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Ukrainian Refugees Aided by ISU Grad Student

Written by on September 14, 2022

NORMAL, Ill. – While Illinois State University may seem like it’s international reach is limited due to it’s central midwestern location, there are still stories of Redbirds making their presence known abroad.

One of those Redbirds making an impact helping others is second-year political science grad student Jeffrey Walsh who spent his summer overseas in Warsaw, Poland where he volunteered aid to Ukrainian refugees displaced by the Russian-Ukraine conflict.

Walsh’s experience and inspiration for going overseas to assist in the refugee efforts dates back to his time as an army medic, and even back to when he was a child.

“I have a Polish heritage, I grew up with Ukrainian friends,” said Walsh. “I was in the peace corps. Many years ago I was an Army medic. So those combination of factors really drew me over there.”

Joining in the effort to help displaced refugees in an area close to an ongoing battle is a rattling and frightening thought, but when it came time to make a decision Walsh never let those thoughts deter him from his mission.

“The unknown is always scary to some degree,” said Walsh. “You don’t know what you’re getting into. Theoretically Poland is safer than Ukraine but as we know that war could spread quicker in an instant… But I knew that I was going to go, I had my mind set on it.”

While in Poland, Walsh spent his time with the Red Cross, UNICEF, and a refugee center varying from different positions with each organization to assist with relief efforts.

“They all were very valuable in their own way,” said Walsh. “It was nice with UNICEF I touched kids directly, I asked kids their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. One student wanted to be an opera singer, another wanted to go to university in the US or UK. It was nice to hear those goals and nice to hear they were in a safe space.”

During Walsh’s time with the Red Cross he was able to provide financial support to families who were unable to provide for themselves at the moment. This payment was a crucial way which families relied on to propel themselves back on their feet.

“My primary job at the Red Cross was when I was at a cash station,” said Walsh. “There were a hundred families who went through there every day, and that payout would pay out for four months… That was a very rewarding experience.”

One of the main roles which Walsh undertook was a teacher for Ukrainian youth. Educating and connecting through the English language with Ukrainian children regardless of any language barriers separating them in a unique way.

“I was teaching ages 8 to 16, and what’s one of the best ways to learn English? Singing songs,” said Walsh. “I would open class sometimes with some song like ‘YMCA’ or ‘New York, New York’. And those were the type of songs they could not only sing to but dance to. That helps with bonding, it’s kind of a fun opening before the English lesson starts.”

Poland has welcomed over 5.9 million Ukrainian refugees up to this point. This has made for a culturally diverse society where the Polish and Ukrainian cultures have meshed together.

“What I really liked is that Ukraine and Poland are Slavic brothers and sisters in arms,” said Walsh. “Anytime you saw the blue and yellow of Ukraine, you saw the red and white of Poland… that was very heartwarming to see. If you were in a store or shopping mall and there were five workers, three would be Polish, and the others would be Ukrainian or from Belarus… You got to see the Ukrainians assimilate into the culture.”

While in Warsaw, Walsh’s experience with the Ukrainian people went far beyond helping. Walsh had the pleasure of being able to live right alongside of them as well, hearing many stories from their home country.

“I was on a shoestring budget, and that turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” said Walsh. “If you’re in a hostel or a dormitory you’re among the people… So every time I went home to a hostel there were Ukrainians. All ages and all walks of life. I learned a lot of interesting stories from them.”

Walsh has made it clear that he would be more than happy to lend his efforts once more when he has no obligations here in the United States.

“I enjoyed my time there,” said Walsh. “It was more than worthwhile. I can’t say enough about my experience it really opened my eyes. Until you go to a country you really can’t experience it’s rich culture. And I kind of got to see two countries cultures because of the situation.”