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Hands-on humanitarian: Santa Clara woman helps refugees near Ukraine border

While Silicon Valley watches the war in Ukraine unfold, one woman has traveled to the country’s border to help refugees.

Santa Clara resident Harbir Kaur Bhatia and her mom Gunwant, a Florida resident, recently made their way to a base camp in the Polish town of Medyka, near the Ukraine border, to help those fleeing the Russian invasion that began Feb. 24.

They brought along six suitcases full of goods between the two of them, including toothbrushes, sanitary products, teddy bears, games, beads and beach balls for children and more.

Before she left on her trip, Bhatia talked to San Jose Spotlight about her plans and how she arranged the humanitarian effort. Much of the support came from her local connections to international organizations including Rotary International, Sister Cities International and United Sikhs.

She said:

“Those three have provided me with a strong network of people on the ground.”

Bhatia is the international service director with the Rotary Club of Santa Clara, and is no stranger to humanitarian problems, she said.

She said:

“This is a crisis that I don’t think the world has seen at this scale in a long time, especially in modern history.” 

Rotary Club of Santa Clara President Bill Kelly said while Bhatia’s efforts go beyond those of one organization, she “had a history of accomplishing great work and marshaling the resources necessary.”

Harbir K. Bhatia Santa Clara, Calif. resident Harbir K. Bhatia and her mother, Gunwant, carry their goods to donate to Ukrainian refugees through the airport. (Photo courtesy of Harbir K. Bhatia)

In the past, Bhatia led the club’s international initiative to raise funds for sewing machines and to provide mentorship to women in Pakistan.

He said:

“We agreed as a Rotary board to ask our members to pass a hat and see how much money we can raise. She was able to raise $4,000 in one day.”

Bhatia also is listed as serving on the board of the Northern California Chapter of Sister Cities International. She has contacted a gurdwara in Poland, a place of worship for people of Sikh faith, which has opened its doors to provide food and shelter to those in need.

Bhatia said she has been hearing about the challenges that refugees are facing as they try to leave Ukraine. One is the lack of space on various modes of transportation in an effort to get out. Another is the overpopulation in refugee camps. They also are limited to what they can carry. This is on top of experiencing exhaustion, sadness and trauma.

At the refugee camp in Poland, Bhatia said there is a warming tent with a community kitchen, food truck and volunteers from around the world, including others from the Bay Area and California.

She said:

“It’s a real, collaborative effort.” 

People inclined to provide support to Bhatia’s efforts can contact the Rotary Club of Santa Clara by email at [email protected] She is also providing regular video updates on Facebook.

This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight

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