As Close to Home as Possible: An Update on Ukranian Refugees in Poland

As Close to Home as Possible: An Update on Ukranian Refugees in Poland

Reformed Church in Zychlin with the communion table wrapped in the Ukrainian flag. This is one of the churches that took in refugees.
The following is an update from the Rev. Kazimierz Bem, pastor of the First Church in Marlborough, MA, and a native of Poland. (More on his church's fundraising efforts here.)

“We need to plan for the long term” – I heard from the head of the Lutheran Diakonia in Poland – “Most of the refugees will stay here for years. The help from the UCC churches makes it possible. Thank you.”
You all have made it possible. When I first asked you and your congregations for help with Ukrainian refugees in Poland, I hoped to raise $5,000, maybe $10,000. As of today, we have raised just over $133,000. You, that is 34 congregations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island and one in Texas are extraordinary. The $133,000 came in checks ranging from $50 to $18,000. Amazing, Gospel-like, truly, and profoundly Christian in the best meaning of the word (and humanistic too – some donations were made by generous non-Christians or United Church of Christ members).
During my holiday break while visiting Poland I visited three of the many Lutheran and Reformed congregations in Poland who took in refugees from Ukraine. I noticed a difference the day I arrived: Poland took in around 3.2 million refugees since February. That’s almost 10% of the population. In my hometown of Łódź, removed from the border with Ukraine, I heard for the first time Ukrainian in the streets. Little wonder: it took in over 100,000 refugees, growing by 15%. Cities like Cracow and Warsaw took numbers close to 20% of their population. The impact is visible everywhere: on the train, in the stores, in schools. Many Poles opened their own homes to refugees – but after three months, their generosity is increasingly strained. Finding new apartments to rent is almost impossible. Even if it were – who will rent to the elderly, women and children with no jobs or language skills?
That is why our efforts to help the Lutherans and Reformed is so valuable. These congregations, varying in size from 32 to 800, have opened their Sunday school halls, parsonages, old property, even an old cemetery superintendent’s house to take in refugees for free. Members have stepped in to offer language classes, to help with legal, medical, and psychological matters. In every congregation I talked to, members have invited the refugees for Easter meals, brought groceries etc. If my calculations are correct, they care at any time for 600-800 refugees. Over 50% of the congregations of both denominations are housing refugees.
I am happy to report together with the Lutheran Diakonia and individual Reformed and Methodist congregations your gifts (amongst others) were and will be used to fund in at least 14 congregations: 
  • A drop-in daycare for refugee youth where they can play games, get emotional help, learn Polish, and get help with schoolwork.
  • A women and children’s shelter where they can stay safely, cook for themselves, and are offered aid in finding jobs and language training.
  • Adapting old guest rooms and transforming them to new, family-friendly living as well as fitting bathrooms and kitchens so that the refugee families can have a semblance of a normal, independent life. In a couple of cases the kitchens are used as small businesses and the refugee women cook and earn a living this way.
  • Creating a small kindergarten where Ukrainian children can be left while their mothers work and adapting other rooms for small seamstress shops where they can earn a living.
  • Language classes, language classes and language classes. Though both Polish and Ukrainian are Slavic languages they are quite different (even I was surprised by that) and with a totally different alphabet (Latin v. Cyrillic). When over 3 million refugees arrive in the space of two months, very soon all jobs that don’t require conversational Polish are taken up. Learning Polish will help them become independent sooner rather than later – all the refugees I spoke to wanted to work.
 All in all, your generous help sustains these victims of a brutal war and war crimes. It is given to people regardless of their religion (or lack thereof), gender or sexual orientation – I was assured of that many times. Your generosity has supplemented aid from the Lutheran World Federation, The Waldensian Church in Italy and the Reformed Church in Lippe and many others. The funds you have collected will serve these refugee guests of these congregations for at least 6 months. Side note: as I left Poland, Russia cut off its gas supply, which means that the costs of living will skyrocket. Your gifts will also help pay the electricity and heat (come fall and winter) of these refugees.
I know some of you want to see pictures of the folks. I was given permission on a couple of occasions to take them – but I decided against it in the end. They are fellow human beings who are suffering – it’s a little too soon, too raw. The congregations that we helped in their outreach will be posting photos soon with their permission, I will be sharing those with you in the weeks to come.
“We want to go home” – one refugee woman told me while holding her daughter on her lap - “If I only could, I would hop on the train home even now! Today! Yes, today! But my house is gone, my husband is fighting. I have nowhere to return to…” She teared up. I sat in silence. She wiped her eyes and smiled at me and added “But you all have made this for us, as close to home as possible. Thank you.”
Indeed. Thank you all and everyone. And not to us, not to us, but to our God be praise and glory (Psalm 115:1)
Congregations participating in the collection (in alphabetical order)
* indicates a congregation that joined since the last blog-post
South Glastonbury Congregational Church, CT
First Congregational Church of Griswold, Jewett City CT
South Congregational Church, East Hartford, CT
Milton Congregational, Litchfield, CT
Shalom UCC, New Haven CT
First Church of Christ in New Haven, CT
United Church on the Green, New Haven CT
United Congregational Church of Westerly UCC, CT
First Church of Christ Congregational, Bedford, MA
First Congregational Church of Brimfield, MA
Church of the Covenant, Boston, MA*
Old South Church, Boston, MA
Second Congregational Church, Boxford, MA
United Parish of Craver, Carver, MA
First Congregational Church of Chelsea, MA
First Congregational Church of Chesterfield, MA*
Groveland Congregational Church, Groveland, MA
Pilgrim Congregational Church in Harwich Port, MA
Pilgrim Congregational Church, Lexington, MA
First Church in Marlborough (Congregational) UCC, MA
Elliott Congregational Church, Natic, MA
First Congregational Church in Needham, MA
First Congregational Church of Saugus, MA
First Congregational Church of Sheffield, MA
First Congregational Church of Shrewsbury, MA
Elm Street Congregational Church, Southbridge, MA*
Vaquoit Congregational Church, Vaquoit Village, MA
First Congregational Church of West Boylston, MA
Old South Union Church UCC, Weymouth, MA
Quincy Point Congregational Church, Quincy MA*
Village Congregational Church, Whitinsville, MA
Foreside Community Church, Falmouth, ME
Presque Isle Congregational Church, UCC, Presque Island, ME
Congregational Church of Sandy Point, Sandy Point, ME
United Congregational of Little Compton, RI
Richmond Congregational Church, VT
First Congregational Church of Houston, TX



Kaz J. Bem

The Rev. Kazimierz Bem is the Pastor of the First Church in Marlborough (Congregational). 

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