“The most difficult part was looking into the eyes of the children”: This Brampton volunteer spent a week helping refugees in Poland
When Gurpartap Singh Toor isn’t working for his family’s construction and real estate business, he is volunteering with Khalsa Aid, an international non-profit organization based on the Sikh principle of recognizing the whole human race as one. In late March, he and five other Canadian volunteers flew to Poland for an eight-day aid mission.
—As told to Jared Lindzon
“I have done lots of volunteer work in and around Toronto: preparing aid packaging to send to those affected by global conflicts, providing food and medical supplies during the pandemic. But I have always wanted to go on an international mission. When war broke out in Ukraine, I asked my national director if anyone from Canada was going to help. There were no plans at the time, but he told me to stand by. About two weeks later, on March 26, I boarded a plane to Poland, along with five fellow volunteers, to begin an eight-day aid mission.
“After landing in Warsaw, we checked into our hotel and then went directly to the Ptak Warsaw Expo, the largest refugee centre in Poland, where we would be setting up a kitchen. The place reminded me of the International Centre in Mississauga—a massive expo space and convention centre with multiple, hangar-sized buildings. There were thousands of people, about 95 per cent of them women and children. Because of Ukraine’s martial law, it was very hard to find another male adult.
“The space was taken up by rows and rows of beds, many of them covered with stuffed animals. There was a play area set up for kids and food-handling areas at the back, behind partitions. Military personnel were stationed at all the entrances and exits. More than anything else, it was the feeling of despair that filled those massive halls.
“Soon after we arrived, the U.K. chapter of Khalsa Aid pulled up in a supply truck. That first day, we were only there to assess, but we got involved right away, unloading goods and supplies, and setting up a tent that would serve as our kitchen for the week. It was cold and dark, and we were all exhausted from the journey, so after a couple of hours we decided to leave for the night.
“The next morning, we woke up and learned that there was a Gurudwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, in the area. We thought it would be nice to go and pay our respects before making our way back to the expo centre. When we got there, we were told it was the only Gurudwara in all of Eastern Europe, and that some people had travelled hours to be there. It felt like a sign, and it gave us comfort to be in a familiar place in a foreign land.
“When we arrived at the converted expo centre, the U.K. team had already started cooking. There must have been roughly 8,500 people there that day, and seeing them—especially all the kids—inspired us to start cooking right away. By that time, most people had already been served lunch, so we decided to make French fries as a snack. At first, we were worried that nobody would know where we were or that we were cooking, but as soon as we turned on the fryers, you could smell the fries from a mile away. Within half an hour, almost 300 people had lined up, and the line was steady until we closed up that evening.
“The thing that surprised me most that day was the number of people who took pictures of us. Of the six of us, four were men with turbans and long beards. They had never seen anybody that looked like us before. They were nice about it, but they took so many pictures, every day, nonstop. The next day, I brought a Canadian flag to hang outside the kitchen. It was a way to communicate that Canada was supporting Ukraine, a sort of diplomatic safety net for us. But that only brought more questions, because in their minds, we didn’t look like Canadians.
“The most difficult part of the entire experience was looking into the eyes of the children who were there. As we served them, I was reminded of the story of Oliver Twist: little children lined up for food, coming back for extra servings to bring to their families. It was really difficult to see these children—who had nothing to do with the war, who had no say and no vote—being displaced from their home country, trying to make sense of it all. It was heartbreaking knowing that they’d left everything behind—not just their belongings, but their entire lives: their schools, their neighbourhoods, their communities, as well as their older brothers, dads and grandfathers. They didn’t know if they were ever going to see them again. Their home was just a few hours away, but they might never go back.
“But interacting with the kids was also the best part of the trip. There was such a huge language barrier—they didn’t know any English, not even “yes” and “no”—but we still found ways to communicate and share stories through hand signals and Google Translate. In the evenings, once all the cooking and cleaning was done, we played soccer together, and we did our best to make the kids laugh.
“At the end of one of those long days, as we were packing up the tent, a kid came over to ask if I had any cookies left. I looked around the tent and found a packet, took one out for myself and gave him the rest. The kid then took off to share them with his friends, but returned five minutes later, holding the last two cookies, offering them to me. Using hand gestures, I signalled that it was for him, but he looked back at me with a big frown and made a grunting noise, pushing the cookies in my face. My eyes teared up. He had absolutely nothing, yet he was still willing to share. That speaks volumes. I will never forget that moment.
“In the final days of our trip, we travelled to the border town of Przemyśl, less than two hours from Lviv. More than 200 international organizations had set up operations there. Przemyśl was lit up, but just across the border in Ukraine, it was pitch black. I saw not even a single light bulb.
“At the border, we watched mothers and grandmothers walking off of busses with as much luggage as they could carry. Many of them had young kids, some of whom were also carrying bags. Many of them were lining up to get on buses heading in various directions, but there was also a line-up of people, mostly Ukrainians, waiting to go in the opposite direction. I asked one why they were going back into Ukraine, and they said, ‘That’s our country. We’re going to die regardless. Why not die for your own country?’
“We left Poland on April 2. During the flight home, as we passed over Toronto at night, I realized I hadn’t seen that many lights in a long time. As soon as we touched down, I had a feeling I’d never experienced before: a true sense of appreciation for Canada, the safety and the freedom that we have here. I remember turning on the tap and being amazed that I could access hot water instantly, that I could go to the kitchen and eat whatever I wanted, that I could drive long distances in my car without being stopped and questioned by armed guards. When we complain about our government, it comes from a place of privilege; we have the luxury to say what we want, to be free, to complain.
“I realize that not everyone in Canada has the same privileges that I enjoy. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by how much work there is to do, not just elsewhere in the world, but right here in our own backyard. Sharing my experience with others back home, however, gave me hope. There are so many Canadians who want to do their part and make a positive contribution. We are privileged to live in a free and prosperous country. Let’s use that to serve the rest of humanity.”