When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, we were on a school break. When we returned to school a few days later, thousands of refugees were already crossing the border into Poland. Within three weeks, news outlets were reporting that over 2.5 million people had crossed into Poland. Most of these people were women and children that had left their homes suddenly and with urgency. They came with only what they could carry—a suitcase, a backpack, or even just a few canvas bags.
In response, everyone I know started helping in some capacity. Many people began hosting Ukrainian refugees and others dedicating time and money to various efforts and initiatives. In March, I welcomed a woman and her daughter into my home. The daughter and I bonded over Harry Potter (she’s a Ravenclaw and I’m a Gryffindor). We played the ukulele and sang songs together. I learned that she loved art, so I asked my colleagues and the parent community for art supplies and an English copy of the fifth Harry Potter book. Within minutes, I had a handful of responses from people eager to help. They stayed for three nights before heading toward the German border to stay with a cousin. This time, the daughter carrying an extra canvas bag filled with her new art supplies and Harry Potter book. I had originally thought my apartment would provide refugees a few nights of housing before they moved on to a more permanent situation, but when my second guests arrived, they had nowhere to go and ended up staying for five weeks before leaving for Germany.
When I wrote about my guests on Facebook, friends and family asked how they could help and asked me to put their money to good use. I had no idea it would grow into something so big. I quickly realized I needed a tracking system and help figuring out how to use the funds I received. Some of the funds went to hygiene supplies, which PYP students helped pack into hygiene kits for the border. The students also helped me reorganize medical supplies being sent to MARLOG – a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Kovel, Ukraine. Friends and colleagues helped purchase and deliver thousands of dollars’ worth of snacks and drinks to the Central Station in Warsaw. My colleague Kevin and Ukrainian guest Natasha helped pack 100 backpacks with school supplies being delivered to a local elementary school that had begun enrolling Ukrainian children. When Natasha requested Ukrainian letter stickers to put on the keyboard of the Polish laptop she had borrowed, a DP student stopped me in the hall one day, stickers in hand, asking “Is this what you are looking for?” (Yes, it was).
Every initiative has come to fruition through the collective efforts of multiple, sometimes unconnected, and unexpected people. The outpouring of support has been incredible. To date, I have received and distributed USD 67,500 that have come from 319 donations, including three businesses near my hometown that held benefits to raise money for Ukraine.
Similar initiatives have been happening all over. My school, the American School of Warsaw (ASW), has raised over USD 177,000 through a fundraising and humanitarian campaign #ASWforUkraine. PYP, MYP and DP students are at the heart of these initiatives and are heavily involved in aid for Ukraine. They have researched aid efforts and needs as part of PYPx; designed their own grocery delivery program as part of MYP Service in Action; and spent countless hours volunteering in the ASW distribution hub and requisitioning needed items as part of DP CAS. The “Core Team” of 12 MYP and DP students met every morning before school to review the requests submitted via a Google Form and determine how and when to fulfill those requests. Students in all three IB programmes have organized various fun days, providing arts, crafts and sports activities for Ukrainian children and their parents. Many students’ families have also hosted Ukrainians in their own homes, including two sisters, one MYP and one DP, who moved out of their bedroom to make space for their guests.
If there were ever an authentic example of service learning—of compassion and empathy, of student innovation and initiative—it has been right here at ASW. And our students seem to recognize the tremendous role they are playing at a pivotal moment in history. In June when I was meeting with a DP student to prepare for university applications, she asked “can I write about what it’s been like to host Ukrainians?” Absolutely, I told her. This has been perhaps the most meaningful and impactful experience of her life. She’ll carry this with her forever, and she’s forming relationships with her Ukrainian guests that will likely last a lifetime. She’s learning the powerful impact she can have on the lives of others and the difference that she can make. She is living the IB learner profile attributes as are all the other students spearheading or supporting these initiatives.
Through all this good work—this service in action for an urgent cause right on our doorstep—I hope we are growing a generation of advocates and activists who will head out into the world and do amazing things that make our world a better place, especially for those in need.
Rebecca Pohl has been a High School Counsellor at the American School of Warsaw since 2019. She received the International ACAC GEM Award in June 2022 for her efforts to help Ukraine. Previously she was a counsellor in Zambia, China, and Mexico. If you’d like to learn more about these efforts to help Ukraine or would like to get involved or donate, please visit Rebecca’s Facebook page or #ASWforUkraine. Be part of this good work!