(Betsy Joles for HIAS)
WARSAW - When Maria Radionova talks about leaving Ukraine, she attributes her family's escape to one group: volunteers. The 43-year-old mother and her children made it onto a bus to Poland after dodging missile attacks as they moved west from Kharkiv towards safety. When she crossed the border in May with her 1- and 4-year-old daughters, Lada and Rada, again it was volunteers who helped her find her way.
In the nearly five months since the war in Ukraine began, Poland has become an epicenter of crisis relief, absorbing millions of refugees and acting as a transit point for others who have chosen to journey on to other countries. Integral to the relief effort are the many volunteers who have traveled to Poland to assist displaced Ukrainians – some coming halfway across the world to do so.
Young people from CADENA, a Jewish humanitarian organization and HIAS partner based in Mexico, are among the people providing support in Poland. In a play area inside Ptak Warsaw Expo, an exhibition center turned temporary refugee housing facility, CADENA volunteers provide companionship, spending time with children who are drawing, playing foosball, and making bracelets. The brightly lit children's spaces sit adjacent to rows of black cots where people spend most of their time.
Regina Villalobos, 29, a CADENA volunteer from Mexico City, said this kind of assistance is simple but impactful because it shows that people from different parts of the world care. When she and her fellow volunteers walk through the halls of the expo center, children run up to give them hugs and tell them about their families' plans. “[It feels good to meet] them halfway to be there for them [for] whatever it is that they need, even if you’re not going to change their lives,” Villalobos said.
In Villalobos’ previous CADENA mission she helped deliver medical treatment to indigenous communities in Mexico but, at Ptak Warsaw Expo, she sees the contribution of CADENA volunteers as being more organic and integrated with those they are helping. “With kids, it’s nice because you realize wherever you are from and wherever you are, that human connection is there,” she said. “They don’t want to have a coffee and chat, they just want to play.”
CADENA started in 2005 when members of the Mexican Jewish community decided to organize in response to Hurricane Stan, a cyclone that wrought destruction throughout the region. The group expanded its work during subsequent crises and began to gain a reputation for prompt and humane response. “We distribute all the aid hand to hand, which is our main principle,” said Abril Páez, director of emergencies and humanitarian operations for CADENA. “Our theory of change is to be in a disaster whenever we see that there is no one else doing the activity that we are doing.”
CADENA started working in Poland a week after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, mostly focusing on mental health and psychosocial support, which the organization saw as underprovided at the time, Páez said. HIAS took notice of CADENA’s efforts providing these services at the Poland-Ukraine border and offered support.“It has been amazing to meet an organization with the same values that is always putting in the center the needs of the people,” Páez said.
HIAS and CADENA have a history of working together, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean and the organizations recently started a project together in Cucuta, Colombia providing assistance to women and children from Venezuela.
“HIAS and Cadena complement each other on many levels while we share the foundation of acting based on our Jewish values. It is the embodiment of humanitarian aid – complexity that requires diversity and cooperation, while striving for the same goal of tikkun olam,” said Raphael Marcus, senior vice president of programs for HIAS.
The vast majority of the 6 million refugees who have entered Europe from Ukraine since the Russian invasion in late February are women and children. The United Nations and other international organizations have raised the alarm about the adverse mental health effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, faced by young people who have been directly exposed to violence.
Ukrainian children have had their lives uprooted, leaving behind their fathers, friends, and routines that kept them grounded. Many have adapted to life in basements and bomb shelters, while others have been ferried across Europe by parents in an attempt to find a stable place to live. They have found themselves in unfamiliar environments without familiar settings to anchor them.
Marek Stepien, who started the children’s centers in Ptak Warsaw Expo with his wife, says they aim to make the space a happy hideaway in an otherwise dispiriting setting. “We would like for the kids to remember this room and not what is outside,” Stepien said. He said he is glad that CADENA volunteers and others share in their mission. “We are very touched that so many people want to help.”
Victoriya Filatova and her 1-year-old daughter Danaya spend many of their days in the colorful room with other children. Filatova, who came to Poland in March, said having such a space has helped her older children stay occupied in between the online classes they attend at their Ukrainian school. “People can compare this to what they had. When it’s quiet and there’re no alarms and no sirens — it means a lot,” she said.
CADENA volunteers say their efforts are a way to acknowledge that anyone could suddenly need help. “I live really [well] in Mexico with my family, my house. One day it could be really different, like here in Ukraine,” said Victoria Zyman Levy, an 18-year-old from Mexico City. Zyman Levy came to Poland — her grandfather’s homeland — shortly before the war during a gap year from school. Growing up in Mexico’s Jewish community, she had wanted to come and learn about the holocaust and the aftermath of World War II.
In late May, Cadena volunteers also helped escort a group of refugees, including Radionova, to the airport, where they boarded a flight to Spain. Radionova said she chose to travel to Spain because taking a single airplane was a simpler process than multiple train journeys with Lada and Rada. “I’m alone with two kids, and it’s too hard to go somewhere by bus, by land,” she said.
She started considering Spain as an option when her neighbor from Ukraine went there after the war started. She hopes she can enroll her elder daughter in kindergarten when they arrive. She said her time in Poland, thanks to the kindness of volunteers, has helped her find temporary peace. “[There’s] no missiles here and it’s enough.”
(Betsy Joles for HIAS)