Duo who fed Ukrainian refugees in Poland are first nominees for ST Singaporean of the Year award

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Priveen Suraj Santakumar and Charanjit Singh Walia are two Singaporeans who were moved to help the refugees fleeing from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They are the first nominees for Singaporean of the Year 2022.

SINGAPORE - When Mr Priveen Suraj Santakumar watched the Russia-Ukraine war break out, he was so moved by the plight of the refugees that he flew to Poland to help feed those displaced by the conflict.

There, he met Mr Charanjit Singh Walia, who has been based in Poland for the past 25 years, and was helping to provide food to Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border.

The Singaporean duo are the first nominees for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award this year. The award is presented in conjunction with UBS.

The annual award, now into its eighth year, aims to recognise a Singaporean person or group for making an impact in society.

Last year's award went to Mr Sakthibalan Balathandautham, who donated part of his liver to a one-year-old child after he came across a plea online from a young couple.

Mr Priveen, 34, learnt about the war when he was watching the news on TV in February. He was upset seeing pictures and videos of the situation there, and could not stop thinking about it.

He contacted the Rotary Club of Singapore - he is a member - for contacts on how to help those affected by the war.

The former nurse, who is single and now owns a cleaning business, then packed his bag with medical supplies, including first-aid kits, and booked a plane ticket to Poland.

He said: "I told my family I had to try to do whatever I can to help."

Although his father was initially worried about his safety, his family gave him their blessings and Mr Priveen flew to Poland in March.

Mr Priveen, who worked as a nurse for four years, planned to provide medical assistance to the refugees. But when he landed in Warsaw, he found himself with a wok in his hand instead, as part of local humanitarian efforts.

"Things were very dynamic and everything moved quickly. I gladly helped in any way they needed me to," he said.

An avid cook in his spare time, Mr Priveen stirred up potfuls of Singapore-style fried rice, and helped to feed thousands of refugees.

He would start his day at 8am and end past midnight, partly due to a lack of volunteers.

Mr Priveen Suraj Santakumar had intended to provide medical assistance to the refugees, but ended up serving them by cooking and distributing food. PHOTO: PRIVEEN SURAJ SANTHAKUMAR

He said that the biggest challenge during his month in Poland was managing his emotions when he saw the refugees, most of whom were women and children.

Hearing snippets of their stories broke his heart.

"Some of the children hadn't eaten in days. It was hard to hold myself together while looking at them, but I had to so I could continue helping them," he said.

The temperature there, which dropped to about 2 deg C, also worried him.

"I am a full-grown man and I felt cold despite all the layers of clothes I was wearing. I couldn't imagine the children having to brave that weather, especially on empty stomachs."

Mr Priveen gave out candy and chocolates to them whenever he could.

"The children had no idea what was happening. They were just running around and playing. It was really quite heart-wrenching to see. I don't know if they understood that they may not have a home to go back to."

During his sojourn, Mr Priveen crossed paths with Mr Charanjit, a fellow Singaporean, who was also in Warsaw helping to provide food for the refugees.

The younger man had learnt about Mr Charanjit's work from a newspaper article and linked up with him on Facebook.

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Mr Priveen helped out with Mr Charanjit's food distribution when the two met.

Mr Charanjit had moved to Poland 25 years ago to open a restaurant, but later noticed there were many hungry people in his community who could not afford a meal.

He saw many who had to dig through rubbish bins and eat half-eaten food to get by. He started cooking free vegetarian meals for the needy there in 2017.

Mr Charanjit, who is divorced, said he was at home in Warsaw in February when his Ukrainian neighbour came running to his door with news of the war.

He said: "I'm not usually an emotional person but I felt sad that there were people at the border hungry, so I knew I had to do something."

On his first day at the border with Ukraine, he distributed more than 350 meals. His latest distribution session on July 21 saw around 700 people get fed.

"I think that everyone deserves a hot meal. That's what my religion taught me."

Ukrainian refugees queueing for meals distributed by Warsaw Seva, a charity founded by Singaporean Charanjit Walia, at the Ukraine-Poland border checkpoint. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHARANJIT WALIA

Mr Charanjit said he would also often cook at Sikh temples when he was still living in Singapore.

He said he was heartened to see Mr Priveen and others like him fly all the way to Poland in the past few months to help out. The two still keep in touch after Mr Priveen returned to Singapore, and when Mr Charanjit was here in May, they met for coffee.

Although cooking is hard work, Mr Charanjit said there has never been a day when he felt that it was tough to continue his charity work.

"I will do this until I die. As long as there are hungry mouths around me, I will continue to feed them to the best of my ability."

Nominations for the award will be open until Dec 15 at this website. Nominees must be Singapore citizens, and recognised for performing their act of service in 2022.

The award recipient will get:

- $20,000 in cash for each person or group

- A five-night stay at any of Millennium Hotels and Resorts' properties globally, up to a maximum of three sets of accommodation for the group

- One pair of Singapore Airlines business class tickets for each individual, up to a maximum of three pairs for the group

- A three-night stay at Raffles Hotel Singapore

Finalists will receive:

- $5,000 cash for each person or group

- A three-night stay at one of Millennium Hotels and Resorts' global properties, up to a maximum of three sets for each group

- One pair of Singapore Airlines economy class tickets for each individual, up to a maximum of three pairs for each group of finalists

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