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.
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.