WARSAW — Tucked away in the suburbs of Warsaw is eastern Europe’s only gurdwara, a Sikh temple of worship. When Ukrainian refugees began flooding into Poland, it opened its doors to them, offering shelter and respite, particularly for refugees of Indian descent. I learned of the gurdwara through a viral tweet and went to visit in person. The kindness and civic mindedness I witnessed there reinforced my belief that the world would be a better place if it took notes from the Sikh community.
At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was a flood of news stories about the racism experienced by Indians fleeing to Poland, where they were allegedly being turned away at the border by Ukrainian troops so that Ukrainians and other Europeans could cross instead. Racism in eastern Europe should surprise no one, but these stories invited another question: why were there so many Indians in Ukraine?
As it turns out, Ukraine has long been an educational destination for Indian students, particularly those studying medicine, dentistry and nursing. In India, publicly funded medical colleges provide affordable degrees, but spots are limited and only one in 16 applicants are accepted. Rejected students can attend private schools instead, but tuition is exorbitantly expensive.
As many Ukrainian universities are significantly more affordable than Indian private schools, some Indian students go there instead — especially because Ukrainian degrees can lead to job opportunities elsewhere in Europe.
At the beginning of this year, there were approximately 18,000 Indian students in Ukraine, along with another 2,000 Indian nationals. In mid-February, as tensions flared up before the war, 4,000 of them returned to India via commercial flights, though the surge in demand for plane tickets led to price gouging.
When Russia invaded, the Indian government launched Operation Ganga, a full-scale evacuation project. It set up shelters in neighbouring countries, re-purposing local sports halls and other civic spaces, and chartered flights to transport refugees back to India.
The process was imperfect: students complained that, because the Indian government insisted on keeping refugees in centralized shelters, Indians were forced to sleep together on the floor; in some cases, hundreds of people were packed into the same, cavernous rooms. Meanwhile, Ukrainian refugees stayed in the homes of nearby locals, where they had beds and privacy.
Many Indian refugees fell through the cracks and some found themselves at Warsaw’s Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, where Poland’s Sikh community has been taking care of them.
In the first few days, the gurdwara was bursting at the seams with refugees. Staff even called a nearby Hindu temple for support. But by the time I arrived on March 5, the initial crush had passed. Most of Ukraine’s Indians had already been spirited home. What was left was but a trickle.
The gurdwara itself is a nondescript, two-story orange house located on a quiet, suburban street. Beside the main building is a small, muddy courtyard, as well as a single-story addition that serves as the gurdwara’s langar, a community kitchen that provides free meals to the public, regardless of their religious, social or economic background.
I met with JJ Singh, the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha’s chief administrative officer, who also serves as president of the Indo Polish Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He was barefoot, dressed in loose white robes and had a gracious air to him. Before we proceeded, he offered me a cup of chai tea and some food.
He explained that the gurdwara had a long history of community engagement. Every Sunday, around 300 to 500 people pass through it for worship. Of them, the vast majority are Sikh, although some are also Sindhis (a complicated Indian subgroup in which Sikhism and Hinduism often intersect). Some Poles come by, too, because they enjoy meditating to Sikh hymns and music, even if they don’t understand the language.
“Indians started coming to Poland in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when things opened up,” Singh said. “The early Indians were mostly traders working in wholesale and textiles. There was lots of investment from the production side — setting up a business here means having access to the whole EU market.”
Today, there are around 15,000 Indians living in Poland. Singh was surprised when he first learned about how large Ukraine’s Indian community was, having had no idea that it was larger than his own. These previously unknown Indians began to arrive at the gurdwara, seeking shelter. At first there were just a few of them coming by car. Then, pandemonium broke out.
A tweet about the gurdwara, which included Singh’s personal cellphone number, went viral and got over 25,000 likes. Singh was inundated with calls and though he could not answer them all, he made a point of calling every single person back.
“Do you have an assistant to help you with this?” I asked. Singh lifted his phone and laughed, “It’s just me — I am my own assistant.”
Singh stressed that not every Indian refugee was a student, as there were many entrepreneurs and merchants, as well. They came to Ukraine to make new lives for themselves and, with their savings, had built businesses through years, if not decades, of toil. Now they are going back to India empty-handed.
Many of the refugees who arrived at the gurdwara were students who “came in because they didn’t have the right information at the right time,”Singh said. Those students, who had travelled for so long to get to Warsaw, had to be sent back to the Polish-Ukrainian border so they could stay in the Indian government’s designated camps until a chartered flight could take them home.
Unfortunately, Indian refugees in Poland were not given much time to figure out their next moves. The European Union granted Ukrainian citizens the blanket right to stay and work throughout the bloc for up to three years, but individuals from other nationalities do not have access to that right. According to Singh, the Indians who fled to Poland were only allowed to stay for a maximum of 14 days.
“We, as responsible community members, inform them that they have a transit visa and have to go back to their home country,” he said.
When asked about racism, he said that he hadn’t heard anything bad about the Polish side and that the incidents he’s heard of mostly involved Ukrainians. Much of the animus Ukrainians feel toward Indians relates to their government’s unwillingness to take a firm stand against Russia’s invasion.
The Indian government is one of the few major powers in the world that maintains close ties with both Washington and Moscow, and Russia remains one of India’s largest arms dealers. As a result, India has been reluctant to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. In late February, just days into the war, India abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that Russia cease its invasion. This infuriated many Ukrainians.
Singh heard that when Indians were harassed by Ukrainian border agents, they were told, “If you need help, go to Mr. Putin. He will help you.” Some of the Indian students were allegedly beaten by Ukrainian refugees.
Though he condemned these incidents, Singh also called for empathy: “You have to understand them — they’re losing their brothers and sisters.”
Throughout his many calls with students stuck at the border, he had recommended that they stick together in groups and then select one or two group leaders who could calmly talk to immigration and army officials. “Don’t try to rush on,” he told them.
We went to the first floor of the gurdwara, where a handful of refugees were sitting against the wall, chatting amongst themselves. I spoke with a man in his early 30s named Dharmesh, a PhD student with a penchant for collecting degrees, who had spent 12 years studying in Ukraine.
It had taken Dharmesh 10 hours by train to reach Lviv, the western Ukrainian city where refugees tend to gather before reaching the Polish border. He stood throughout the entire ride, squished against the door at the end of the train. When he finally arrived at the border, he had to wait for another 10 hours. He berated himself for not taking enough food for his journey.
He said that, because he was a “super senior student,” he hardly knew anyone in the Indian community — most of them were studying medicine, not philosophy, and were much younger than him. He was friends mostly with Ukrainians, including other students in his philosophy program. His main concern was figuring out how he would get his documents from the university and what would happen if he could not obtain copies of his diplomas.
Dharmesh said that accusations of racism were overblown, noting that, “The Ukrainian people are really nice. I’ve been living in Ukraine for 12 years and I never faced any discrimination.”
I then spoke with Manpreet, another student who, prior to studying in Ukraine, had earned an information technology diploma in New Zealand. She had learned of the gurdwara through a friend and decided to go there because, “In my view, the gurdwara is the most safe place. We are Sikhs and we belong among the Sikh community.”
Her trip was much like Dharmesh’s — long, exhausting train rides and endless crowds and waiting. A flicker of hurt came over her face as she recalled how she had been ripped off while buying a train ticket to Warsaw. Her ticket was supposed to cost 40 zloty (C$12), but the man selling the ticket charged her 1,000 zloty and NZ$10.
I also asked Manpreet about racism. She seemed shocked and shook her head — racism hadn’t been a huge issue for her. “Not all Ukrainians are equal,” she noted. “Some are good and some treat Indians very badly. But they are mostly good. One thing I see in Ukrainians is that they know the English language, but they don’t speak English to us. They don’t want to talk English.”
Afterwards, we went to the langar, where food was being served. In the kitchen, volunteers stirred large vats of dal, washed dishes and scrubbed the floor. A cauldron of chai bubbled. It was impossible to tell who was a volunteer and who was a refugee — there was so much warmth and goodwill.
I sat beside a pregnant Polish woman named Elmira. She and her husband had started volunteering at the gurdwara four years ago, after she learned about it through a Sikh friend. Every week, they take fruits and vegetables to the langar and cook food with the Sikhs. “In this situation, in this community, it is really together. We feel community,” she said.
I bumped into her husband, Mirek, on the way to the kitchen. “Tea,” he said in a gruff voice as he pushed another cup of chai into my hands.
Days later, I took a six-hour bus ride to the Ukrainian-Polish border. A large refugee processing centre had been set up in Przemyśl, a nearby town, where, in the parking lot, I smelled a familiar aroma. There was another group of Sikhs in a tent, serving bowls of dal and trays of french fries. They handed me another cup of chai.
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