A Letter from Ukraine

TOP: K of C volunteers packing goods for refugees. BOTTOM: Volunteers at the Polish train station offering free food to refugees.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Dear Family and Friends,

Thank you for your continued prayers as well as the financial contributions many of you have made to the K of C Ukraine Solidarity Fund to assist the War Refugees.  I write to you from our Krakow K of C Office after a good 10 days of observation and assistance to Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border, at Polish refugee processing centers and visits to our local K of C Councils, Dominican brothers, and other religious and diocesan communities in Warsaw, Radom, Krakow, Rzeszow, Tomaszow-Lubelski, Lubacow, Przemsyl, Ustrzyki-Dolna, and Czestochowa.

I hope many of you have had the chance to see the pictures and videos I have sent on my Facebook and Twitter pages.  Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP – who went home today after 10 days of traveling together – also reported on many of the people and places we encountered through the Aleteia website.  Fr. Jordan and Fr. Joachim, both from my St. Mary’s community in New Haven, also joined us for about a week of activity during their spring break and are now also traveling home.

As I hope you have been able to tell from news reports, the Polish people are performing an incredible effort of solidarity and real charity in welcoming over 2 million war refugees into the country, on top of the close to 2 million Ukrainians who had been living and working in the country since the start of the conflict in 2014.  Our brother Knights of Columbus – who number about 8,000 in Poland and 2,000 in Ukraine – are also doing incredible work to support Ukrainians in their home country as well as those primarily women and children refugees now in Poland.

I have been able to visit our Councils who are continuously receiving humanitarian aid (medicines, food, clothing, etc.) that is still being shipped directly to Ukraine to our brother Ukrainian Knights, who then distribute the aid to those internally displaced refugees.  Please pray that the transport trucks continue to get through.  In fact, the Catholic Church is the primary source of Western humanitarian aid into Ukraine.  I was even able to help load and bless a transport that was leaving from one of our councils.

Mercy Huts where refugees can rest and warm themselves.

My primary work last week after visiting 4 border crossings, was to assist our brother Knights to expand the Mercy Center Huts they had set up for refugees at the Hrebenne border crossing.  Responding to the local request for assistance, K of C from Tomaszow-Lubelski built 3 tents to receive refugees immediately as they crossed the border into Poland.  Our heated tent is the only place refugees can stay that is warm.  While most refugees arrive at Hrebenne by bus and are driven further inland to processing centers, the most vulnerable – the elderly, women with young children and babies, and those who cannot afford transportation and have to walk across the border, arrive and stop at Hrebenne.  Most simply cannot go further than immediate entry into Poland before needing a break to rest, warm up, wait for relatives or friends who will pick them up, or simply think where to go next.  Until now, while cold (it is below freezing at night), the weather has not been too bad.  Almost every tent is placed directly on the ground and rain or snow would cause massive mud issues.  Fortunately, the Supreme Council’s Ukraine Solidarity Fund was able to provide assistance so that an expanded Mercy Center Hut could be built last Monday.  The new Mercy Hut has floors, a designated Mother/Baby area with cots to rest and a diaper changing station, a children’s play area with toys, a small house, and slide, free food, medicines, clothing with a changing area, as well as a medic tent and small chapel area.  Over 150 chairs and several tables, allow many people to use the Mercy Hut at one time.  Click to see the mercy huts here.

We have K of C volunteers and their wives and families helping to run the Mercy Center Hut 24 hours a day.  A huge support too has been provided by our local K of C priest chaplains (who arrive for several days to volunteer from around the country), the local priests in the area, as well as the Sisters of Our Lady Mercy (St. Faustina’s order) who volunteer to staff the Hut.  There is also a number of Polish NGO volunteers as well as international volunteers including medics from USA, French firemen, German EMS workers, and cooks from Lithuania (who make 1,000 kielbasas a day for us to eat!)  Since ours is the only heated spot there, it is a little village of aid and solidarity on the border with plenty of Polish police, border guards, etc. also present.

In addition to the Mercy Hut at Hrebenne, a second Mercy Hut has also been established at the smaller border crossing of Budomierz, 40 minutes to the south.  At Budomierz, the primary use of the hut is as a Chapel and heated place for the volunteers who are waiting to receive refugees.  On Friday, Bishop Rojek, the local bishop, celebrated Mass at the Budomierz Mercy Hut.  This coming week, we will be working to expand the Budmierz Mercy Hut to meet its growing needs.

Once refugees leave the border, they are often transported to further refugee processing centers.  Last week, I visited one near Korchowa, which was a former warehouse housing perhaps 10,000 refugees for temporary shelter.  There were cots to sleep on and the usual food/medicine/clothing/cell phone sim card distribution.  From here, they could take buses to Polish cities and even European countries.  The majority of the refugees so far have stayed in Poland, living with Polish families, at religious convents, or with family or friends they may have known previously.  In Radom and Czestochowa, our K of C council parishes have become models of aid distribution and long-term assistance to the refugees settling in those cities.  Another task for the coming weeks is to assist these new front-line cities where refugees will settle on a long-term basis, in providing integration assistance, job assistance, and pastoral/spiritual aid as well as trauma assistance.

We were all heartened by the call from Pope Francis for prayers for Russia and Ukraine to be consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Friday, March 25th.  Throughout Poland, so many are raising up prayers for peace and an end to the madness of war.  An important task this week will be to discern how and where to best mark the moment of Consecration.

Father Jonathan with a refugee family, and giving his rosary to a litle girl as a birthday gift.

Of course, there have been plenty of deeply moving personal encounters with refugees and their families. I think of 5-year-old Sophia and her family whom I met last Friday night; of the teenagers from the East who were walking together to safety without any family members; of the whole village that showed up en masse at Hrebenne – women and girls only; of college student Elenora and her family who came across, after saying goodbye to her dad who could not cross (men between the ages of 18-60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine, and must stay behind to fight).  Many of those we meet have just said goodbye to the husband, father, or son who could not accompany them into Poland.  And to a person, they practically only carry or drag one bag each.  It raises the question: what would you put in your one bag?  We were privileged to offer rides to Krakow (a 4-hour drive) to 3 different families – 3 mothers with 5 children at various points.  I don’t know that I have had more poignant drives in my life.

Well, there’s more to tell, but that should give a sense of the work I am doing.  There’s no place I would rather be than here doing this work.  I am grateful to my Dominican Provincial and to the Supreme Knight for allowing me to assist at this time in these ways.  Our Polish Dominican brothers have also been very supportive and moved by our presence among them.  In almost all of the Dominican communities (and for that matter all the religious houses I have heard of) they too are hosting refugee families from Ukrainian cancer patients and their parents in Rzeszow, to up to 50 refugees in Krakow and Warsaw (Warsaw did not even have room for us to stay, because of the number of refugees staying there).  We stayed with the Redemptorist Fathers who also hosted refugees in their convent.

Please continue to pray for our Krakow K of C Team and their families, led by Szymon.  We are all getting up early and working very late.  We will also be bringing onto our team Ukrainian translators and staff to assist us, so please pray for this transition.  We have a lot to do and pull together and we count on your prayers.  PLEASE JOIN US ESPECIALLY ON FRIDAY MARCH 25 IN PRAYERFUL SOLIDARITY AS POPE FRANCIS CONSECRATES RUSSIA & UKRAINE TO THE IMMACULATE HEART OF MARY.

God bless.

Fr. Jonathan Kalisch



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