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A situation turned into a war

How Edinburgh University Polish Society influenced their University’s reaction to Russo-Ukrainian War

Photo credit: Facebook EUPolSoc

Helena Górecka, Secretary of Edinburgh University Polish Society

Take a deep breath and consider your past couple of days, probably spent among those from your closest social circle. Think about the time spent with them, and the time you dedicate to those around you. We love and cherish, we tolerate and befriend, we disagree and we fight. We enter deeper relationships, simply put trust in deeper connections. As communities, we face external stimuli and form individual and collective responses to such. The reactions, in a variety of their forms, might express our interest or indifference. Each of you has a different reason for caring. Starting from the most obvious and personal ones, ending with grand ideas and values. We hope and dream about a better tomorrow, or we simply strive for the happiness of those around us, including ourselves. We pay attention, we listen and we answer.

For me, paying attention is what constitutes being humane.

It could not be a coincidence I have been in KL Auschwitz the day the war started. 24th February 2022 was the last day of a trip to Krakow organised by the Edinburgh University History Society. The spectre of a European war, a concept that used to be abstract to the young, idealistic mind like me, haunted me in a place that screams for peace in its silence. Wandering behind my group led by a tour guide, I wondered - what will happen to my family? Is it the end of Europe as we know it?

Coming back to Edinburgh felt alienating. I have left my home behind, unsure of what might happen in the next few days. Anxious about my family in Warsaw, yet amazed with my friends living in Poland doing everything they could to pay attention to the needs of those seeking shelter away from destruction and darkness.

Unexpectedly, being back in Edinburgh felt mostly inhumane. I walked around the campus of my university, witnessing that nothing had changed. The community of the University of Edinburgh initially did not react. The issued statement by the Principal, merely a few words on the situation in Ukraine, felt like neglect. Nobody paid attention.

For me, activism is about paying attention. Activism is about being humane.

I am fully aware of the fact that collective historical experiences shaping me differ from those of my international counterparts. I am a young Pole and European, a history student that used to be exposed to the popularised imagination of the (real) Polish bravery during the Second World War, a former scout immersed in respecting the sacrifice of combatants fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. I know the historical experiences should not be compared since they present a set of different, yet equally important and valuable, formative collective memories. My friends and colleagues from across Europe and the world create a diverse group; yet, what we strived for, was consideration and respect for our Ukrainian students who deserved the recognition.

We are equals and this value constitutes or at least should constitute, the academic environment of any university, no matter how esteemed it is. The communities established by the representatives of a variety of voices need the courage to react to war. The initial lack of response of our collective could not be ignored by us. We proudly decided to listen, pay attention and advocate for those who should not have to do it.

Zofia Matuszczyk, Vice President of Edinburgh University Polish Society

I arrived in Poland in the middle of the night on the 24th of February. I was surprising my family with my visit and I hoped for a nice few days back home. It seemed that this was how it was going to look like until I woke up in the morning and unlocked my phone. I could not believe what happened. War? In the 21st century? 300 kilometers from where I was?

Just like Helena, I was amazed by the way Poles acted so quickly and without hesitation to help Ukrainian citizens. I came to Edinburgh a few days later ready to do the same there. I was absolutely shocked when I walked around the campus and there was nothing that would even indicate that war is happening. Nothing at all - not a single flag, protest or a poster. I understood then that our task, as the Edinburgh University Polish Society, was a bit tricker and different in Edinburgh. Apart from organizing fundraisers and showing our opposition to war, we had to raise awareness among people living in Edinburgh and show them that they should care and act now. That this was not some fictional and distant event. That this was not just some situation, some story you hear on the news and can forget 10 minutes later. It is war, with real casualties. It is a war in which people are tortured, in which families are split, in which people lose everything they own, everything that is familiar to them, they love and cherish. It is something that you cannot just ignore and pretend is not happening.

What struck us the most was the lack of an appropriate statement from our university. We saw other universities publish proper responses to the war almost immediately, while Edinburgh University’s statement was, in our opinion, simply not enough. We decided to write an open letter to express our opposition to the Russian invasion and asked the University to do the same. We knew, however, that our impact alone is small. Thus, we reached out to other societies and asked them if they wanted to sign the open letter and support our other initiatives for Ukraine. We were overwhelmed with their response - almost 40 societies decided to support us. It was the number that we did not expect, but were extremely happy with it - it meant that students at our university do care.

After we published our open letter, the University was quick to release an open statement with support for Ukraine and later acknowledge our initiatives in an email to all students and staff by our principal Prof. Peter Mathieson. This meant that one of our goals was achieved. However, we could not stop there. We also organized a big protest at the center square of our main campus, a series of silent protests in front of our main library, and a lot of fundraisers during which we raised over 3600 pounds. We also created a special website dedicated to our initiatives for Ukraine, where we published an exhibition of photographs from Ukraine.

The initial shock is gone and the number of events and fundraisers for Ukraine has decreased, especially in the UK. It is our sad, but true reality. Nevertheless, we are determined not to stop our initiatives and keep on raising awareness of the war and crimes committed by Russia. We still have a lot planned and we hope what we do has helped and will continue to help brave Ukrainian Citizens.

Here’s the Edinburgh Stands with Ukraine website:

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