BYU's College of Nursing global health study abroad concluded last month with an unexpected opportunity to aid Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, Poland. Upon arriving in Poland, initial plans to meet with nurses in the country didn't materialize. Julie Valentine, associate dean of the College of Nursing, reached out to other contacts to determine where her students could be of assistance. A day later, they received an invitation to one of the country's busiest refugee centers.
“We walked into a huge room lined with thousands of cots, housing more than 3,000 refugees, and it was near silent,” recalled Leslie Miles, a professor in BYU’s College of Nursing. "Women and children sitting on their cots, some just staring in total silence. Children playing quietly on the concrete floors."
With this disquieting image in her mind, Valentine’s nursing instincts kicked in. “Put us anywhere we can be of use,” she told the Polish refugee and international healthcare workers.
BYU students and professors helped refugees find clothing, assembled hygiene kits, and worked with doctors to administer medicine. They organized items that had been donated to the facility like bedding and car seats to make them readily available for refugee families in need. At one point or another, each of the 13 students took time to play with the children, many of whom were eager for a friend and longed for trusted human contact.
“I spent a few hours in the kindergarten,” said Symbria Lewis, a senior from Murray, Utah. “As soon as I walked in the door, a three-year-old little girl with round cherub cheeks and cute pigtail buns grabbed my index finger, sat me down on a couch, crawled on my lap and hugged me. These kids have been put in unbelievable circumstances, and they just needed love and to know that someone was there to listen to them.”
Natalie Wilson, a senior from Bettendorf, Iowa, accompanied doctors and nurses as they canvassed the clinic to treat illness and injuries. Wilson, who served her mission in Ukraine, helped translate between refugees and doctors.
“There’s some mistrust of healthcare in the center, partly due to language barriers or other cultural differences,” said Wilson. “We had a lot of good American, Canadian and Polish doctors, but there weren’t medical personnel that spoke Ukrainian or Russian. Although I didn’t have a deep knowledge of medical vocabulary, I translated as much as I could to help people get treatment.”
Exhausted after a long day, the BYU group boarded a train bound for Krakow, where they would spend the next few nights before returning home. On the train, they befriended an aging Ukrainian grandmother, her daughter and grandchildren. They found seats for the refugee family, electing to stand or sit in the cramped hallway for the more than four-hour journey.
It was a foundational experience that BYU students say prepared them for future nursing careers.
“Because of the things I’ve learned at BYU, I can go forth and serve and I know I can make a difference and ease burdens,” said Lewis. "Offering a listening ear made a difference.”
For Miles, these experiences have already proven to be the most meaningful of the many global health study abroad trips she has organized over the past decade. Both professors reflected on the students who exemplified the College of Nursing’s motto to “learn the Healer’s art.”
Miles and Valentine are committed to further helping the Ukrainian refugees. Through their experiences, they have gained a deeper understanding of this humanitarian crisis. They hope others will remain dedicated to helping Ukrainians. “This is not ending, and the humanitarian needs are immense,” said Valentine.