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BYU nursing students provide aid to Ukrainian refugees

By Ashtyn Asay - | Jun 16, 2022

Courtesy Symbria Lewis

BYU nursing students in Europe as part of the global health study abroad trip.

Students from the Brigham Young University College of Nursing had the chance to see the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine up close and personal last month.

As a part of their global health study abroad program, a group of BYU nursing students was able to provide aid to Ukrainian refugees staying in Warsaw, Poland. However, this wasn’t always the plan.

“At the time, the plan was to go to Finland and Poland, but after the Ukraine war broke out it became a little more flexible… we weren’t fully sure if we were going to be able to go to Poland depending on what the situation was like when we got there,” said Symbria Lewis, a BYU nursing student. “So we kept our plans very loose, expecting that they would change at the last minute, which they did.”

Initially, the students were to meet with nurses upon their arrival in Krakow, Poland, and put their medical skills to use in a hospital. Their plans ultimately fell through due to COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“It was with contacts in previous years that I had established to be in the hospital, but with COVID and the current refugee crisis they would not accommodate us,” said Leslie Miles, a BYU nursing professor. “We still planned to go, but did not know what we were going to be doing.”

Julie Valentine, associate dean of the College of Nursing, reached out to contacts within the country to find another place for her students to volunteer, ultimately finding an opportunity for them to serve in Warsaw — at one of Poland’s busiest refugee centers.

“The locations of the camps are kept under wraps, because human trafficking is a big problem over there right now. Because there are so many vulnerable people coming through,” Lewis said. “To protect those vulnerable populations they’re keeping the location close to the vest, so you have to know someone to be able to get into work.”

Although they had expected to put their nursing skills to good use, the students also found themselves sorting donated clothing, assembling hygiene kits and playing with refugee children eager for interaction and connection.

According to Miles, the nursing students found themselves providing more holistic care than they were used to while in the refugee camp. They shifted their focus from the medical supplies they were missing, to making do with what they had.

“You go down to the basics, and how the world is not ideal,” she said. “We have to change our practice.”

For Lewis, seeing the refugee camp first-hand drove home the grim reality of the Russian invasion.

“There are some things that you logically can know, or can read on paper, but will not really understand — or feel the ramifications — of such a situation until you’re witnessing it first-hand,” she said. “It was pretty incredible to just walk through the rooms there, just filled rows upon rows from wall to wall of cots that are right next to each other.”

Nicole Asay, a BYU nursing student, was particularly struck by the positive attitude of a teenage refugee that she met at the camp.

“I asked him, I said ‘how do you stay positive when there’s so much sadness in your life?'” Asay told the Daily Herald. “What he said back changed my perspective on everything. … He said ‘I try to focus on what I can do, and what I can control. I focus on the good. I see a situation as an opportunity to start again, understand myself, and understand the world.'”

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