportune moment to embody this selfless spirit of public service by providing the basic needs for those severely impacted by the conflict.”

The organisation, one of the largest and most active Hindu charities in the UK popularly known as Neasden Temple – after the iconic temple in London, has had volunteers from Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria and Poland swiftly spring into action to support the emergency relief effort on the ground. This has included setting up a mobile field kitchen in the south-eastern Polish city of Rzeszów, which has been feeding around 1,000 hot vegetarian meals daily to refugees of all faiths and nationalities.

BAPS is also arranging accommodation and coordinating medical assistance, and says it is working closely with the Indian government as well as local partners to further expand the humanitarian efforts as the situation escalates.

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Appeal for action

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally called Brahmaviharidas Swami last week, asking for assistance from BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha in ensuring the safe passage of Indian nationals on the Polish, Romanian and Hungarian borders with Ukraine.

Brahmaviharidas Swami, with years of experience in disaster relief work, joined an emergency meeting in Delhi by video conference from Dubai. After expressing his anguish at the plight of the refugees, Brahmaviharidas Swami reassured the Indian PM that help was already on its way: “We have already been instructed by His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj to mobilise BAPS volunteers from all over Europe.”

Vijay Kumar Singh, former Army Chief of Staff and current Minister of State for Transport and Civil Aviation, observed the tireless efforts of the volunteers first-hand in Rzeszów: “BAPS has always been at the forefront of community service, being the first to arrive and the last to leave. The people of India are indebted to your swift, selfless and organised action.”

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Selfless service

Also undertaking tireless efforts in another renowned charity, Sewa International, which had its volunteers in Europe helping more than 3,200 individuals in the past few days to cross the border to reach safety. The volunteers are working with another 3,680 people who have registered for evacuation through the Sewa helpline.

Working closely with Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) volunteers, Sewa units in Ukraine, Finland, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Denmark are fielding calls from stranded students and others seeking help and directing them to a volunteer who lives close to them for further assistance.

“The situation on the ground is as challenging as it can get. Sewa and HSS volunteers are taking calls from people in distress and working 24/7 to help them evacuate. More than 35 Sewa volunteers are working on the ground in Ukraine. We are seeing an increased call volume as the war intensifies,” a Sewa volunteer from Ukraine, deeply involved in coordinating the relief work, explained over a WhatsApp call.

Sewa said it is helping people to reach Ukraine’s western border by bus, train, or other modes of transport. They are distributing food packets, establishing temporary shelters, or working with local hotel owners to provide fleeing students a place to stay until they leave for their home country

Crisis management

Indian students stranded in Ukraine are facing multiple challenges, including threat to their lives, non-cooperation from local officials, not being allowed to cross the Ukrainian border, lack of food, and money.

“After a student from India was killed in shelling in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine and an epicentre of the current war, there has been a heightened fear among students. Due to the danger posed by the war to civilian lives in the city, helping people leave Kharkiv has been our top priority. In nearly 80 per cent of the situations, we have been able to help the caller when they call the Sewa help number for the first time,” said Heramb Kulkarni, a Sewa coordinator from Finland.

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