Toronto man puts studies on hold to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland

A Toronto man who was studying in the United Kingdom when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, says he has placed his studies on hold to help refugees fleeing to Poland.

Victor Lal told CBC News he has been in Poland and Ukraine since the fourth day of the conflict, which began in late February. He says he’s now in the Polish capital, Warsaw, organizing community support for Ukrainian who’ve fled their country.

“Right now, people are coming into Warsaw and they don’t have anywhere to go,” Lal said during an interview Thursday via Zoom. 

“The reason why I’m in Warsaw is raising money, using that money to rent whatever we can, whatever is available, hotel rooms, hospital beds, apartments, and giving refugee families, especially single women and women with children who are a bit more vulnerable, a place to stay, where they can rest, where they can be safe.” 

On Thursday Ukraine accused Moscow of forcibly taking hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities to Russia, where some may be used as “hostages” to pressure the capital, Kyiv, to surrender. Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s ombudsperson, said 402,000 people, including 84,000 children, have been taken against their will to Russia, and some have reported shortages of food and water there.

Helping refugees across the border

Lal says he previously sponsored 17 Syrian refugees to come to Canada. He says he raised funds by biking from Toronto to St. John’s, Newfoundland in 2017, as well as swimming 52 kilometres across Lake Ontario in 2018. This initiative was called Canadians for Syria and raised  $90,000 from more than 400 Canadians.

He says he has raised more than $40,000 from more than 300 donors through his HandsOnForUkraine initiative. He says most donations have come from Canada. 

Ukrainian evacuees board a train to Warsaw at the rail station in Przemysl, near the Polish-Ukrainian border this week, following Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

“My idea in creating this initiative was to enable people from around the world to provide direct support to Ukrainian refugees, in the same way that the Polish population has been able to,” Lal said.

“Essentially, it’s a way to be on the ground from wherever you are in the world, with 100 per cent of donations going to supplies, accommodation, meals for refugees, and other necessities.”

Lal says he has also transported supplies from Poland to a non-governmental organization in Ukraine. On a return trip, he says he transported three Ukrainian refugees, including a 73-year-old woman, to Poland.

Lal says he plans to remain in Poland for the next few weeks, and will “still be involved over the course of the crisis” when he returns to the U.K. 

“I’m setting up [an] organization now to have people here in Poland and Ukraine who are going to be on the ground — these are Polish and Ukrainian nationals — and I’ll be able to coordinate this from where I am in [the U.K.].”

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