From Costa Rica to the Stars to Poland and what it means to aid our neighbours

Posted: April 24, 2022 by Ty in Current Events, My Neighbour, Spirituality
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

An Interview with Bruce Callow

On Feb. 24, 2022 what was rumbling for many months became a reality, as Putin led Russia invaded the Ukraine. Many of those in Alberta, and Canada (a country with the third largest population of Ukrainians) could carry the empathy, of those being conscripted to invade (as many in Russia are also Ukrainian). What began was a stand off of people fighting back for their own country, and now infamous line of President Zelensky of Ukraine, I need arms not a ride (a loose paraphrase). In the midst though, is yet the creation by aggression of another humanitarian crisis, currently at roughly 5 million refugees seeking resettlement in lands to become new homes.

One guidepost on the journey is the Centrum Expo Refugee Center, and Warsaw; where many have gathered to support the holistic needs of those seeking safety, connection and new places of belonging. I have the privilege of knowing one of those that answered the call. Bruce Callow, a community builder, educator, and musician most recently known for his work in STEM and Space in Costa Rica, the use of sports to inspire, and from my own journey, a community builder within affordable housing for those exiting the trauma of homelessness.  What follows is some of his own thoughts, and answers on the experience, and what we can still do in response to the question of who is my neighbour?

Ty: How long were you in Poland?

Bruce:  I was in Poland for almost a month.

Ty: What led you to give of yourself?
Bruce: I saw in the news what was going on in Ukraine and felt compelled to contribute something on a personal level. I felt a strong calling to bear witness, to see things firsthand and to try to support Ukrainians in some small way. I did some research on the kinds of actions that were going on to support refugees in Poland and I felt I could complement these efforts. The attack on Ukraine felt like an attack on my own people. Ukrainian culture was always close to us growing up in Edmonton so no doubt that childhood imprinting had some impact on my decision to take personal action.

Ty: We can focus on many aspects of human crisis and pain, what were some moments of joy in the darkness?

Bruce: There were many moments of joy and laughter. Distributing NASA pins and stickers while casually interacting with people at the railway transit centers proved to be an effective way to generate smiles, both amongst children and adults. The somewhat odd idea of talking about NASA and space in the midst of all that chaos was not something I was sure would work at all. But the 900 NASA stickers and 200 NASA pins as well as other souvenirs donated by the Canadian Embassies in Costa Rica and Warsaw were gratefully and happily received.  These train station transit centers are very raw and intense places where the refugees have just arrived after their harrowing journeys from Ukraine. But in brief conversations and nonverbal interactions you could connect with people and by doing so help reassure them that they’re in a safe place and there are people from other countries that care about what they’re going through.  Through one of these brief interactions, I was able to meet a lady and her daughter with whom I introduced to a host family in Toronto, Canada. It’s a very humbling experience to see how a random intersection of lives can lead to such things.

I had the opportunity to give classes about outer space in more settled environments at permanent refugee centers as well as in private schools that created extension programs for Ukrainians refugee kids. They were extremely fun, and the kids and I enjoyed the banter between English and Ukrainian as we discussed the planets and other space concepts. It’s fortunate that most of the names of the planets are very similar in Ukrainian to English, not to mention the layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

The music jam sessions I hosted  were amongst the most meaningful experiences I had and had the opportunity to get to speak with a number of Ukrainians and volunteers through that medium. The young Polish soldiers I met at the refugee centers also  enjoyed the music but they had to keep a low profile about it as they were on duty.  I am still in contact with a number of people I jammed with.

Ty: Is there any story or stories that you want to ensure are shared?

Bruce:  In the Torwar Arena I had the opportunity to meet the most amazing gentleman named George who accompanied me on the piano as we performed and sang Hallelujah.  That song proved to be a favorite on many occasions and I remember once a group of four or five women were singing along with me. After we jammed, George and  had lunch together and he told me in detail the experience of his city being under attack and having to escape. He Is a medical student specializing in psychiatry. George  expressed gratitude for all the support Ukraine is receiving but at the same time he wishes that they didn’t have to receive all of this support. Ukrainians are hard-working and self reliant people and they’re not used to being in such a situation.  This was an attitude I saw reflected; Ukrainians want to take care of things on their own but it’s just not possible for them to do it under these circumstances.

“My Star Trek medical tricorder proved to be a huge hit”  

-Bruce Callo

Ty: I noticed in some of your sharing on your social media around music, what are your recollections? Favourite songs?

Bruce:  One young lady named Kari was particularly keen on Nirvana and Coldplay and we did some pretty good renditions. 

Ty: There was a story you had shared about space and the kids at the centre, can you re-share now please?
Bruce: The story was shared well, here: Santaneño traveled to Poland to help Ukrainians (santaanahoy.wixsite.com)

Ty: We both have worked in the homeless serving sector, and know, that we can learn as much from those we serve as they can from us or others; what are some key learnings you have from those you met?

Bruce:  I think one thing I reflected on was what’s happening to Ukrainians could happen to any country. It made me wonder how Canadians would react under a similar situation. One day you’re living your life normally, studying, eating lunch in a restaurant or whatever and then suddenly your world has turned completely upside down. I saw people studying for exams and working remotely from Railway transit centers and refugee centers. Trying to keep the threads of their life together. I remember back in 2013 when we worked at the Calgary Drop In Centre we assisted with the evacuation of the entire  population to a hotel where everyone slept in the ballroom area.  What I saw at the Centrum Expo with over 2500 people camped out, it kind of overwhelmed me.  But with the music, and quiet conversation you can break this mass of  humanity down into individual parts.

“the gentleman you see in this video is Pavel, he was a neighbor of mine where I stayed in Warsaw and he kindly matched all of the money I brought with me to buy emergency supplies so the total came to about US$800.”

Bruce Callow

Ty: Is there anything else that you would like to share about your experience?

Bruce: There were quite a few levels to this experience, and I think I’m still processing a lot of it. But I can say it was an amazing experience to get to meet some extremely brave people who are going through something they should never have had to suffer through. I made a lot of friends over there including fellow volunteers and people who are coordinating the opening of even more refugee centers.  I’m looking forward to supporting this network and to continue to help Ukraine as much as I can.

I want to thank the many people who helped make my program in Warsaw come to life, there were so many good Samaritans. Among these people are Mirela, Pavel, Magda, Magda ( Star Wars), Maria and Bart and Anna.

Ty: I want to thank you, Bruce while you were in Poland reaching out with some stories of folks to aid in resettling in Canada. As well, as the success, of them finding a sanctuary space for a new home. What are other ways that we can help?

Bruce: I invite readers to contact Roman Lakhnyuk at the email below. Roman is from Edmonton and is Ukrainian and I met him coordinating operations at the Central railway station. Photo attached. He is wearing the baseball hat.

Through Roman donors can contribute to purchasing urgent food needs to supply the food tent at the railway transit station or they can contribute to purchasing flights for refugees to get to Canada.

roman.lakhnyuk@gmail.com

I snapped that photo of Roman in a brief 10 minute visit I made to the control center at the railway station and he showed me photos today of the lady and child in that photo on their way to the UK. He saw through that entire process – Bruce Callow

As happens with life experiences, there are many ways that things come to a close, for someone who is at heart, a fan of stories of science fiction and hope in all forms they come in (including both a Trekkie and Star Wars), nothing is a better end for a chapter of this story than what Bruce shared on his Facebook:

Thank you, Bruce, it is always inspiring to see ways you continue to help. 

See the source image

*Images and videos from Bruce Callow’s time in Poland are from his collection, below are a few other videos:

Comments
  1. Chinook says:

    Nice having the videos accompanying the story

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