Day 1: Rzeszów, Poland and Strażów, Poland
The morning started at shopping mall turned refugee center in Rzeszów. Right after the war in Ukraine began, upstairs tenants at the mall were quickly moved downstairs so the Centrum Medyczne (Medical Center) could be set up. That upstairs was now filled with hundreds of cots, a laundry center, play area for children, showers, a cafeteria, and more.
“We established this place for people who are fleeing the violence in Ukraine. We have had about 10,000 people come through the Center in total. The capacity is about 500 people,” said Rafał Kut, Director of Communication, Centrum Medyczne. “At the beginning, we were overflowing with people. We don’t know if the conflict will expand, so we are keeping this open.”
For some refugees, it was a safe transition point as they would stay there a few days and then travel to other western countries or Polish cities, but individuals may stay as long as they need. Many, just like Oksana, fled quickly and grabbed only a few necessary items that they could easily transport. “When people arrive, they have their basic necessities with them. Sometimes they leave very fast and they may have just had a couple minutes to grab things and just run. At the beginning, there were people who traveled for 50-60 hours, so they were exhausted, especially the kids,” said Kut.
About five large bags of shoes were sent up the elevator to the upper level of the mall so the first ever distribution in Poland could begin. This one would look a little different than a normal Samaritan’s Feet event. Because of the small team and space, it naturally progressed into a “shop and try” style event which ended up being the most fitting for this special group of recipients. This allowed these refugees, who have experienced an abnormal life the last few months, to have a normal experience. They browsed all the shoes, found the ones they liked, and tried them on. A typical experience.
“It is so refreshing [when groups come in], especially for the children. Some of them have had trauma because they saw things that no child is supposed to see. We try to bring as much of a normal life for them as possible,” said Kut. At this distribution, the team met Lilliana, a young girl who tried on about 10 pairs of shoes in search of the pair she liked most. She gently smiled as she tried on each pair, examining them carefully and looking to others for approval. Lilliana’s mother helped her other, younger daughter try on several as well, finally asking for the team’s opinion on which one looked the best on her.
An older woman also tried on several pairs; she gave the impression that she was unable to decide. She then asked a team member, “may I have one pair for summer and one pair for fall?” The team member eagerly said, “yes, absolutely!” And with tears in her eyes, seemingly overcome by a simple “yes,” the older woman wished for health and peace over the team member.
How beautiful to be able to give a simple “yes” to someone who has probably heard “no” all too often in the last few months during the war.
Later that afternoon, the team headed to Strażów, Poland, to a hotel that is now transitional housing for Ukrainian refugees. Strażów is about 50 miles from the Ukrainian border, so it is often a first stop for refugees as they cross the border. Underneath a covered outdoor eating area, the team began the distribution just like earlier in the day—placing the shoes out on the table so that the individuals could see them all and select which ones they liked best.
Moms and their children came out of their rooms and began to peruse the shoes available. They casually interacted with the team after picking their shoes: a pregnant woman sharing details of when she was due, a teenage girl shyly stating that she played the piano, and a toddler constantly smiling prompting everyone else to smile.
When talking with those who have helped refugees in this location and nearby, the team often heard that the need for shoes was something that was unexpected. But story after story came in of those arriving in Poland in desperate need of clothing and shoes, including one story of a girl who arrived in Poland in galoshes because that’s what she wore the day she left Ukraine.