On the list of things I thought I would do in life, running around Poland and Ukraine for five months on a broken leg never made the cut. But we all surprise ourselves throughout life, don’t we? Exactly how much can you take on physically, emotionally, and mentally at once? What is your limit?
Following my first broken leg incident this year, (yes, there have been two leg breaks, but I’ll get to that in another post,) I traveled back to Washington, DC via a stopover in Zurich. As I sat in one of the restaurants of Storchen Zurich overlooking the Limmat, a gentleman with his extended family sat catty-corner from me and I heard him start to illustrate his thoughts on life as to why some people always dust themselves off and fight and why others don’t seem to have it within them. “It is just like a racehorse,” he said. “Some of them get back up and keep running when they faulter. Some do not. It’s something inside of a person that you cannot teach.”
At that moment, I quickly but briefly injected myself into their conversation to share my experience of breaking my leg on the Ukraine/Poland border, getting hospitalized for surgery and then going right back to base camp Medyka in a wheelchair following my release. Why did I not immediately return home? It will never be who I am.
The gentleman kindly asked if I would like to join them for a cocktail, but in an effort to protect myself emotionally these days, politely declining social invitations has become part of who I am, as well. I thanked the man for giving me a boost of confidence and continued solo through the day. Knowing that “getting back up to keep going” is simply innate helped to put a smile in my heart for the remainder of the week.
And then from a different source, the skepticism started. Not on my part, but from those new to a personal aspect of my life. “Why us?” That was the question from my now goddaughter, Karolina. “Why did you help us? We are just regular people.” A few months after Zurich, these were the words coming from this lovely young girl, as we sat sipping mocktails in the restaurant at my physical rehabilitation facility in Otwock, Poland.
I met Karolina and her family of eight at base camp Medyka in the first phase of my self-created initiative to aide Ukraine following the Russian invasion. I showed up at the border with a minivan, a translator and an offer of accommodations to help families transition out of refugee mode and hopefully into some sense of normalcy. Housing for as long as needed, birthday parties, shopping excursions – anything that could restore a feeling of things are going to be ok.
Karolina now calls me her savior. Grab a hold of that and try to have it not break your heart in so many different ways. She likes quiet. Just like me she wants calm and peace in her life. It’s an inner desire for an environment she’s never experienced outside of her time in my rented Warsaw and Krakow flats. Karolina at the age of twelve has taken on responsibilities of an adult due to her family circumstances. She is well beyond her years. In some ways good, but in some ways, it makes me want to hold and shield this young girl from the world that continues to come after her.
I’ve heard her mother call her a pig. Now, when I say this, it is going to sound odd to backstop with that I don’t believe her mother has any true intention to harm her daughter. Karolina’s mother simply does not know the detrimental effect cruel words can have on a child.
But because of the unintentional verbal abuse Karolina sometimes experiences at home, I try to be as cautious and kind with my words as possible. Karolina and I, however, don’t always understand each other via texting. Messaging through the war with new friends is complicated. When you don’t speak the same language, what is already one of the worst forms of communication (texting) becomes a puzzle and mash of words that almost never entirely goes well. Karolina’s patience at 12-years-old is amazing when it comes to rewording and adapting her vocabulary. Translation apps do well enough of a job in a pinch, but true intentions and the meaning you want to convey isn’t necessarily always the outcome.
How does she comprehend this at such a young age? Why does she give me the benefit of the doubt if there is ever a misunderstanding? How did I get so lucky?
On what I can now call the second phase of my journey through this war, the ladies of the shelter in Nowe Brzesko, Poland welcomed me with affection, but at first - skepticism. The question of “why us,” came to me once more and for the first time in my life, I started to understand that my way of doing things is not the everyday way of operation for most people in the world. I don’t say this for looking for any pat on the back. More than anything else, these five months can be counted as a voyage of illumination for me. I am now starting to understand why I have been met with skepticism most of my life. Yes, I give without expectations. It has always been on a much more limited scale or in much smaller circles, so I’ve never had the “why me?” or “why us?” question posed so many times in such a short period.
From a very young age, I knew what it was like to hurt emotionally over and over and over again, so when someone asks me why I continue to give the answer is always the same: I don’t know how to be anyone else.
Ulia who was one of the first women to arrive to the Nowe Brzesko shelter following the February 24 invasion has become somewhat of a den mother at the facility. The fairly confusing texting sessions we had prior to my arrival were always pleasant, but I could tell there was a certain level of skepticism that followed each offer of assistance I made. So when one of the first questions I was asked from the group of women Ulia gathered to sit with me and Natalia (Natalia is the Ukrainian women who will be teaching English to the ladies of the Nowe Brzesko home) was if I was with a religious organization. The offers of help they have received continue to come with a push of “Jesus Christ is your savior” and they seem to no longer be interested in assistance that comes with a spiritual catch.
But I showed up without any conditions or expectations. I’m providing English lessons for the home to help these Ukrainian women and children improve their life skills. To give them hope that there can be a brighter future and to offer them a purpose while they are away from their homeland.
As I was about to conclude my first visit to the shelter, I walked with a few of the women to a local shop to purchase an iron they wanted in order to be able to send their children to school in a presentable fashion. For these ladies, that was more than enough proof that I was real. That I wasn’t in it for any other reason than to be nice to them. Simple gestures of kindness can mean everything in the world.
Ulia and I will continue our somewhat confusing text message thread until I am able to return to Poland and have Natalia properly translate for me, but Ulia is now certain anything I do to benefit her much-loved group of 200+ in Nowe Brzesko is always without strings attached. It is a simple way to live, but very often misunderstood.
I’m in Ukraine this month – humanitarian work by day and consulting work by night. Sitting behind a laptop in the evenings to fund and to keep the lights of this project on. Is it exhausting? Yes. Does it feed my soul? Beyond measure.
If you can stop someone from hurting – even in the slightest bit or for the shortest amount of time - it is simply your obligation as decent human to do so. There is more than enough heartlessness in this world to last everyone a lifetime, so may we all find the strength within us to counteract the overabundance of cruelty many find on a daily basis.
Kindness Is Everything.
The number of things that can happen in this amount of time is incalculable. My heart has been broken and saved over and over to the point where I lost count. Time doesn't exist in the first days of war. There is only triage.
When a border town camp rose from the ground in Medyka, Poland following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a collection of people who were looking to save the world came together. We became friends, lovers, the beschert, business partners, and allies in life. This gathering of people - this matching of kindred spirits rushing into tragedy - who would be there to collectively give their souls to the greater good became my reality. You want to be surrounded by the best humanity has to offer. You miss that no longer existing pop-up city of comfort and try to hold on to pieces of it.
But we weren't the first. We weren't the first to go through this washing machine wringer beat down of emotions. We were, however, the first of our generation to be there for the exodus of a European nation. Overwhelming masses of humanity in crisis constantly flowing towards you gives a blow back thrust to the core of your being. You can't recover immediately. It's impossible. You jump right back into the wringer, spin out of control, buy a new Ferrari, or get divorced. It's all happened. You're not rational and you're not going to be.
For those still emotionally spinning - offer yourself compassion. For those who dove back into your work - offer yourself compassion. This is war. This is hell. Extend kindness where you can.
The love stories of Alexandria, VA. That's how this was supposed to go. As I was sitting in my hotel room last weekend in Pittsburgh, PA, I knew the next "spring into action" moment was going to take place. I sent my husband a text saying I called a hostel in Poland at the Ukraine border and he knew that meant - here we go again. More money going out to people we don't know and countless hours of my time spent stressing over how many more people could use me fighting for them. As with the pandemic, nothing was going to stop me from jumping in.
This time, however, it's different. These are my people. My Slavic people. How do I watch my brothers and sisters being slaughtered on television without having every breath of my being squeezed out of me in anguish? It has to stop. I'm going to make it stop. I'm going to scream from my Twitter account @ing every person who might be able to make a difference.
Growing up in a household where you learn Polish in your daily lessons while you're picking up crocheting as a 5-year-old, you become proud to be Polish. You become proud to be Slavic. My Great Aunt Kay always had a very straightforward way of saying things - "we take care of our own."
Well, Kay, it's my turn to fight. To take care of our people. You taught me well and I will make you proud. I have to. There is no other option.
Mary K Leonard