SINGAPORE - While there have been reports of foreigners taking up arms on behalf of Ukraine, a Singaporean man has decided to travel to Poland to offer assistance to refugees fleeing the war-torn country.
Mr Priveen Suraj Santhakumar has been helping humanitarian groups along the Poland-Ukraine border over the past week, feeding Ukrainians who are fleeing the fighting and crossing into Poland.
"Many are children. They spent at least five days walking to the border. Many of them went without food for several days.
"My duty is to prepare hot meals and serve them," the 34-year-old told Tamil Murasu this week. His story was also published in Tabla, a weekly English language newspaper published by Tamil Murasu.
Mr Priveen flew from Singapore to Warsaw, Poland's capital, on March 24.
"It is not my intention to take up arms to fight alongside the Ukrainian people," he said.
"As a former staff nurse, my desire was to travel to Ukraine to offer medical assistance, but that involved countless paperwork.
"So I decided to go to Poland to extend my assistance to humanitarian groups that are helping with the refugee situation."
He has been volunteering with the Rotary Club of Poland. His responsibilities include transporting Ukrainian refugees into Poland and serving them meals.
"We once drove eight hours from Warsaw to Lviv (in western Ukraine) to transport about 100 refugees to Poland," he said.
"I met a teenager with two younger siblings who had journeyed from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to Lviv. Their parents had stayed on to fight the Russian troops.
"The siblings had no money or food. We found them huddled in an abandoned shophouse in Lviv and helped bring them into Poland."
For Mr Priveen, who runs a cleaning business in Singapore, this is his first humanitarian mission overseas.
He previously volunteered with several local organisations and supported Singapore's Covid-19 operations as a locum nurse.
But the experience did not quite prepare him physically and mentally for the harsh realities of the humanitarian crisis.
"It is freezing cold in Poland. The temperature is about 2 deg C. I am trying to keep warm while helping the refugees," said Mr Priveen.
"They are constantly streaming in, and the volunteer groups are short-handed. We are continually working round the clock to prepare hot meals and beverages for the refugees.
"I have talked to many refugees. Most crossed into Poland on foot and had to wait at the border for almost 12 hours while their papers were processed by the Polish authorities.
"We are working very hard to ensure everyone has a meal before they carry on with their journey in the cold," he added.
Mr Priveen is happy that he is now able to serve the refugees, even though his first attempt was roadblocked by Covid-19.
He tested positive the day before he was scheduled to fly to Poland on March 14.
"I was disappointed when I found out about my test result," he said.
"I decided I would fly out as soon as I recovered. I used the recovery period to do more research and connect with volunteer organisations in Poland."
Mr Priveen is paying for the trip, but his family and friends have helped with expenses, and they have also been a source of emotional support and encouragement.
"My mother was keen on tagging along. But I knew that with her health problems, she would not be able to handle the travel and weather, so I advised her to stay home," he said.
"My father underwent surgery recently, and when I was mulling over my decision to go to Poland, my mother and two younger brothers encouraged me to carry on and gave me reassurance.
"My friends provided me monetary support for the trip, which helped me get winter clothes and supplies."
As a member of the International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY), Mr Priveen wanted to find out more about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and do whatever he could to help.
Before his trip, the Brussels-based federation, which aims to promote liberalism and globalise freedom, arranged for a video call for him with a Ukrainian family seeking refuge in the basement of their home.
"They are a family of four, with aged parents and two daughters in their 20s," he said.
"They were stuck in their basement with some canned food and bottled water. Unsure of what was happening outside, they were visibly terrified and disoriented.
"They shared their story of being cooped up without running water and not knowing what was happening outside. They also shared accounts of their friends and families leaving their homes and the lives they had built to escape the war.
"It was at that point that I decided I could do my part."
Mr Priveen then contacted the Embassy of Ukraine in Singapore to find out how he could contribute.
Its staff advised him that while it was unsafe to travel to the country, given the ongoing conflict, he could consider travelling to neighbouring European countries to offer support to Ukrainian refugees.
Now that he is in Poland, Mr Priveen intends to spend at least a month doing humanitarian work.
He also hopes to raise funds to purchase essential items such as blankets, toiletries, sanitary products and food for the refugees.
Asked if it would have been easier to donate money to the humanitarian crisis, Mr Priveen said: "We lead a very comfortable and cushy lifestyle in Singapore.
"We have the mindset that our duty is done once we make a donation.
"Sometimes, we need a wake-up call by experiencing situations beyond our comfort zone.
"I hope my experience will allay the fears people might have and encourage them to get directly involved."