Monika Sidhu: Russian Invasion, Ukrainian Discrimination, And Indian Incompetence
Baaz speaks to refugees, humanitarian orgs, and a volunteer with the Indian embassy evacuation efforts on the chaotic realities of the Russian war in Ukraine for Sikhs and Punjabis.
March 9, 2022 | 7 min. read | Original Reporting
For Hartej Sawhney, Kyiv has become his home over the last four years. Sawhney, who is the founder and CEO of Zokyo and Build Capital, a blockchain and cybersecurity venture studio and investment firm, originally hails from New Jersey. He has done his fair share of living beyond his birthplace but found himself the most gravitated towards the capital of Ukraine.
There are a lot of things Sawhney, 33, recollects about why he calls Ukraine home and why he is so proud to do so. He takes a moment between conversations about the Russian invasion to share with us how much he loves the food there.
“A lot of people don't know about the magical Ukrainian black soil. If you just Google Ukrainian black soil, you'll find a lot of history about how this magical black soil enables them the growth of really great food, organic food. [The] majority of Ukraine's farming is still organic.”
This is the first time in days that he has been able to have lighthearted dialogue, he shares. The reality is that Sawhney is not sure when he will be able to return back home. He does not know if he will ever be able to return, or if he will have to find a new place to start calling home.
Sawhney tears up during our conversation as he describes how he had been able to leave for Spain. He is actively helping others in Kyiv, trying to help them find safety and security as it becomes more difficult to leave the country.
Within a matter of days, Sawhney’s world has been met with immense turmoil.
He said he and some colleagues from Ukraine are mobilizing on WhatsApp to find medical and humanitarian help. They are trying to coordinate with any other groups of people who are also trying to help.
“We just want to get more money raised and more people who can help and we're looking for people who have accommodations in a lot of countries. We're looking for people with extra bedrooms, extra homes, extra apartments, extra cars,” he said.
“A lot of these families are going to arrive with minimal to no money, minimal to no clothing, and no way to access money or shelter for months to come. The needs are gonna be endless. And when you look at the list, you realize how many needs humans have for everything from vitamins to baby formula; diapers to proper garbage bags. It's really grim.”
Over one million people have now fled Ukraine, with the number increasing every day according to the United Nations. That is only projected to grow as Russia ups the firepower directed at Ukrainian cities now sieged across mostly the eastern half of the country. Many are now stuck in cities, sheltering in subway tunnels to avoid the shelling and bombings.
Jatinder Singh is the National Director for Khalsa Aid Canada and in recent weeks his work has been helping many in Ukraine find safety. Many of those he is assisting are international students who have reached out themselves. Parents have also been frantically contacting them for assistance as well.
“I'm working with the UK office just on guiding students on how to get to the train stations, providing them with any updates from the embassy, or from train schedules and things like that.”
“[We’re] getting hundreds and hundreds of calls, either from students or from their parents asking about what they need to do.”
When we first spoke last week, he said the situations were most dire in Ukrainian cities Sumy and Kharkiv.
“From Sumy, there have been no trains running. So the students there [have been] essentially trapped.”
The conditions got worse after Jatinder spoke with Baaz.
There have been reports of students resorting to drinking melted snow for water. In other reports, there was a moment of hope for some students being boarded onto a bus sent by the Indian embassy, but that was taken away after the students were told they would not make it out in a time of the ceasefire.
Recent corridors have been set up once again to allow many students to escape, reports shared with Baaz suggest. However, this update, and its scale, could not be firmly verified at the time of publication.
The situation is evolving almost constantly everywhere.
For now, Jatinder is still in communication with those in various parts of Ukraine and he knows how difficult and bleak the situation is.
One of the people he was communicating with in Kharkiv was 29-year-old Hardeep Singh.
Hardeep has been in Kharkiv for two years, first as a student and then working as an electrical engineer. On foot and by trains, he traveled long distances with others, in freezing conditions, in the hopes of getting out of Ukraine.
He spoke with Baaz along the way and upon his safe and ultimate arrival in Poland.
When asked about his health, Hardeep spoke honestly about how tough the conditions were while he was on the move.
“The conditions are very, very bad. Some people traveled 40 km on foot, some traveled 50 km, I traveled 36 km on foot. Our feet are blistered. The temperature is in the minus,” said Hardeep.
“The conditions are bad for everyone.”
But more than just harsh conditions, Hardeep said he could sense the preference against people of colour.
“For people with [non-Indian] passports or who are white, they get some preference,” he told Baaz.
At first, it was not clear if Polish authorities were stopping them from getting to crossings, or Ukrainian officials. However, it eventually became apparent that it was Ukrainian guards blocking their access to international borders while letting white refugees through without issue.
He says initial rumours amongst Indians were that they were getting less preference because of the allegedly positive relationship between Putin and Modi. That theory also faded away when they saw that other racialized minorities were being treated similarly, if not more harshly.
Jatinder also recalls others he has been in contact with telling him about the discrimination during their journey to the borders.
“We had some students trying to get onto the train and the first time they attempted it, they were told no. What they were told was that Ukrainians [including men] can all get on, and women and children of any background can get on, but the predominantly South Asian men, who were students, were not allowed,” he said.
There have also been many reports on the harsh treatment of African students at the borders, Hardeep witnessed this first hand.
“The African students are getting physically assaulted,” he said. He noted that there were degrees to the discrimination, his experience as a brown man was not necessarily always physical he shares.
Baaz @BaazNewsOrgBREAKING | Baaz has spoken to Sikhs waiting to cross the Poland-Ukraine border but have noticed preference being given to white refugees. Some have been waiting for 3 days now and believe it may be Ukraine holding them back due to India's stance on the #UkraineRussiaConflict. https://t.co/HFPh015cEb
A common theme amongst everyone we talked to was how unprepared Indian embassy officials were.
Baaz was able to speak to a volunteer that was assisting with Indian government efforts who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity. We agreed after verifying their access and documented conversations with embassy officials. We refer to him as Anoop in order to protect their identity.
They shared with Baaz that many students felt stranded and abandoned by Indian embassies, and individuals involved with the efforts were generally demoralized.
Communication between refugees and Indian officials has been chaotic and discombobulated, Anoop says. Partly because of the lack of resources available to embassy officials, who have increasingly relied on volunteers to assist with evacuation efforts.
Anoop gave Baaz access to a verified Telegram chat set up by embassy officials called TeamSOSIndia. The chat has over 5000 members and is being used by embassy officials and their volunteers to coordinate with international students attempting to flee.
Baaz has decided not to share screenshots of the chat in order to protect those attempting to flee, but it is frantic in its pace and frustrated in its tone. As one member put it, “so far the embassy [has] only supplied empty promises.” A sentiment that is almost universally shared in the chat.
“There is a lack of communication from [Indian] embassies. For example, students from India are relying on the Indian embassy to communicate resources, directions, hazards, etc. The communication has been very vague, and there was a growing sense of abandonment felt by students who were communicating these concerns to me,” Anoop says.
“Students were unsure of their next step and were relying on volunteers from the Indian embassy to guide them along. Students were also frustrated that there was no diplomatic presence in the country and the assistance was coming from abroad. It should be noted that at this point, a lot of the assistance to evacuate Indian students is coming from non-Indians,” Anoop adds.
Those attempting to flee have been clear in the Telegram chat that they are not impressed with government efforts. Anoop shares that the government could have been much better prepared, especially when compared to other countries' efforts.
“What I realized throughout the past week was that India sent their children abroad to study, however, left them high and dry during the conflict. The complaints from the students were that the Indian government, especially stationed in Russia, was well aware of this conflict, and did not take measures to allocate resources, or evacuate the thousands of students in Ukraine in a timely manner. The focus was on the west side of Ukraine which was at minimal risk of combat.”
Monika Sidhu is a journalist based out of Brampton. She covers topics of arts, culture, and social justice. More recently, she graduated with a Master of Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University. You can find her on Twitter at @MonikaSidhuu.
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