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You can see how their faces change

January 2023

by Michał Karski

(drawing: Irina Valentinova Grickevich)

Nothing can replace refugees their home. But providing them with decent accommodation and support in integrating in a new place can help them cope with this difficult situation of being refugee. One of the places where refugees found such help is Holy Trinity Lutheran Parish in Warsaw. Its activities in this area are supported by Diaconia Poland together with Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe.

The outbreak of a full-scale war in Ukraine on 24 February completely changed their lives. “We quickly decided to leave, because we were afraid of an attack from Belarus,” says Tania from Lutsk. She came to Poland with her four-year-old son on 27 February. The journey lasted one day. Maryna from Bucha near Kyiv and Ira from Odessa reached Poland a few days later – on 5 March. “At first I didn’t want to leave, but the children were very scared,” explains Maryna. When she decided to leave with her two sons, part of the roads had been already destroyed. It was possible to flee only in the direction of Zhytomyr. Their journey to Poland lasted two days – via Zhytomyr and Khmelnytskyi, south-west of Kyiv. Ira and her two daughters first travelled to Lviv for three days. Then they reached Poland.

As a result of the war at the turn of February and March the Polish-Ukrainian border was crossed daily by tens of thousands, and sometimes even over 100,000 refugees. From 24 February do December over 8 million people crossed this border. Some of them returned to Ukraine after some time, some went to other countries. There are 1.5 million registered refugees from Ukraine in Poland, it is difficult to say how many are unregistered. It wouldn’t have been possible to host them without the huge mobilization of the civil society in Poland. Many refugees found accommodation thanks to Polish families who invited them to their homes or thanks to non-governmental organizations and religious associations.

To welcome in decent conditions

Diaconia Poland supports almost one hundred Lutheran parishes where refugee families found shelter. It runs about forty of these projects together with Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe. One of such parishes is Holy Trinity Lutheran Parish in Warsaw. “Before our parish started helping, some parishioners were already helping. They hosted refugees to their homes. What the parish does for refugees is only part of what the parish community does,” says rev. Piotr Gaś, pastor in charge of the Holy Trinity Parish.

The first meeting of volunteers on the organization of help by the parish was held on 1 March. Over the next few days, flats were prepared in the parish building in the centre of Warsaw, as well as in the building of the parish-related diaconal centre “Tabita” in Konstancin-Jeziorna near Warsaw. The necessary renovation works were carried out and the necessary furniture and equipment were purchased. “We wanted to welcome refugees in decent conditions,” underlines rev. Gaś.

Already on 6 March the first group of refugees was received in “Tabita”, several days later also in the parish building in Warsaw. Currently, there are about 55 refugees in both places, and over 120 have passed through – mainly women, children and seniors. Maryna, Ira and Tania live with their children in “Tabita”. Previously, after arriving in Poland, they lived in a reception centre or with a Polish family.

The parish wants to support the most vulnerable refugees and focuses on long-term stays. Thanks to contacts with the Polish Association of the Deaf, a group of Ukrainian deaf people live in “Tabita”. One of them is Maryna’s seventeen-year-old son. “He goes to a school for the deaf in Warsaw and communicates very well with deaf Poles,” says Maryna. In “Tabita” lives also over sixty-year-old Valentyna from Kyiv, who suffers from cancer. After arriving in Poland, she underwent chemotherapy and surgery. When she talks through her tears about it all, she mostly repeats two words: thank you. “I still have medical examinations to do and I’m doing it. I am satisfied and grateful. I can live on. Thank you for the treatment and hospital staff. Thank you, ‘Tabita’. I would like to thank the Poles for their great help,” she says touched.

Integration and volunteer commitment

Support of the parish for refugees does not only include the provision of accommodation. Refugees who live in the parish building in Warsaw receive food vouchers. Those staying in “Tabita” can eat the meals prepared there. The parish tries to help refugees stand on their own feet. “We encouraged them to integrate with Poles, also in the parish. So that they would listen to the Polish language, make contacts,” explains rev. Gaś. Some of the refugees joined the life of the parish, for example in the parish cafe. The parish also encourages them to send their children to Polish schools. It has donated school supplies. It has also organized theatre workshops for children, led by Piotr Kulczycki. In addition, it has tried to support refugees in finding job. Those who can, work. Workshops for Polish and Ukrainian women on trauma and psychological support are to be launched soon. They will be led by volunteer Małgorzata Zych.

Forty volunteers were committed in helping refugees in Holy Trinity Parish. The activities in 2022 were coordinated by Justyna Stanisławska, project coordinator in the parish. “Helping refugees is a challenge, committed people are tired, sometimes you have to be active 24 hours a day. But there is also satisfaction,” she says. She also emphasizes that refugees show a lot of gratitude. “You can see how their faces change – from terrified at the beginning to smiling now,” she points out.

The activities in “Tabita” are coordinated by the vicar of the parish, rev. Sebastian Madejski. A Polish-Ukrainian choir has been established there. Its repertoire includes songs from both countries. It is led by Franciszek Kubicki. The choir already has 25 members and is still open for the new ones. Pantomime workshops are also held in “Tabita”. They are run by one of the refugees living there – Volodymyr, who is an actor.

Justyna Florjanowicz-Błachut was a volunteer for the first few months. Her commitment was extremely helpful due to her knowledge of the Russian language. “I am glad that we have social capital in the parish,” she says. She also points out that one has to know how to help and that the cultural context is important. “We need to consider whether we have a good understanding with refugees. They often say: ‘Well, it’s different in our country’,” she explains.

The plight of refugees around the world is difficult. A foreign place, a foreign language, a foreign culture, separation from loved ones, anxiety about them, uncertainty about the future, often a baggage of traumatic experiences. “The help we have received is very good. We have everything here. But this is not home. Our biggest need is to go back home. If something is not a home, then it’s not a home,” says Maryna. And this is something to be aware of – nothing can replace refugees their home. However, efforts can be made to provide them with the best possible support in the place where they took refuge from the war. And this is what Diaconia Poland, its partner Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe and supported by them Holy Trinity Parish in Warsaw are doing.


Illustration drawn by one of the refugee who found the refuge in “Tabita”