To Siberia and Ukraine – Volunteer from Poland carrying sack with a smile for Christmas

Siberia is inscribed in our national consciousness, in our history and in our identity. Christmas Eve in Siberia is not only about dramatic paintings by Artur Grottger, Aleksander Sochaczewski or Jacek Malczewski but also about contemporary, everyday reality. That’s why the “Siberian volunteering” immediately had a following.

– And so today, in an orphanage in Kapshagay, Kazakhstan, our wonderful volunteer from Silesia, Mr Kazimierz, is a “grandpa” to every child – Fr Leszek Kryża, Director of the Team for Assistance to the Church in the East at the Polish Episcopal Conference, tells TVP WEEKLY, not without satisfaction. Mr Kazimierz went for a month, then stayed for three months, and now he’s got a visa for the whole year – Fr Kryża praises him.

– But I’d like to point out right now that I’m not the inventor of this voluntary work – he says with a smile, but resolutely. This was suggested by nuns from Siberia who often told me that it would be good if people from the ordinary parishes that support them could come and see how we live here. And to share their faith, talents and time.

And so, in 2017, the Team for Assistance to the Church in the East announced “the Siberian volunteering”. The response exceeded all expectations when 40 people applied and, after a year’s training in health psychology, self-defence and spirituality, a team of 24 people aged between 19 and 60 was formed.

– There were students, pensioners, teachers, a miner, a physician and even a family with a son who wanted to spend their holiday this way – recounts the team leader.

He is a member of the Society of Christ, a religious congregation founded by Card. August Hlond in 1923 for this very purpose: to provide pastoral care for the Polish diaspora. Its full name is The Society of Christ for Polish Migrants (S. Chr.), whose merits are astounding, as is clear to anyone who has emigrated, dealt with it, supported it or received help from it. It is actually these priests who were a pillar of the Team for Assistance to the Church in the East from the outset. The team was set up by the Polish bishops as early as autumn of 1989, with the emergence of the possibility of legal support for Catholics in the USSR and now – in the countries that have emerged from its collapse.

– Siberia has always been present in our Polish life – Father the Director tells TVP WEEKLY and shares with us a memory of his early journeys across Yakutia.

– We travelled endless roads, and a Polish woman, born there, was driving the car when she said: “Father, you must be aware that wherever we go, there are Polish graves. The older ones, from the 19th century, or the newer ones, even from the 1950s, but all the same, we are at a great Polish cemetery” – she told Fr Leszek. And that’s when he resolved that every mass he would say would be celebrated in memory of those countless nameless dead.
Fr Leszek Kryża presides over the Holy Mass for Peace in Ukraine on January 26, 2022 in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Warsaw. Members of the “Opoka” community from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan took part in the prayer organised by the Team for Assistance to the Church in the East at the Polish Episcopal Conference. Photo PAP / Wojciech Olkuśnik
He started volunteering in Siberia five years ago. The volunteers were then in the legendary Wierszyn, where Polish prayers, traditions and remnants of the Polish language have survived since 1910, they were in Ulan-Ude on Baikal, in Abkhazia and in Dovbysh.

Fr. Kryża: – Now, for obvious reasons, we do not go to Russia. This year, 16 volunteers were in Drohobych and Boryslav in Ukraine on holidays for children, they were in Kharkiv and Kazakhstan, where they organized Youth Days in the village of Oziornoye, known for many positive activities.

Two volunteers stayed for longer: the aforementioned Mr Kazimierz, an adopted and much-loved grandfather at the orphanage in Kapshagay, and Ms Anna, a retired teacher who runs a student home in Alma-Ata, especially for those pupils from the orphanage who went on to study further. They are of different nationalities, different religions, all equally loved and cherished.

Siberian volunteering is such an attractive challenge that this year, after a parish retreat led by Fr Leszek Kryża in Paris, several people from the French Polish community applied to take part in this project.

– They undergo training and formation together with our volunteers – emphasizes Monika Mostowska, vice-president of the Pallottine Salvatti Foundation. – And some of them come back to Poland many times; I would mention first of all Mrs Colette Curtois from Belgium and Harry Sharp from the United Kingdom, who comes in his car with gifts, adds our parcels to this, and, with the help of a Polish volunteer, sets off for the depths of Ukraine, because there they are awaiting help.

A soldier asked for a rosary

– This help transcends divisions, no one checks whether you belong to a denomination or church, it’s about the person in need. It is also an expression of our solidarity, which we used to benefit from, and now we can show this solidarity to others – said Fr Leszek Kryża three weeks ago, during a press conference before the Day of Prayer and Material Aid to the Church in the East, organised annually on the Second Sunday of Advent.

Father Leszek Kryża goes to Ukraine at least once a month, with aid transports, and to meet people and find out about their current misfortunes and situations. In May he went to Zaporizhzhia, where Bishop Jan Sobiło invited him to visit the soldiers at the front, 800 meters from the Russian trenches. There, in a bunker, suddenly one of the soldiers asked him for a rosary, because in war – as he told the priest and his surprised commander – “there are no non-believers” And he asked the priest to teach him how to make use of this rosary.

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In a conversation with Dorota Giebułtowicz (Catholic Information Agency), Fr Leszek Kryża confessed that “it was an extraordinary lesson. If you consider yourself a believer, teach those who are somewhere on the periphery or on the margins ”. – These boys – said the priest – were in a spiritually difficult situation because they lost twenty of their friends. Not long ago, they were all together in the bunker, in the trenches, and now they are gone. And they died not from bullets, but from pneumonia, because they were sitting up to their armpits in mud and it was impossible to take them from there, such was the shelling. And when they could be evacuated, it was too late.

Father Kryża also told about a visit to a hospital, where an American company undertook to help by donating prosthetic arms and legs for disabled people and asked the priest to go to Kyiv with its representatives: – We were in the hospital where they are gathered – mostly young people, without arms, without legs. It was a shocking sight when families came to visit these young men and the boy couldn’t even hug his child. Then we were told that there were over 20,000 people waiting in line for dentures!

When pressed with questions, the director confirms that there are fewer gifts but the needs are no less.

– First of all, we need stoves – he said on November 30 – because everything indicates that there will be power and gas cuts again. We buy ordinary, simple stoves and send them to Ukraine, or we buy them there directly and then they go to those in need on our behalf. In 2023, we managed to raise PLN 3 million 11 thousand, which we allocated to the implementation of almost 200 projects, more than half of which – PLN 1,600,000 – was allocated to Ukraine.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The priest also talks about the fantastic ingenuity and cost-effectivness of the nuns: the Orionists near Kharkiv run a home for a single mother, and in Zhytomyr, the Sisters of the Angels go around tiny villages every Saturday with a program for children – some songs, some fun and good food to at least have a few hours to distract children from fear and war trauma. He talks about the sisters from Zaporizhzhia and Kherson and the parishes there, where he regularly looks for friends, as every support is valuable: a pallet of tinned meat or a larger number of nappies are always wanted.

– I read in some research – he says in his farewell – that every fifth inhabitant of Siberia has Polish roots. And vice versa, because countless Polish families left there not only the graves of their even forgotten relatives, but simply their traces.

– But even in the Lviv and Stryj districts – he adds – there are still many Poles, mostly very old people, often in villages that do not appear on the map, in truly tragic conditions, left to their own devices. For them, together with Wspólnota Polska, we set up "Dobre Serce" charitable aid stations even before this stage of the war – in Stryi, Sambor and Boryslav, but also in Zhytomyr. When the full-scale war broke out, they turned out to be even more necessary: we provide medicines, food, wheelchairs, crutches, hygiene products, diapers, everything that helps the elderly and sick. And a volunteer arrived with a parcel from Poland! A smile for Christmas Eve!

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Ukraina, 6 grudnia 2023. Zapalenie światełek na głównej choince w Kijowie w dniu Świętego Mikołaja. Fot. PAP/Vladyslav Musiienko
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