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Polish Knights continue to aid Ukrainians 2 years after invasion

Ukrainians flee into Poland from Russian invasion


John Burger - published on 02/16/24

Mercy centers provide language training, community and drama therapy.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, almost 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes. Of those, 3.7 million have become internally displaced persons (IDPs), and 5.9 million persons have taken refuge in another country.

Poland and Germany have received the lion’s share of those refugees.

Today, although many Ukrainians have left Poland and other host countries and returned to their homes in Ukraine, many more remain, waiting to see if they have a free and secure country to return to. The Ukrainian military is struggling with weapons and ammunition shortages, and Russia seems to be in a better position to hold onto much of the land it now occupies.

Szymon Czyszek, Director of International Growth-Europe for the Knights of Columbus, said that in Poland, where he is based, many refugees have found jobs. He attributes that in part to “how creative and entrepreneurial Ukrainians are.” 

But also, Czyszek added, “Polish society really welcomed many of them, and maybe created opportunities for them to find jobs.”

He said that the Knights of Columbus, which was established in Poland in 2006, has responded to the refugee crisis in a number of ways. One is the establishment of “mercy centers” in cities such as Warsaw, Częstochowa, and Radom. The centers provide assistance to people who cannot readily find work, including the elderly and mothers who need to care for their children. 

When Russia invaded, Ukraine declared martial law, so men between 18-60 had to remain in the country for possible deployment in the military. So most of the refugees have been women, children and elderly. 

Psychological assistance

The mercy centers also provide Polish language classes and instruction in skills that can help people find work; childcare so that mothers can work; and activities for elderly persons so they don’t have to be isolated at home. 

Mercy centers also provide psychological assistance for people who are dealing with trauma from war situations. Art therapy is one means of providing that help.

At the Blessed Michael McGivney House, a resource center for refugees opened last year in Radom, Mykola Panasiuk works with people by providing drama therapy. Panasiuk offered his services because he had been a beneficiary of a Knights of Columbus partnership with Caritas Ukraine years earlier, in Eastern Ukraine. 

Drama therapy, also called social theater, uses theatrical exercises to help participants work through trauma and improve social skills. 

“In civilians, post-war syndrome manifests itself in such a way that basic human skills disappear,” Panasiuk told the Knights of Columbus publication Knightline

Full of anxiety and painful memories, many refugees close themselves off from the world, the publication explained. Even everyday activities can be a challenge. 

“In [Panasiuk’s] social theater workshop, refugees practice communicating, adjusting to their social and cultural environments, developing trust and dealing with rejection, among other skills,” Knightline said.

“The aim is to transform social situations that cause fear,” Panasiuk stated. “Through acting, we confront them, work through them and then reflect. In short, we don’t learn how to be an actor here, but how to deal with life.”

Our Lady of Częstochowa Parish and Knights from Our Lady of Częstochowa Queen of Poland Council 14004 created McGivney House last year, transforming a partially finished rectory into a resource center for the millions of Ukrainians fleeing to Poland. The new facility was completed in late 2022.

Sign of solidarity

As a Catholic fraternal order, the Knights of Columbus feel they have another element to offer. Although Czyszek said he is impressed by the courage and strength of Ukrainian women, who are frequently checking to see if their husbands on the front are still alive, he recognizes that in many cases, male child refugees lack the experience of being around other men, with their fathers back home fighting Russia. 

So at the mercy centers, he said, Polish men can come to play ball with boys “and offer some manly kind of traits on character, competition, or, playing and just being together.”

While Polish society continues to be welcoming, many refugees want to return to Ukraine. Some, though, recognize that this will be difficult, especially if they are from the eastern part of the country, where Russia has held onto Ukrainian territory for two years, and a war with Russian-backed separatists persisted for years prior to the major invasion. 

For now, the mercy centers serve as a “sign of our solidarity, and openness,” Czyszek said. They are not only tolerating refugees but integrating them into the Polish community. They also “allow Catholics in Poland to get to know Ukraine so they are not only like people who are from a different country,” he said, “but now they have become members of our community.”

Knights of ColumbusPolandRefugeesUkraineWar
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