Amidst Russo-Ukrainian War, SMU Student Christie Cheah braves exchange in Poland
Writer Po Chien interviews SMU student Christie Cheah about her experience in Poland last semester.
Like most exchange students, Christie Cheah buys groceries near her host university.
Unlike most exchange students, however, her groceries for the week checked out to three full carts that required six people to carry across the road back to the campus.
“I felt so bad for the woman who checked out all three of our carts. I think it took almost 20-30 minutes to check out those items...” recounts Christie, a final OBHR major on exchange with Kozminski University, a non-profit private business university located in Warsaw, Poland. Says Christie, “They use cobblestone-type of grounds in some areas. It was so bumpy, it was so difficult to push, and there were a lot of slopes. The grocery store was literally five minutes away just opposite my university, but I think we took 15-20 minutes just to get there.”
Three Polish ladies witnessed this grand struggle, but since Christie and her friends were headed in the direction of the university, the passers-by understood their intent even though she could not speak a lick of Polish.
“When they came to help I said ‘for Ukraine! For Ukraine!’ and then they smiled.” Joining the students, they gingerly coerced the three cartfuls across the cobblestone path.
Small beginnings, big hearts
Since the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia war on 24th February 2022, Poland has been heavily involved in humanitarian efforts. Poland shares a 310-mile-long border with Ukraine and was the first to accept refugees. The Ukrainian refugee wave is the biggest of its kind since World War II, and Direct Relief has partnered with Polish healthcare businesses and the Polish government to provide over USD $10 million to cover medical costs, find shelter and provide necessities for the displaced Ukrainians.
Christie explains that many of the displaced Ukrainians travelled to the Polish capital Warsaw after crossing the border, and universities in Warsaw played a vital role in providing shelter for them. While in Kozminski, she received messages from the head of the student union explaining that there will be refugees residing in campus areas such as the library, student lounge, and more.
Kozminski University is not a big plot of land. Spanning 3.4 hectares, Kozminski is roughly three-quarters the size of Singapore Management University. Christie explains that the student union leader would post updated grocery lists of things they can get for the refugees on campus.
“I started asking around from some of my friends,” says Christie, “I know Singapore's quite far away from Ukraine, but being here and seeing it for myself, attending these classes in person, then seeing all these refugees sleeping in my school, it hits very hard.
“I guess when I started it, I had no expectations. I thought oh, maybe we'll get like a few hundreds. Maybe we'll get close to $1000. That's it. I started by asking people from my church first, and I received almost $2000 from my church alone in the first four hours.
“My church is very, very small. They really have very big hearts. I'm from Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church (PRPC).” says Christie. Led by Rev. Terence Ng, PRPC had just relocated to Bible house, adjacent to SMU’s Yong Pung How School of Law at that time. “I don't think we had more than 70 members at this point in time. So I was really very overwhelmed by what the church had given.”
Head in the Clouds
“Then I went on Instagram. People were really very active in donating.” Christie observes that on the first day of her grocery runs, she had about $4000, which she estimates amounts to four runs.
“And then MustShare News picked it up. And then Mothership picked it up. And I think I have not fully accounted for everything yet, but based on my estimation, I think we have about $20,000 now”
The overwhelming support was not without its costs. While MustShare News sought her consent before using her Instagram posts to write their articles, Mothership did not.
“It was crazy. I was on the plane heading back to Warsaw when they posted it. So I didn't even know until two hours after – when I touchdown-ed and connected to the Wi-Fi. I was just wondering what is going on?”
The unwanted attention quickly grew out of hand. Says Christie, “Every time I go to Instagram, there'll be maybe 30-40 new messages. I don't know, I have replied to maybe over 300 to 400 people already. It is quite crazy.”
Although plenty of her unexpected readers took it kindly, several others did not. Says Christie, “No matter what you do, no matter how nice of a thing you do, there will always be people who will find some reason to hate on you.
“On the Mothership post, I saw some people commenting ‘oh, it's just for the clout’
“Wow, so many hours of this, so many hours replying to people, coordinating, accounting, pushing, doing the physical work. Oh, yeah, all this is just for the clout.
“But after a while, you don't care anymore. I try not to care because I don't have the time to care. But it just reminded me that it's sad: No matter what anyone does, there'll always be people who will find something bad to say.”
From the border to the auditorium
As Christie interacted with more refugees, more personal stories began to emerge. Says Christie: “One of the refugees, this girl that I'm currently speaking with, left Ukraine with her mother for Warsaw. She was telling me that they spent an entire day travelling from Ukraine to Warsaw. Even though the distance from the border to Warsaw itself may not be very long, maybe 8 or 12 hours, there was a lot of waiting at the border itself. They had to do a lot of waiting there.
“She was saying that it was quite horrible. There were a lot of pregnant women and women with infants or very young children and they were all just standing there waiting. They had no food, so they were very hungry.”
Her newfound friend had her family separated when her brother, father, and other male relatives stayed behind to fight. “It's very sad to hear because I've been talking to her for the past week. She was telling me that she was very troubled because she hadn't received a reply from her father or brother. So she had no idea how they were doing then and she was really very distressed.
“But a few days ago, she told me that all is good. They were hiding underground. So they didn't have (cellular) signal, but they are fine.”
It seems unfathomable that one would spend a once-in-a-lifetime experience such as an exchange hearing the heartbreaks of strangers. Christie recounted some scenes that stuck with her while in such close proximity to the epicentre of these sufferings.
“The thing that made me want to help out was this picture shared by the head of the student body. It was just a very simple picture of how the auditorium was used as the donation drive area so that people won’t be surprised by the things that were put there.”
“It was just a picture of a pile of toys for the kids. When I saw it, it just broke my heart because that says a lot. That says that they were preparing to take in so many more children. So many of them will be separated from their families: Their fathers, their brothers… I guess that’s what sparked it all.” Christie recounts tearfully.
“Everyone dreams about going to exchange and having fun. The fact that we can be overseas means that we are more privileged than a good 90% of the world, probably. It doesn’t hurt to take some time off while you’re overseas to experience the people, and the culture, and get to know them better. See what you can do to help them. I think I will never forget how privileged I am.
“Poland was my third choice (for exchange destinations) and I did not for the life of me know where Poland was in Europe. I just knew it was somewhere there. Being chosen to go to Poland made me think what were God’s plans for me? I guess this is it.”
Since the interview, Christie has sought help from Kozminski’s student union to scale their efforts and offload some of her work. She has gone on to make time for friends, her studies, and explore European cultures.
Fortunately, her Instagram has returned to its original privacy settings. She has made it abundantly clear that in time to come, she will remember her time in Warsaw fondly.