Showing compassion for refugees can benefit individuals and organisations

Dieu Hack-Polay explains how working with those displaced by previous conflicts has afforded him new skills, and why we must now do the same for Ukrainian victims

Witnessing the mass displacement of millions of people from Ukraine in the past four weeks, it’s clear that we are witnessing a calamity, with people’s lives having been turned upside down overnight. The war in Ukraine can potentially become one of the most violent conflicts in Europe since the Second World War if a solution is not found imminently. The conflict has the potential to engulf the eastern European region and carry global ramifications. It is therefore a tragedy of mammoth proportions that Europe and the world are facing. 

The suffering is a shared experience for all human beings afflicted by the relentless bombing and shelling of various cities in Ukraine. Therefore, the humanism and compassion that we can show as a country and community will not only benefit the displaced people from Ukraine, but also our country and skill-development. 

Prior to embracing an academic career, I worked for several years for various refugee agencies in the UK. As a graduate, one of my first full-time jobs was with refugee agencies in the 1990s. This was in the aftermath of the collapse of the Russian empire which caused the flight of many eastern European refugees to Britain. This was also at the heart of the Bosnian conflict and the Rwandan genocide. Then followed the Kosovo conflict and the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. As a resettlement worker in Yorkshire and Humberside, my clients were from all sorts of racial complexions, nationalities and religions. My clients were white, Black and Asian. They were Christians, Muslims or non-believers. They were from Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Congo, Iraq, Somalia, Uganda, etc. The eye with which I saw my clients was one of compassion and love. I served each one of them with dignity as they arrived and according to their needs. It was rewarding to witness many trade tears for smiles as a result of the kindness that my colleagues and I showed them. It was humbling to see children going back to school and young people and adults rediscover a sense of worth.

On a personal level, the work with refugees provided me with skills and qualities that classroom-based education and training would seldom give. Qualities such as patience, involvement, equality and diversity became second nature through the compassionate work with refugees. Skills such as advice and counselling with compassion as well as the ability to recognise distress early on, differentiation, etc., became more established in me. As I moved to take up positions in higher education teaching, I was equipped to nurture my students and assist or refer those showing signs of mental health issues. In this increasingly pressurised high education environment, and work more broadly, these skills are significant assets for professionals.

On a more community and national level, most people would acknowledge that the Bosnian, Serbs and Kosovans, etc. whom we welcomed during those crises became well integrated. Not only did they enrich our culture but also filled areas of skills shortages in medicine and healthcare, as well as construction and hospitality.  

Thus, compassion will transform us as individuals, communities and country. But it would also help the migrants to regroup and regain strength to reconstruct their lives and their country when the guns are finally silenced, and the sunflowers of Ukraine start to sprout again. We have done it before for various groups fleeing oppression, thus keeping up with our tradition of hospitality and generosity. 

Dr Dieu Hack-Polay is an associate professor of organisational studies at the University of Lincoln and Crandall University