Stepping Up to the Plate

Narrated by Zheng Qiu-di
Compiled by Zhu Xiu-lian
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

With no volunteers in Poland, it was a real challenge for Tzu Chi to carry out humanitarian work for displaced Ukrainians. Thankfully, volunteers from other European countries stepped up to the plate to help.

Zheng Qiu-di (鄭秋娣), right, a Tzu Chi volunteer from the Netherlands, hands over a gift card to a Ukrainian refugee in a distribution in Opole, Poland.Lu Pei-ling

I am a Tzu Chi volunteer living in the Netherlands. I first participated in our foundation’s international relief work in 2012. We reached out to help earthquake survivors in Italy that year. It marked the first time Tzu Chi had carried out disaster relief work in that country. I’m from Taiwan but have lived in Europe for 38 years. I am not afraid to do pioneer work for Tzu Chi in any new country. No matter how difficult something is, we must be brave enough to rise to the challenge. My fellow volunteers in Europe embrace the same conviction. Whenever we learn that a disaster has occurred in Europe or that there are refugees here needing our help, we join hands to deliver aid.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many Ukrainians fled to Poland. Tzu Chi decided to launch distributions in Poland to help the refugees there through this tough time. But, because there were no Tzu Chi volunteers or offices in Poland, it was difficult to conduct aid work there. To help out, Susan Chen (٣/>ِ٧L), a volunteer from Germany, arrived in Lublin, eastern Poland, at the end of March. I arrived on April 1, and by July I had made five trips there.

I remember most clearly the distributions we held in May, in conjunction with Caritas Internationalis. I operated the sound system during those events. My work required my full attention. I had to make sure nothing went wrong with the music or videos I played, from the time the refugees entered the venue, to the prayers halfway through, to the very end. In addition to being very familiar with the equipment I was operating, I needed to respond quickly to any unexpected situation. During similar events in the past, I had usually worked alone in a dedicated space offstage. But this time, I had to work onstage due to the limitations of the venue provided by Caritas. My vantage point allowed me to clearly see the facial expressions of everyone in attendance. I was deeply stunned by what I saw from the stage, so much so that I’d get goose bumps.

Almost all the Ukrainians who came to our events were older people, women, and kids. Most common were young mothers with children in tow. When they entered the venue, their eyes were vacuous. They looked like their hearts couldn’t have been heavier. My heart really went out to them when I saw them like that. I’m a mother myself; the sight of the young refugee mothers in particular reminded me of my own daughter. Looking at them, I thought of how hard it would be for my daughter and how my heart would break if she was the one who had to flee from a war with young kids in tow.

To an outsider, we seemed to carry off every distribution with ease. But what wasn’t as visible was all the work that went into the events behind the scenes. A casual observer couldn’t know the difficulties that volunteer Susan Chen and Joey Chen, a Taiwanese student who helped us organize the distributions, had to overcome to make the distributions possible. Knowing how much pressure they were under, other volunteers and I did our best to help them and fill in wherever we were needed. Though we couldn’t communicate directly with the refugees due to the language barrier, with the help of Caritas Internationalis, the Ukrainians who took part in our work relief program, and some Taiwanese students studying in Poland, we successfully pulled off one distribution after another. When we saw the smiles on the refugees’ faces after they had received our aid or when they hugged us, we forgot all the hard work we had put in.

Since I joined Tzu Chi, I’ve participated in our disaster relief work in Italy, Germany, and Bosnia. I have also worked with other volunteers to help refugees in Serbia, mostly from the Middle East. From those experiences and the experience of helping displaced Ukrainians in Poland, I’ve come to deeply realize how the first step is often the hardest. Even though Tzu Chi has provided aid to over a hundred countries and regions, most people in Europe don’t know us. Since we are a Buddhist organization, we hold a different religion from those of most of the people we are trying to help, so it is easy for them to suspect that we are offering them help with the ulterior motive of converting them to Buddhism. That’s why when we first express our desire to help, we often have doors shut in our faces. However, if we can successfully take the first step and make a breakthrough, the other things fall into place more easily.

Things are often easier if we can establish channels for communication with local governments or with agencies in charge of refugee affairs and win their trust. If our work necessitates the purchase of relief goods, it’s also better to establish partnership with local businesses.

When we encounter challenges, I take out my wallet, look at a photo of Master Cheng Yen I keep there, and ponder: “What would the Master do if she were in our situation?” I also use her words to encourage myself: “In the face of ever-changing circumstances, we must bring forth wisdom. In the face of difficulties, we must develop resilience. In the face of tedious processes, we must learn patience….” I’ve found that whether something is difficult or not often depends on how we look at it.

In carrying out international relief work, we must be quick to adapt to the circumstances facing us and provide help that’s really needed. Take for example the work we did after Germany was hit by severe flooding in 2021. The floods damaged electricity and natural gas facilities in the disaster area, making cooking inconvenient for local residents. When we saw survivors left with nothing but cold bread, we decided to rent a food truck to launch a hot meal service. When we saw how happy local residents were when they received our food, we knew we had made the right decision to launch the service.

We need to mobilize many people for every relief mission. We typically work in a relay fashion, trying to accomplish as much as possible with the limited manpower we have. Master Cheng Yen says: “We must overcome difficulties, not be overcome by them.” I’m grateful to my fellow volunteers from 12 countries and areas for working together to help the Master serve Ukrainian refugees this time. Relieving suffering and giving joy is our mission. Nothing is difficult if you have the will to do it.

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