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Sr. Malgorzata, “the Polish Mother Teresa,” helping Ukrainian refugees

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Facebook Chleb Zycia/courtesy of Malgorzata Chmielewska

Marzena Devoud - published on 05/06/22

Everyone in Poland knows Sr. Małgorzata Chmielewska, who runs homes for hundreds of homeless people.

Everyone in Poland knows Sr. Małgorzata Chmielewska. Often called the “Polish Mother Teresa,” this consecrated laywoman runs 11 houses with her community Chleb Zycia (Bread of Life), which today take in 300 homeless people.

It’s a vocation that was born of a personal encounter with Christ 30 years ago, followed by various efforts by the then-young woman to put into practice what she understood of the Gospel. She discovered that some things are explained in the Gospel in a very simple way: “I was hungry, and you gave me food…”

Then, one day in 1988, Małgorzata came across homeless people sleeping in churches. She found out that they were forced to leave at the end of the last Mass of the day. “I remember a friend telling me when she saw them, ‘We’re going home to our warm beds and these people are going to the garbage cans and sewers,'” she told Aleteia. From this sentence was born the idea of doing “something concrete, something great” for them.

It’s no wonder that Sr. Małgorzata Chmielewska, upon seeing the war in Ukraine break out on February 24 of this year, took action again. She decided in an instant to take in Ukrainian refugees. The Polish edition of Aleteia spoke with her in late March.

Aleteia: Did you expect this war in Ukraine?

Sr. Małgorzata Chmielewska: No, I didn’t expect it. When a Ukrainian employee who works for our community knocked on my door on February 24 at 7 a.m. shouting “It’s war!” I couldn’t believe it. I hoped that Vladimir Putin would not go through with it, although my intuition told me at the same time to prepare myself for the worst …

Not long ago we decided to close one of our hostels, and I don’t know why but I didn’t hand over the keys to city hall, to which the building belongs. I thought that maybe I would still need them. And I do! We’re preparing this house for Ukrainian refugees. From this week on, 20 families will be able to live here. In other houses of the community, we have already received several refugees. Where I live, six families have already been settled. Most of them are mothers with their children, accompanied by their mother or mother-in-law. 

How are they doing today?

I believe that it’s very important that they have a relatively comfortable living space of their own and that the children can play together in a separate room. All of these details seem essential to me because these mothers and grandmothers are traumatized. When they come to see me, one of them is always crying. Sometimes they are all crying at the same time.

Each of them has a husband, a son, or a grandson in the army. We do everything we can to comfort them and keep them busy. But how do you comfort a woman who knows that she could receive the news of the death of her husband, son or grandson at any moment? 

You take care of 300 Polish homeless people on a daily basis. How do you organize yourselves to take in Ukrainian refugees as well?

We have a double approach. First of all, we have two transit houses for families who stay just a few days in two big cities, Warsaw and Krakow—the time needed for them to join their relatives or friends somewhere in Poland. It’s important to know that there are one and a half million Ukrainians living and working here, so some of the refugees have a place to stay. Then, in the house where I live, which is in the countryside, we welcome those who don’t know anyone and don’t know where to go. These families will probably stay longer with us because they will have difficulty finding a place to live and a job in a big city—because they have small children, or because their mothers are too fragile to manage on their own. 

Since the first day of the war, there has been a real surge of solidarity among Poles towards Ukrainians. How do you explain this? 

It’s a completely spontaneous and wonderful outpouring of the heart towards those in great need. This war is no longer like the war in Syria that we have seen on television. It’s taking place before our eyes, right next door. It’s visible and it’s palpable. How can we not help? 

It was thanks to social networks that people immediately came together in an incredible grassroots movement: ordinary people, NGOs as well as local authorities … “Live” exchanges of information and mutual support have been organized with a few clicks through various Facebook groups. Let me give you an example. Some students were looking for a minibus to go to the Polish-Ukrainian border. When I saw their ad, I answered that we could lend them our car. They left almost immediately to spend a week as volunteers at the border. I suggested that they go to the Ukrainian side, because there, people who are freezing wait for three, sometimes four days in the cold before they can cross to the Polish side.

So the idea was to give them hot meals, medicines and the possibility to warm up in our mini-bus. These young students were able to help a few thousand people. With a few clicks and texts, everything was arranged for them to do so. Just this morning, a Protestant bishop from Krakow called me because he needed a travel cot for a refugee family. He asked me to put his request on social networks. Within half an hour, he already had several beds available. 

Do you feel that this surge of solidarity is accompanied by a spiritual awakening?

Every gesture towards a person in need is a gesture that comes from God. For God is love. Whether those who help realize it or not, their gesture comes from God. Yes, I think there is a spiritual awakening. Parishes, religious orders, and Catholic associations are working day and night to help the refugees. Both male and female religious communities have opened the doors of their monasteries and convents.

Something extraordinary is happening, which will certainly bear fruit. Not only concrete help to people in need, but also a spiritual transformation: a new look, beyond the “parish bell tower.” I am sure of that. It’s a great awakening and an opening to the needs of others. Do you know the three “directions for action” of Christ? The first is the Eucharist, the second is the Church as a community, and the third is one’s neighbor. In my opinion, this last one has often been forgotten in the Church in Poland, unlike in the Church in France.

How can we face the fear of the future, which is so uncertain today?

We will probably have to give up many of our small comforts and perhaps even the standard of living that we Europeans are used to. The economic sanctions against Russia will have an impact on us too. We will not be able to afford this or that. So yes, we may be poorer, but we will be better. I know that God will make up for all these shortcomings, provided that we make the effort to “push ourselves to the sidelines” and make room for our neighbor. From a Christian point of view, we need courage. 

Faced with work, stress and fatigue, what do you do to regain strength?

For spiritual strength, I try to be with Christ from morning to night. And when I sleep, I know that He is watching over me. And as for my physical strength, I repeat to myself and to the young people that in this new situation linked to the war and the reception of refugees, it’s not a sprint, but a really long-distance race. In order to keep going, I try to give myself moments of rest, of letting go.

This also applies to my daily work “in normal times” with the homeless. There are situations that are terribly difficult. In order to cope, you have to take care of yourself: sleep, eat, and then take action. We receive hundreds of phone calls a day, and have hundreds of things to coordinate, hundreds of problems to solve. In order to cope, it’s essential to keep calm inside.

But how do we not let fear, anger, or despair take over?

I think prayer is the key: whenever I have a few minutes, I pray for peace. And I try to live in Christ’s presence with the awareness that he is the one who is sending me. My job is just to be ready to serve. 

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