Detroiters head to Polish border to help Ukrainian refugees

Father Andrew Kowalczyk returns to Poland every year.

This time the trip will be very different.

“To see what is happening so close to our borders,” he said. “We have all been affected by the atrocities that are being committed there. We have been affected and we want to act.”

Kowalczyk, 55, is the pastor of St. Clare of Montefalco Parish in Grosse Pointe Park. He and 20 other people are leaving the comfort of their homes and traveling to the Polish border from April 4-13 to help fleeing Ukrainian refugees.

He said no matter what they are tasked to do once they reach the border, they just want to help.

“We want to act on this as much as we can to go and help, to use our hands, our feet, whatever we can to wipe away a tear, give a hug, offer a smile, a prayer, whatever the local authorities will ask us to do, we are ready to do it,” Kowalczyk said. “I told the volunteers that we might need to scrub the floor and take out the garbage – whatever is necessary.

Refugees are seen as they wait to be transported at the train station in Przemysl, Poland, March 17, 2022. - More than three million Ukrainians have crossed the border, mostly women and children, according to the UN.

He knew he had to go to his homeland to help since Russia invaded Ukraine. The UN says 3.5 million Ukrainians fledmany into the open arms of their Polish neighbours.

“I never thought that I would witness, in the 21st century, such a thing, that a sovereign country could be plundered by another country,” he said. “And what is sad is to see the suffering, to see, in a sense, the déjà vu of 1939 (when Germany invaded Poland). You know, we, as Polish people, with the suffering we’ve been through, and seeing what the people of Ukraine are going through. And it’s not the same, of course, but there are so many similarities.”

‘I’m supposed to do this’

When Kowalczyk asked his congregation a little over a week ago if anyone wanted to travel with him to Poland, he didn’t expect so many people to volunteer.

Although only 20 people could join the trip, 20 more wanted to. If all goes well and the border stays relatively safe, he might arrange another trip in the future with the other interested people.

Valérie Binder is nervous, but that won’t stop her. She worries about last-minute preparations and forgets to bring the right supplies. Not to mention that the tide of war could change at any time.

But she never doubted her decision to go. Binder said she had considered taking similar trips in the past — she has friends who travel to the Texas border frequently — but never took the plunge. This time it’s different, she said.

“When Andrew sent that email and asked people, for some reason, I immediately said, ‘Yeah, I’m supposed to go, I’m supposed to do this,'” Binder said. “Having seen so much suffering on TV, and you know, you can give them money and pray, but I have to do more for these people.”

Binder wasn’t the only one who felt called – Elizabeth Zatina and Mike McDevitt, 66 and 65, also felt drawn to him, they said.

Mike McDevitt, 65, right, and Elizabeth Zatina, 66, left, pose for a photo at St. Claire de Montefalco Parish in Grosse Pointe Park on Monday, March 21, 2022. Members will travel to the Polish border on March 4 April.

Once the group arrives in Poland, they will stay in the religious house of the Michaelites, a congregation of Saint Michael the Archangel founded in Poland. St. Clare of Montefalco Parish is a branch of the Michaelites in the United States

The refugees are also temporarily staying in the same religious house, Kowalczyk said.

A community-wide effort

The 20 people going to Poland are not all from the Kowalczyk church.

Sean Motley, pastor of the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, is also going. Although inter-church collaborations are rare, Motley jumped at the chance to help Ukrainians.

Motley wanted a way to help, other than donating money, since the attack on Ukraine, he said. He is physically able to go, and it was the perfect opportunity, he said.

“I think (Kowalczyk) and see a lot of very similar things,” Motley said. “Obviously he’s a Roman Catholic priest, I’m a Lutheran pastor. At the same time, we both see the need for action in our community. That we are not just hearers of the word, but that we execute the word.”

Women and children who said they fled the nearby town of Yavoriv in Ukraine this morning stock up on donated food as they arrive at a refugee aid stop at the Budomierz border crossing on March 13, 2022 in Budomierz, Poland.  Early this morning, several Russian missiles hit the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security in the military training center near Yavoriv.  The site is only a few kilometers from the border between Ukraine and Poland, a member of NATO.  Refugees arriving from Yavoriv said the blasts rocked their homes and terrified their children.

Motley was previously in the Army Reserves, and he remembered seeing a poster of Uncle Sam in his drill sergeant’s office that read, “if not you, who?”

But he acknowledges that not everyone can miss work for 10 days or leave their family for that long. And not everyone has the financial means to buy a ticket to Europe.

“It’s always stuck with me, whenever God calls us, if you don’t, then who is it?” Motley said. “And not everyone can do everything physically either. So that’s the thing, I never say that in the sense of saying ‘well, everyone should jump on a plane and fly to Poland or Ukraine “.”

Schoolchildren also participate. Students from St. Clare of Montefalco Catholic School will be making cards for Ukrainian children, and their families have donated for their trip. So far, the school has raised over $400, with more fundraisers planned for next week.

A risky decision

Mike McDevitt, 65, left, and Elizabeth Zatina, 66, right, pose for a photo at St. Claire de Montefalco Parish in Grosse Pointe Park on Monday, March 21, 2022. Members will travel to the Polish border on March 4 April.

Zatina and McDevitt said they were well aware of the dangers of approaching an active war zone and were monitoring the situation closely.

“If it became more problematic or dangerous (at the Polish border), we probably wouldn’t go,” McDevitt said.

Motley echoed their sentiments, saying he’d be a “fool” if he had no worries – the pros simply outweigh the cons. He has a wife and three sons, all of whom are worried about his safety.

“There are always risks in everything,” Motley said. “And my wife said two things. She said it’s okay if I do this and I’m stubborn as a mule, if that’s what I believe I should be doing, then that’s very hard to stop myself from doing it.”

There are other concerns as well, including a language barrier. Kowalczyk is the only member of the group to speak Polish. The others try to accumulate lessons to learn the basics, from “please” and “thank you” to “beer”.

The group plans to bring supplies to help, but they want to buy as many as they can from Poland to support businesses there, Motley said.

Refugees try to find usable clothes after crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border at the Medyka border crossing in southeastern Poland on March 17, 2022. - More than three million Ukrainians crossed the border, mostly women and children, according to the UN.

Motley encourages everyone to take action in any way possible.

“If people find out about this, don’t just say, ‘Boy, I feel really bad about this,'” he said. “Take that and use it for something, whether it’s financial support you can provide, or whether it’s prayer you can provide, or whether it’s talking to our elected leaders and ask them to work towards a solution. To do what you have the ability to do, that’s all anyone can do.”

Kowalczyk will contribute the money the two churches raise, and 100% of it will go towards the care of the refugees, he said. None of this will go to the group or the church itself.

“We’re not doing this for our own glory,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s a response to this human suffering, because it breaks your heart.”

To donate to Ukrainian refugees through Sainte-Claire de Montefalco, go to https://stclarem.churchgiving.com/ws/opportunities/SupportForUkraine

Contact Emma Stein: estein@freepress.com and follow her on Twitter @_emmastein.

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