South Asian nonprofits (BAPS, Sewa Internation, ISKON) provide relief to Indian students stranded in Ukraine. (Image of students standing vigil in East Ukraine from @helpindiansinukraine)

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The conflict in Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis with thousands trying to flee a war zone and brought attention to the vast numbers of Indian students that were living and studying in Ukraine, bringing the conflict home to India and its diaspora in a very personal way. Even as the Indian government launched Operation Ganga to rescue and bring back the 15000 Indian students fleeing the crossfire, volunteers from global Dharmic organizations like Sewa International, ISKCON, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, and others have stepped in to provide assistance to those stranded in multiple countries and cities.

Over the past several days, more than 250 Sewa volunteers across Europe have coordinated relief efforts in eighteen Ukrainian cities. Within 24 hours of the news breaking, Sewa Europe volunteers had created helplines to capture any requests across Ukraine, tracking each and every ask for help from start to finish. In addition, the volunteers are currently managing 300 WhatsApp groups, categorized by city and region, to connect people in need to resources and information. This extensive communication system being managed by Sewa volunteers has connected 18 cities/region throughout Ukraine. As of last week, Sewa International volunteers in Europe had helped more than 3,200 individuals to cross the Ukraine border, with plans to help another 3,600 people who had registered for evacuation through a helpline.

The refugees from Ukraine being helped by BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha volunteers. (Image Credit: BAPS)

In its latest update, Sewa also shared that on Tuesday, March 8, it played a key role in evacuating an additional 467 African students, from Nigeria, Namibia, Zambia, and South Africa, who were stuck in Sumy, the northern region of Ukraine bordering Russia. This effort from Sewa volunteers was in response to a request by Shina Alege, the Nigerian Ambassador to Ukraine.

This news of helping across nationalities, borders, and race is especially heartwarming in light of the dismaying displays of racism seen against students from India and Africa as they sought to flee the conflict zone and cross the Ukrainian border for safety.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict exemplifies the crucial role of volunteer relief agencies in helping individuals caught up in the chaos of being refugees in an unfamiliar land, hampered by language, weather, nationality, lack of awareness of local rules, resources, and more.

“As news of the conflict broke, many of our Sewa volunteers in Ukraine opened their restaurants, their homes, and their businesses to anyone in need by providing free meals and temporary shelter to people in transit to border points-all in the very first few days of the invasion. Even more of our volunteers traveled from neighboring European countries, i.e. Germany, Finland, Norway, etc., to serve in the relief efforts”, said Rakhi Israni, Sewa International National Spokesperson and Bay Area resident. “As a Sewa International volunteer, I know that it is in our nature to help anyone in need, but as I see the scale and speed of our relief efforts taking place in Ukraine by Sewa, HSS, and other organizations, I understand the meaning of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbukam’. The volunteers and community truly exemplify how the whole world is one family.”

B.A.P.S serves hot vegetarian meals daily to refugees of all faiths and nationalities at a field kitchen in Rezszow, Poland. (Image Credit: BAPS)

With a worldwide network of over 3,850 centers the international volunteers of the BAPS Pariwar swung into action to support emergency relief efforts on the ground, soon after the crisis in Ukraine began. Driven by the spirit of service and Dharma, some volunteers from the U.S. and other parts of the world have even flown into the countries surrounding Ukraine to help with incoming refugees. BAPS has set up mobile field kitchens in Polish cities like Rzeszów, serving over 1,000 hot vegetarian meals daily. Given the highly diverse dietary requirements of the refugees who have fled, the availability of vegetarian food is a small but important way to help.

Sewa International units in Ukraine, Finland, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Denmark are working closely with Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) volunteers, fielding calls from stranded students and others seeking help and directing them to a volunteer who lives close to them for further assistance.  According to the organization, more than 35 Sewa volunteers are working on the ground in Ukraine, with an increase in call volume as the war intensifies.  “After a student from India was killed in shelling in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine and an epicenter 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 percent 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 volunteer from Finland.

Students being transported to the airport for a flight to India. (Image Credit: BAPS)

According to its Ministry of Civil Aviation, as of March 8, India has brought back home nearly 18000 of its citizens from Ukraine onboard special flights. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, over 660,000 people, mostly women, and children have left Ukraine within five days of the beginning of the war. Those still stranded in Ukraine are facing multiple challenges, including threats to their lives, non-cooperation from local officials, not being allowed to cross the Ukrainian border, lack of food, and money. We hope for a speedy restoration of calm in the region so that the human toll is not further amplified.

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Pushpita Prasad is a Contributing Editor at India Currents, with a background in media, technology, and history.