Sunday Morning ~ Ustrzyki Dolne
May 1, 2022
When I was a child I had a recurring nightmare. A sinister man who looked like Brutus on Popeye, forced me to dance with him in my living room. I could see my family happily watching television in the den just a few feet away and I knew if I could cross over into the den I’d be ok. But I could never get there. I’d try to force him in that direction then wake up in terror before reaching the line between living room and den. I’ve thought about that dream a lot this week. I wonder if the people crossing over this imaginary line into the den of Poland finally feel safe. It’s only a few feet away.
Some days there are hardly any Ukrainians crossing. On Monday, I think there were only three people. Tuesday maybe twelve. Then Wednesday there were large groups of all ages, lots of children, grandparents, and mothers. They waited in the cold for a couple of hours for a bus to take them to Krakow. The medics blew bubbles to entertain the children. Some of the firemen kicked a ball around with them. The older folks ate soup and nibbled on cookies, looking sad and bewildered. We passed out stuffed animals to the littlest who were smiling and laughing as if this was one big fun adventure.
An older woman was walking around, up and down the compound. She saw me at the opening of the tent and came over, speaking animatedly, nothing I could understand. “I speak English, sorry.” I said, putting my hands together like I was praying for forgiveness for this shortcoming. She went on a long upsetting soliloquy, “Mariupol” was said many times, I did understand that word. I asked, “You are from Mariupol?” She nodded and made motions with her hands to express buildings going down. Then she covered her face crying. I said over and over, “I’m sorry, so sorry.” shaking my head, putting my hands over my heart. She pulled on the sleeve of her sweater then patted her head. I thought she was asking for a hat. I brought her over to the box of hats and held one up. She shook her head no, upset even more. Tomek came in to the tent and I told him I couldn’t understand what this woman needed. He spoke in Polish but she shook her head, like she didn’t understand Polish either. He took out his phone and put in a few of the words she was saying, then said, “Ah ha! She is asking for the pressure of her blood.” and motioned for her to follow him to the medics. Then I got it. She had a headache and wanted her blood pressure checked, which I found out, was sky high. The medics had her in an ambulance for awhile but when the bus came for her group, she exited the ambulance, boarded the bus, and went off with the others. Every time I saw a Ukrainian board transport for someplace heading away from their country, I said to myself, “God go with them.”
On the quiet days I read. This is in spurts as it’s necessary to get up and walk around for awhile to warm up. I realized that all of the previous humanitarian work I’ve done has been in warm climates where I can sit and read, write, or paint for hours if there is nothing going on. I couldn’t possibly paint here as my fingers are too cold. I can, however, turn the pages of my book with gloves on.
Tomek and I were talking about how an organization decides when to close up. It’s hard to project the use or need for resources provided and difficult to calculate the cost/benefit. On the days when we are just sitting around it seems like the project should close, then one or two people come and share their story and it seems like just bearing witness and listening is reason enough to stay here and wait. Many of the young adult women crossing can speak English very well and I’ve been able to communicate. That feels good as most of the time I feel incredibly inadequate. I can’t translate even on my phone as I can’t read the words when they are spelled out. Polish is difficult (and by difficult I mean impossible) for me, though I can now say: milk, tea, coffee, water, good, and thank you reasonably well, but reading is out of the question. I’m telling you, I didn’t think I could admire Meryl Streep any more than I do but how she learned Polish so perfectly for Sophie’s Choice I now believe was super human. Cookies is ciasteczka in Polish and it’s not pronounced anything like it looks. Thank you is Dziekuje Ci, with a couple of accent marks in there I can’t figure out how to type, and it is pronounced something like Jenkweeay. Ukrainian? forget it.
So, when someone leads off in English because they don’t speak Polish, I get very excited. One young woman driving a van sat with us waiting for others to cross. She was able to transport seven people to Germany where she had family. She said her house near Kyiv was destroyed and she couldn’t stay any longer. Tomek asked if it was a small house or big building. She said, “No, not small house, big with many apartments.” Ah, so a big apartment building was destroyed. Hundreds of “houses”. She showed us photos on her phone. I saw the photos and thought it was astonishing she was as put together as she was. She spoke of fear for safety with a matter of fact tone that made me shake my head at what people endure, how they cope. She had stayed this long because her family had pets they did not want to leave. I asked if she thought she would go back when the war was over? “Yes, of course.” she said. “Everyone is saying this will last three months and we are now going into the third month. Then we can go home and start to build again.” The ones she waited for arrived, then she turned to us and said, “We always thought Russia was our brother because we used to be part of Russia. Poland was only our neighbor. But now, our neighbor is our friend and our brother is killing us.” She thanked us and ran off to her van. Tomek looked at me and said, “So you see? We are hearing straight from the people. This is not something made up like Russia says.” I said, “This made sitting here all day worth it, just to bear witness to her story.” I said “God go with her.”
On Thursday many more people were crossing. I spoke with a woman who said she was a driver, transporting people out of the country. She wasn’t fleeing herself but transporting others then going back bringing supplies back with her. She’d already made several trips to various locations around Europe. She had lived in the states for five years and her family had active visas. When the war started she sent her teenage child to live with a friend in the US. “Now”, she told me, “I know she is safe and I can help others.” I asked if her husband was fighting? She said, “No, not fighting but protecting the city.” So, I’m not sure if he’ll be fighting if the front line gets closer or how that works, I didn’t ask. Is this like football? Defense and offense? I talked with her for a long time while she waited for others to get across the border. She drank coffee, a beautiful middle aged woman who loved her country. I asked what it was like when it all started. She said they just couldn’t believe it. They heard explosions and were all calling each other asking if it could be true? She looked at me and said, “We are not Russian. We will never be Russian. I will never carry a Russian passport.” I asked her if she needed money for petrol or supplies? She said not right now, but I gave her my contact information and told her my friends have given me money to help people like her and if she needed some to contact me. She said she would and thanked me profusely. The others arrived, she got them into her car, and they headed west. God go with her. I haven’t prayed this much in a long time.
Our days begin at seven with mass at the uniquely designed church built after communism fell. It was designed by local architects and built with local materials. It is set into the hillside opposite the Caritas House where we sleep. It has a long sharply sloped roof that is a combination of roof, steeple, and belfry; it is stunning. Coming from a place where weekly mass is sparsely attended in the winter, it’s noteworthy to see how many people in this town attend daily mass, which, most days, is concelebrated. For the non-catholics reading this, that means two (or more) priests celebrating mass together. At a weekday mass. I can’t imagine that happening at home unless the bishop was visiting. My first day at mass I looked around the church for the origin of the beautiful voice singing hymns, sure to see a young, gorgeous soprano standing in one of the many eves of the roof line. One of the three sisters living at Caritas House was playing the organ on the narrow balcony and as I watched her more intently I could see it was her singing. She barely opened her mouth, but from it came what sounded like the voice of angels. It’s incredible to behold. I’ve passed her briefly in the hallway at the house and, unlike the other sisters, she neither smiles nor greets me and behaves as if people in this house are a blight. She looks angry, as if her life has been difficult and cruel. To see her one would think nothing but a grunt or scowl could come from her. Yet, at mass, she is the angel singing; nothing but beauty pouring out of her. I wonder what her story is.
I will leave here on Tuesday and head back to Warsaw. I’ll take a local bus to Krakow, then a train to Warsaw. It feels like years ago I left there, though it’s been less than two weeks. I feel welcome here, love the mountain village of Ustryzki Dolne, and have gotten accustomed to the daily routine. It’s remarkable that just five miles from the border of a country at war, life goes on with remarkable normality. The biggest complaint I’ve heard is they have no visitors here now and it is crushing their tourist-based economy. There are two ski areas, empty since the end of February. I’ve hiked on a few of the many hiking trails and they are empty as well. I pray for these generous villagers who have opened their hearts and homes. Hopefully more of the world will find them when this is all over. This area has seen way more than it’s share of war and suffering.
I’m grateful for all the people I’ve met and my faith in humanity is boosted. There are so many good people in this world. It’s been an honor to work with them.
Love to all,