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From Bakewell to Krakow, with love

02 December 2022

Tony Kaunhoven reports on efforts to support Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Tony and Rachel, with Sr Agnieszka, and Robert, a volunteer, at Albertine Monastery, Krakow

Tony and Rachel, with Sr Agnieszka, and Robert, a volunteer, at Albertine Monastery, Krakow

THE news that the war in Ukraine has displaced 12 million people, seven million of whom have crossed the border as refugees, five million of them through Poland, has prompted questions across Europe of how best to help.

In the safety of Bakewell, an ancient market town in Derbyshire, people who were unable to host refugees wanted to help in another way. They were concerned that aid should reach those who most needed it.

My wife, Rachel, and I have visited Krakow many times over the years. On hearing that 180,000 Ukrainians have settled there — increasing the population by 20 per cent — we began researching how the city was responding and where we could offer support. Although the influx has put an inevitable strain upon Krakow’s infrastructure, a mixture of government, church, and community initiatives has sprung up to welcome those arriving in the city, demonstrating a resolve that nobody would be homeless or without food and support for as long as they were in Krakow.

At Krakow Glowny station, platform four became a major hub for embracing the traumatised refugees arriving by train or bus from Ukraine. Since February, scouts from Poland and elsewhere have, alongside other volunteers, distributed donated food and water, and made hundreds of sandwiches every day. Other volunteers have helped the local government to process and guide people towards temporary night shelters and hostels, hot meals, clothing, and host families.

People in the city resolved to help. Kasia and Kamila, for example, started making extra portions of soup in their kitchens at home to share with Ukrainian families staying near by, and, from this, a daily tidal wave of home-made soup from across the city has fed those in need. Soup has been transported to the border to welcome refugees, and into Ukraine to feed hungry communities and soldiers on the frontline. Bakers have donated batches of loaves, and, out of this, has sprung the Zupa dla Ukrainy initiative, which provides a foodbank and a short-stay hostel, and has created a community hub.

Kristoff, a Polish builder who employs Ukrainian plasterers, builders, and tilers, set off in his van on 25 February to collect the families of his workers. To this day, he continues to deliver food, medicines, clothing, and other essential items to communities devastated by the war, bringing back people to Krakow whenever he can.

Together with a woman called Paulina, he has set up the Nidaros Foundation which has supported more than 5000 Ukrainians, offering accommodation, a community foodbank, clothing, and support so that refugees can begin to put down roots. The foundation is committed to establishing a therapeutic community for the many traumatised people, many of whom have been separated for more than eight months from their husbands, fathers, and other family members.

Katarzyna and three friends founded Pomocni Ukrainie and, by encouraging donations, they have organised 23 shipments into Ukraine, mostly within the Zaporizhzhia area, of food, clothing, medical supplies, surgical items and other essentials to meet the acute shortages. Their visits have identified hospitals and orphanages that are in particular need, as well as local communities; but the constant bombardment is now making some of these areas too dangerous to go to.

Inspired by compassion and faith to serve our neighbour, the Bakewell Benefice and our local community have focused on raising funds and other essentials to support these three projects. We have made three trips to Krakow so far, with as much as Rachel and I can carry — and that the airline will allow us in weight.

On our last visit in October, we took 700 boxes of paracetamol, vitamins, bandages, hand-knitted children’s clothes, blankets, and first-aid items, along with boxes of Lego for an eight-year-old boy who had left everything behind in Mykolaiv. All of this was donated by our church saints and communities, together with more than £4000, in the knowledge that every single item would be used and valued and that we can say exactly where it has gone.

The response has been very moving as the refugees in Krakow tell us how much the care, support, prayer, and generosity means to them and gives hope.

As groups in Krakow collaborate to support each other and identify areas of great need in Ukraine, there is fatigue and concern when donations look thin. But there is also a great spirit of rejoicing in God’s provision when prayers are answered and blessings come. Such blessing comes not only through our giving, but in the receiving from people who have lost so much, who are warm, generous, and determined to return home when they can.

Canon Tony Kaunhoven is the Vicar of Bakewell, in Derby diocese.

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