Dear Hashomer Hatzair North America community
When I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the Hashomer Hatzair refugee center for Ukrainian children in Poland, I wasn’t sure whether I should go. It made me nervous that the site was just 10 kilometers from the Ukrainian border and I worried that the things I would see would scare me. Living in Canada has shielded me from war and I’d be exposing myself to its reality. I also wondered whether I was the right person to go and what someone from so far away had to offer. After seeking the guidance of people I trust, it was clear to me that I should go, that I did have something unique to contribute. My dad was excited for me, which is not surprising since he’s never been one to shield me from the realities of the world. My mom seemed a little nervous.
The refugee center is in Przemysl (pronounced ‘Pshemishl’), a small, picturesque city with a population of about 60,000 - and 14,000 Jews before the Nazis killed almost all of them. Today a new war is raging in Europe, and thousands of people stream each day into southern Poland from Ukraine on their way to start new lives in Western Europe and beyond. The refugee center is located in an abandoned mall. Upon arrival, refugees register and choose the European country they’d like to go to. They sleep in rooms holding hundreds of cots, and quarters are assigned based on which country a refugee or family has chosen. Back outside, buses and cars arrived constantly to begin the process of transporting refugees to their new homes. Food tables were set up inside and outside the center, and refugees and volunteers were free to eat whenever they were hungry. The food options included sandwiches, stews, soups, cereals and pastas. Outside the center an Italian public-aid organization made delicious pizzas that were everyone’s favorite.
The Hashomer Hatzair children’s center is in a room about half the size of a basketball court, and is packed with all sorts of amusements. Each week a new delegation of volunteers, most of whom were Israelis, arrived to run the children’s center for a week. My delegation included Nathan from Rome and Noga, Uri, Michael, Tanya, Alex, Carmel, Eli and Shanna from Israel. Michael, Tanya, Alex and Eli were all born and grew up in either Russia or Ukraine, so they spoke Russian and Ukrainian.
Room with cots where refugees slept
Each day we ate breakfast at 8 a.m. at our hostel and then walked or drove to the center, which we opened at 9 a.m. There were always a few kids excitedly waiting for us when we showed up. We’d put out puzzles, paint, toys and almost anything else you could think of for children to play with. I spent a lot of time face-painting. The kids chose from designs saved on my phone, including a butterfly, a lady bug, a rainbow, a basketball, a unicorn. Tanya, one of my friends in the delegation, told me that the kids’ faces lit up immediately when I started to paint, and it was nice to know that something as simple as face painting could make a kid so happy. At other times, I danced with the kids and taught them guitar. We did puzzles together and made bracelets. The volunteers took a break every few hours to get tea and pizza from the Italian volunteers. At 6 p.m. the children’s center closed, after which we held a debrief to talk about how we felt and planned the next day. The center then re-opened for teenage programming, and by 10 p.m. we had returned to the hostel for dinner consisting of bread, cheese, meat, vegetables and leftovers from the center. We’d usually chat for a few hours about the war, Israel and our lives until everyone was tired and went to sleep.
Picture of the delegation that week
The happiness of laughing kids at play in the children’s center contrasted with the chaos and sadness outside it. The hallways of the mall were lined with makeshift beds and tables where hundreds of children, adults and elderly people slept and sat and waited. Their facial expressions were sometimes blank, and they were often crying. On a bench in the hallway sat a teenage girl, tears in her eyes. Her father, his head against her shoulder, appeared to be sleeping. I saw women engaged in video calls with men whom I assumed to have been their husbands or sons. I came to realize that the children’s center was, for the kids, a welcome distraction from the reality of their situations.
I relied heavily on the Google translate app to communicate with the kids and their (mostly) mothers. We had to ask each parent the name of their child and the room number where they were staying. If I had to inform a parent that their child had lost a sweater or if a parent was informing me that it was time to take their kid outside for food, Google translate was the main method of communication. I used hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate with kids who hadn’t yet learned to read and write. To attract kids who were being dropped off but nervous to leave their parents, I bent down on one knee to their eye level and smiled or gave them little pats on the back. I showed them photos of face paintings. Usually it worked. Since speech was of little use, I learned to use body language to make the kids welcome and give them a sense that they would be safe with me.
On the last afternoon of my stay, Jenya and Vika, Ukrainian Shomrimot I’ve worked with since the start of the war, came via train to visit. Jenya has been hosting educational Zoom events with Ori (Rosh Chinuch HH USA) and me in which she’s told her story about fleeing the war to various Canadian communities. She and Vika left their easten Ukrainian hometown, Kharkiv, for Poland on the first day of the war and since their arrival have been living in Wroclaw. Now Jenya and Vika spend their days volunteering. They bring groceries and other necessities to refugees in the city and find apartments for new arrivals, while also finding time to prepare packages of medicine and other lifesaving supplies for shipment to Ukraine. They are in touch with their Ukrainian friends and family daily, and every few days Jenya and I check in with each other to find out how the other is doing. In Przemysl, we talked about her life before the war and how much things have changed. Jenya and Vika went back to Wroclaw, an eight-hour train ride, after just a few hours.
The day before I came home, my delegation visited the site where the Przemysl ken was held before the Nazis arrived. Between 300 and 400 Shomrimot met in a four-or-five-story stone building on a quiet side street near the central square. An Israeli member of the delegation told us the story of the ken and the history of Przemysl’s Jewish population. We remembered the Przemysl chanichimot and hadracha that were a part of us, and felt pride at the thought that we were carrying on the work that generations of Hashomer Hatzair have been doing for more than 100 years.
I have been back since April 22. Each morning since then, I’ve woken up thinking about the kids I met and wonder what they are up to. Wherever they are, I hope that they are safe.
Chazak Ve Ematz
Mazkira Tnua (youth leader) Canada
The center in Przemysl and Hashomer Hatzair's other humanitarian aid is only possible through the donations of kind people all around the globe, If you wish to donate to this incredible effort go to https://campshomria.com/blogs/yachad-for-ukraine-updates/how-to-donate-to-our-cause-around-the-world