Monadnock Ledger-Transcript – Dispatch from the Front: Ilona Kwiecien – Jaffrey resident travels to Poland to help refugees

Published: 03/28/2022 11:54:13

Modified: 03/28/2022 11:53:16 AM

I arrived in Poland on March 21, at Chopin airport in Warsaw. My intention – my hope – in coming here is to help as much as I can with the refugee situation here. Why? Well, my parents were refugees from Poland after WWII and were helped by kind-hearted people to get to the US and start their new lives (with me one year old in tow!). They were grateful until the end of their days.

I also served in kyiv as a military attaché for 2 and a half years and learned to love the country and its people. Finally, it is difficult for me (as for many of you) to understand that such devastation can occur today. I just felt impelled to come. I speak Polish and Russian (and a little English!) and I think understanding is not a problem.

From the moment I set foot in Warsaw, it was impossible not to be aware of the welcome that the Polish people received. Messages telling Ukrainians where to find help regularly came through the loudspeakers. At the registration area, there was a special site where volunteers (here an Italian Caritas organization) mainly helped women and children. Other volunteers scoured the area looking for anyone who seemed lost. The first thing I saw when entering the hotel from the airport was a sign with a Ukrainian flag and the words in Polish “Solidarity with Ukraine”. While waiting at the elevator, I had a conversation with a man who told me he “came to help”. I got a huge hug when I said that was my hope too. He was born in kyiv now lives in the United States. His mother was already in the United States and he was hoping to obtain a visa for his father. His parting words were, “We must hold on to hope.”

The next day, as I waited in the hotel lobby before taking a taxi to the train station, a woman asked to sit next to me and we struck up a conversation in Russian. She was from kyiv and was on her way to Canada to be with her daughter. She was one of the “lucky ones” who had somewhere to go after leaving behind all her friends and everything she didn’t have in her suitcase and assortment of bags. When I told her I had to go get a taxi, she was appalled. “What? It’s way too expensive!” she says. “Take the commuter train. They’ll help you at the reception.” His insistence convinced me, and I was guided to the station entrance and found the train waiting. I enjoyed the ride and saved about $10! What struck me was his concern for someone else despite his own problems.

At Warsaw West Station, Ukrainians, volunteers wearing yellow-green vests and signs indicating where to get help or how to avoid scams were everywhere, as well as an area serving food. The Ukrainians were escorted back to the right track for their onward journeys. Every train I saw arriving had both Polish and Ukrainian flags flying from the engine. (Earlier that morning, the Polish news channel I was listening to had its entire set decked out in Ukrainian colors!) I imagine similar scenes can be found in all transport hubs.

Many of the images broadcast on the news channels are tragic, but the stories of resilience, hope and compassion also abound. Here, almost every day, announcements of government programs were introduced to make it easier to hire Ukrainians, to simplify hiring, to allow the cashing of Ukrainian currency (hrynia) against Polish (zloty) in banks, to to name a few. Each person has their story, which is worth listening to. I spent the last few days in the small town of Kaniwola, about half an hour south of Lublin, I’ll try to capture the stories I found there in the next episode.

Ilona Kwiecien is a resident of Jaffrey whose parents were Polish refugees after World War II. His last army assignment before retiring in 1998 was as army attache in Kyiv for 2½ years.

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