Today we had a very special opportunity through one of our former guides in Poland, Jolanta Koziol, to meet with current Ukrainian refugees. Jolanta has been working with the JCC Krakow to direct the Paszkowka Refugee Center 50 minutes from Krakow. Today, Jolanta shared with us a special opportunity to meet the refugees, hear their stories, understand the inner workings of establishing such a center and spend time interacting and offering our support.
Jolanta took us on a tour of the castle facility. A Colorado business owner had started housing refugees there, but ran out of money after three months. The JCC of Krakow and its donors took over the refugee center which houses up to 40 families. This venue was a former school at one point, then in recent years it was renovated into a wedding facility. The castle sits in a small village outside of Krakow and has been there since 1865.
Across the street from the castle sat a hotel that is also part of the property and was renovated at the same time as the castle. This was first utilized to house the refugees and soon after the castle became inhabitable. Jolanta explained the daily functionality of the center. The center is funded by the JCC of Krakow which its greatest portion of donations come from the Jewish community in the United States. The center is governed by an advisory council to include the residents. They are allowed to stay in the facility for three months and sign a contract that includes this information along with encouragement to find work, schooling, learn Polish, etc. The goal is to allow these refugees to begin building a life in Poland if that is their choice. The center is entirely funded by the JCC not the government of Poland.
We had the chance to give to the students the gifts we had brought which included blankets we made at school, hand knitted hats donated by dear friend Judy Johnston, who had gone on the trip back in the early days. We also gave the young adults handmade journals. Back at school we had read a diary of a young Ukrainian girl, Yeva Skalietska, which is entitled, You Don’t Know What War Is. We had made some hand made journals for the young adults in the center as well as purchased some handmade journals from an artist that were made out of paper bags with imprints and hand stitching. We are hoping to encourage these young refugees to record their experiences while in Paszkówka. As we made the journals back home, one student commented, “I wonder who the next Yeva will be?” We shared this sentiment with the young adults to encourage their own participation in recording history.
Most of the residents are women and children with a few men. We had the chance to meet with some teenagers who are currently residents at the center. One of the students, Anastasia, spoke perfect English and she explained to us her daily life at the center which includes her doing virtual schooling back in Ukraine. She told us that coming to Paszkówka meant living in peace, something she was searching for. It’s possible for the students in the center to do virtual schooling and receive their Ukrainian diplomas. She hopes to stay in Poland. She is at the facility with her mother who was helping us make the pierogis today. Her mother is the main cook and there is a schedule as the residents are responsible for offering three meals a day. Each family eats together as a group.
After we toured the facility we engaged in a pierogi making session with the residents who so graciously prepared the makings for Ukrainian pierogis. This offered us the opportunity to learn a very special skill while interacting with the residents. The hospitality that these individuals shared with us was absolutely heartwarming. As they cheered us on in making the pierogis, through the young adults acting as translators, we asked questions, shared our support for them and encouraged them to keep going.
After learning more about the facility, the cooking team prepared the pierogis and we immensely enjoyed eating and chatting with our new friends. Of course we all exchanged social media and look forward to keeping in touch.
We also presented Jolanta with a 20th anniversary certificate for all her efforts over the years!
Paulina, also one of our guides over the years, joined us today. We were so delighted she could join us and share her own experiences helping refugees since the war began. This photo below is a group of talented, passionate and dedicated people to this history that have all given so much of their knowledge and insight to our groups year after year.
We had our last dinner in beautiful Krakow tonight at a favorite restaurant, Kawalaria! We were treated to a wonderful surprise performance of Polish traditional dancing by our Polish Travel Agent, Magda and our travel agent back home, Michelle! What a treat for all of us and a great way to enjoy our last scrumptious dinner in Krakow!
Last day of the trip, and got to get some information that is current news regarding the Ukrainian War. Interesting to see how the group got to meet up with Ukrainian Refugees, and hear about their stories. Overall this day seemed to be more of a relaxed day where they got to see some stuff but not a lot of new things, and it was more about the interaction with the people they met. This day was more focused on the people they met where they interacted through conversations and gift giving.
I am happy to have learned so much about the trip and I hope that I can go one day.