by Renée Tillotson
A strangely positive dynamic often rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of war’s terrible devastation: Heroes emerge. And not just the heroes on the front lines of battle. No. These quiet, largely unnoticed heroes and heroines compassionately step up to mitigate the suffering that surrounds them. In doing so, they uplift themselves and those around them.
Such is the story of Hanna Szeliga, a woman my age in Poland, whose experience with Ukrainian refugees I will relate to you through her own words, as well as the words of her daughters and niece. Hanna’s daughter Marta Czajkowska, a dear friend of mine who helped me to open Still & Moving Center, introduces us to her mother’s story.
Marta, Hanna’s older daughter:
I’ve watched my mom struggle for the last few years. With her youngest child leaving home and diminished work commitments, she was having feelings of emptiness and lack of purpose. Picking a random hobby just wasn’t motivating enough and felt superficial. She knew she wanted to get involved volunteering and had no luck. She reached out to non-profits only to learn that they didn’t need her kind of help. This deepened her frustration.
After the war in Ukraine started Mom immediately felt called to serve.
Hanna (March 15, 2022):
Russia’s attack on Ukraine deeply shocked me. The worst was feeling helpless, knowing there was so little I could do. The moment I heard there was aid being organized in my district (Raszyn near Warsaw, Poland), I immediately joined the effort. I went to our local Sports Center, where a collection and distribution point for gifts for Ukraine was being organized. Many people did the same, and soon the center began to fill up with gifts from residents and local businesses. A lot of people were willing to help. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
Starting February 26, I have come to the Center every morning. All day, till the evening we collect, sort and hand over food, cosmetics, basic medicines, clothes, diapers, toys etc. to our guests from Ukraine. We even have makeup, because we believe that women may want to look good in any situation, maybe even more when they have lost everything. And pet food, because people don’t leave their little friends behind.
Most difficult is knowing how limited our help is. In the beginning what our local residents brought was enough, but these days we are running out daily. Polish people, however generous, are getting maxed out.
My little center serves about 200 Ukrainian guests every day. These days I look anxiously at the empty shelves. Every now and then someone brings us something, but the need is enormous.
Most of the visiting Ukrainians have nothing. They left their homes and their lives. I find myself wondering if 2 cartons of milk for one family is too much to give out – we might not have enough left for the next families. In the beginning, we all swallowed tears when we saw little children clinging to their mothers, teenagers, women of all ages, tired, but so brave. Now I cry all the time.
Today two ladies came from Kiev: a mother, daughter and baby girl. They asked for a high chair, and when I brought them one from IKEA, they both cried because at home they had the same one. So all three of us cried. Only the little girl looked at us with big blue eyes, confused.
I am anxiously thinking about what will happen next, how we can continue to help. Resources are running low and donors’ wallets are empty. We will not last long without broader systemic aid. Our guests will starve.
I know deeply that this enormity of goodness and positive energy will not be wasted. I have to strongly believe that Ukraine will be free and safe, and that our guests will be able to return to their homes. I have never met so many fantastic people all at once in my life (and I have already experienced a bit) – people of all ages, from school kids to retirees, on both Polish and Ukrainian sides. Seeing how generous and resilient “normal” people are really makes me hopeful for humankind.
Kasia, Hanna’s niece, a teacher in Poland (late March, 2022):
During the first days of the war, the Polish kids in my class were all sad, scared and angry. Once I had to give a lesson with three girls crying on my lap, an impossible task: one on my legs, a second on my back and the third one in my arms.
After the weekend, in another preschool, the kids went crazy, shouting, running around, jumping from the mezzanine. When I asked another teacher, she said, “Be gentle with them – they spent the whole weekend on tablets. All of their parents were out helping Ukraine.” It took one or two weeks for our Polish kids to balance their emotions.
Hanna (early April 2022):
Our CSR Gift Distribution Center in Raszyn has been operating since February 26. And from that day on, I am moved every day. For various reasons. One quite obvious reason is the thought of our guests – refugees from Ukraine. About how much misfortune has happened to them and how difficult their situation is. And how bravely they stand it.
I am also touched by our donors – people whose natural instinct is to help. And it does not matter whether they are not very wealthy retirees, or the CEOs of a large company. I am moved by the fantastic donors from overseas who started donating money to my daughter’s appeal on social media. Old friends whom I had not seen for 20 years also took part in the fundraiser. By my friends who help out at my every appeal.
And somehow I can’t immunize myself to these emotions. They keep grabbing my throat.
I just keep hoping that the world will come to its senses.
Kasia, Hanna’s niece (mid-April, 2022):
Now that we have Ukrainian children at school, the teachers are really moved. Even the teachers with a big temper are calmer and more caring, mostly because they have to listen really carefully to understand the Ukrainian kids. You have to Focus.
I gave a few free English lessons for Ukrainian kids, ages 6 to 11, in the Belarussian Culture Center. They were wonderful, full of energy, crazy, free, engaging, cool group! One girl came from Cameroon – her parents and she were pushed to illegally cross the Polish-Belarussian border.
Once when I came to my theatre class, a 10-year-old girl named Ewelina, half Polish half Ukrainian, was sobbing: her grandparents couldn’t leave the war zone.
Hanna (late April 2022):
We are also helped by companies and non-governmental organizations. Jolanta Kwaśniewska’s Foundation, Communication without Barriers, provided our guests with cosmetics and beautiful sweaters, and children with books and crayons. The BNP Paribas Foundation donated money for purchases, the Warsaw SEVA Association regularly brings us products.
The company Damovo Polska made big purchases for us twice for the money raised among employees. It is a company that cares about the fitness of its employees. For each kilometer gained in fitness applications, he donates 1 euro for Ukrainians. Maspex Group gave us 1.5 tons of food with lightning-fast transport.
The Vietnamese from Raszyn have saved us many times by giving us instant meals when we only had Haribo soups and jelly beans on the shelves!
Many times when we have looked at empty shelves in despair, an angel has often appeared in the form of an old lady, an athletic guy, a friend from forever, or an elegant lady, and restored our faith in the world.
At the beginning of the war, people said that it was not a sprint but a marathon, and that has turned out to be true. And these marathon runners, in our case, gathered a large group. Thank you all very much. It’s an honor to meet you and work together.
Since March 9, we have served over 10,000 people. And their number is not decreasing. New guests keep coming and we would like to help them at least a little. We announce our current needs and information on Facebook “Raszyn Ukraine”.
Maria, Hanna’s younger daughter (May 1, 2022):
Since the war started, my mom and other volunteers have been working relentlessly to provide the refugees with the help and supplies they so desperately need.
I was able to assist them a little when I went home for Easter. I cannot express how heartbreaking it was to watch the food run out just a couple of hours into a day and have to tell the people waiting in line for hours that we could not offer them any of the things they came for. Although the donations keep coming, they have decreased significantly since the center was formed, and the need remains.
The work is rewarding, but it takes a toll on volunteers’ emotional and physical well-being. Support from people gives them hope and energy to keep going.
I can see the effect working there has had on my mom. I haven’t seen her this driven in years. She truly loves this work, however demanding it can be, and I have see her come alive in the last few months. I know you can understand how important it is to have a purpose like this.
Hanna (May 12, 2022):
It’s been 3 months of war and 3 months that we have been running our local aid center. We moved from the big building into three shipping containers. Many volunteers have had to go back to their normal lives. We still have a strong group that somehow reconciles work, family life and volunteering. We share duties working in our containers and buying products for our guests. It’s constant bargain shopping!
The purchasing is possible thanks to the money from known and unknown friends from all over the world via social media. One of the most touching donations was $300 from two young girls from New Hampshire who produced hundreds of Ukrainian-colored bead bracelets, sold them, and donated all the proceeds to us. One of our donor families in Hawaii thanked us for being “their extended hands and hearts” in Poland for our Ukrainian guests. Thank you very much. It’s great not to feel alone.
Kasia, Hanna’s niece (mid-May, 2022):
Viera, 5 years old, came to Poland in the first days of the war, and now she speaks fluent Polish. You could never tell she had to learn the third toughest language in the world in just three months.
Yehor, also 5 years old, was calm, smiling and had sad eyes. His mom brought him here to Poland, left him with his aunt here in Warsaw and went back to Ukraine because she couldn’t leave her husband alone. That’s why Yehor – who was the kindest and the sweetest boy at school and who followed the rules – when he came home, his aunt said it was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. He was shouting, screaming… Then again he was an angel for us in preschool. When she could, his mom came back from Ukraine, said thank you to me, his preschool teacher, brought flowers, cried a little bit, and took him home.
Sophie, a 6 or 7-year-old from Ukraine, came to preschool a few weeks ago. The kids in her class were practicing for their show for 2 months, every day. During the show Sophie was so proud: every single time she said her line right, she got a huge ovation. Her grandma had tears in her eyes.
Hanna (May 29, 2022):
No one knows when this terrible war will end. Many of our guests are women with children who have limited opportunities to go to work and therefore have a low chance of becoming independent. They will need this help for a long time. We operate 4 days a week, serving over 400 people every day.
At first it was just just our Polish people who donated. Then our wonderful friends from the States, Germany, France, Japan and Sweden also took part in our fundraising campaign, allowing us to operate for two more months. However, this money is consumed by everyday purchases of basic food and, unfortunately, increasing price inflation. I calculate that we still have funds for two weeks, that is until mid-June… I don’t know what we’re going to do after that.
If we do not find further financing, our donation point will have to be closed, as many other similar initiatives already have. There is no systemic support from the government or international aid.
We do receive support from the Communication without Barriers Foundation. This is very valuable help and much needed, providing clothes, cosmetics, diapers.
Yet what we most need is absolutely basic sustenance: milk, flour, oats, rice, oil, sugar, canned goods, breakfast cereals and tea for our guests.
Marta, Hanna’s older daughter (May 31, 2022):
Mom has worked tirelessly and put in 16-hour days.. at 67 years old! As the demand at the center has grown, she has kept on rising up to the challenge. First it was organizing, then soliciting, then she started looking ahead, wondering how she was going to feed the 500 plus people coming through her door daily. She asked for help on social media, she received it, she kept on asking and getting ahead of the looming hunger.
She wants to solve bigger problems now. Her new initiative is to teach Ukrainian guests how to start a business in Poland. To give them a fishing pole to fish for themselves, so to speak.
The volunteer work has been changing her. She cries daily… not just tears of war horror, but ones of being deeply touched by others’ resilience and spirit. Those tears of compassion. She finds deep meaningful connection with both guests and other volunteers.
Someone in her life whom Mom always found difficult has also transformed by this experience and now they are co-creating…
My mother has found new sources of energy. As she gets out of her way in service of bigger purpose, the energy flows through her. She knows that the salvation that she gives others is saving her.
Renée Tillotson, friend of Hanna and her family (June 2, 2022):
Hanna also knows she is one of thousands or millions of everyday heroes around the world doing what their heart tells them they must do. So is her niece Kasia, working with both Ukrainian and Polish students in such a compassionate way. Cliff and I are in touch with a woman named Tatiana Golovchenko in Ukraine, who provided some of the photos of Ukrainians in Ukraine that we’ve borrowed for Hanna’s story, even though Hanna is working in Poland. Tatiana is doing similar support work for her fellow Ukrainians from within their beleaguered country.
No fanfare. Everyday heroines. Isn’t it amazing?
Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!
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