Last week, we returned from a New Hope Endowment mission in Krakow, Poland, to bring needed therapeutic aid and resources to Ukrainian refugee children, organized by the Center for Jewish Impact with our friends from Alumot Or and SaSa Setton. Two speech therapists from Israel – Kira Sholkov Rubinstein and Jenia Kaufman – came to work with refugee children at a refugee center organized by Krakow's local Jewish Community Center. Each one brought with them to Krakow years of experience, Russian (as natives of the former USSR), and suitcases full of projects and materials to engage the children.
Below we would like to share with you a bit of our experience and takeaways from what was an incredibly challenging yet meaningful several days in the heart of Europe's refugee crisis.
Weeks before landing in Poland, we at the Center for Jewish Impact started by reaching out to Agnieszka (Agi), the director of development of JCC Krakow, our partner and guide through the process, around how we could be of service. Agi shared vital information with us regarding their current infrastructure and needs regarding refugee children.
Kira and Jenia prepared extensively in Israel before our journey. They organized creative DIYs (paper mache, cardboard, clay, plasticine, and more) to be used in various activities and workshops for the children. Additionally, we packed suitcases filled with toys, party games, and Israeli snacks.
After many conversations, we finally arrived in Krakow to be met by Agi, who introduced us to the Jewish community and its operations.
Every day, a long line of Ukrainian refugees wait outside the JCC, wishing to enter the donation center run by the community. The center is operated by volunteers and has many necessities for the welfare of the families arriving at the JCC - clothes, diapers, and food.
However, the main goal of the JCC teams is to “help the refugees help themselves.” They run workshops for women on how to write a CV and apply for a job; they teach Polish and assist with housing. The community is committed both in the short and long term.
The JCC also runs Witlania, a daycare center for Ukrainian children. Though a small operation, counting 10-15 children, the center responds to the basic needs of the people there, younger and older kids and their mothers. The daycare center contains a preschool, a small class, and an area for a psychologist to work.
Witlania, however, has many limitations. The center's staff lack training and skills, functioning as no more than babysitters. In many cases, the children are left to entertain themselves for the entire day. You could see how the kids yearned to be engaged. That's where our team stepped in to provide activities and interaction.
On our first day we also visited Paszcowka, a country village an hour out of Krakow, where the JCC purchased a palace hotel (see picture below) to settle the refugees. The space is currently being prepared before welcoming residents.
There is a hotel just across from the palace's lawn, also owned by the JCC and renovated for the needs of the Ukrainian refugees. It can hold up to 35 families and as of writing these lines, nearly 50 women and children are staying there. The space is centered around communal life - the mothers cook for everyone while kids play next to them. Most children are already enrolled in preschools, though some are still out of any daily structure, particularly the older ones.
The palace is run by a married couple who fled Belarus during the 2020 riots; essentially, they are refugees too. The man, Dima, runs the hotel with every detail in mind. For example, the hotel's wifi works only in the shared space, preventing the kids from shunning themselves away in their rooms.
The second and third days started in Witlania with trust-building activities between Jenia, Kira and the children. During an activity session on dreams, they shared their night dreams, both good and bad. Jenia and Kira then introduced them to a dream catcher workshop. Each kid made one to protect their nights from bad dreams and let the good dreams pass through. Later, the older kids (ages 10-15) arrived and despite their age, created plasticine sculptures as a vehicle to talk about their trauma.
Another workshop was about wizards and spells. The kids were asked what kind of spell they would cast if real wizards. One girl said that she would cast a spell to end the war and make peace.
The afternoon was the most emotional part of the day where we saw the war from the kids' perspective. Feeling safe and inspired, the kids started to share their stories of fleeing from Ukraine, and their harsh experiences: the bombings, the sirens, and hiding in the shelters. Their stories, filled with resilience, moved everyone to talk and share. One of the girls started to sing a song and others joined in, forming a choir of Ukrainian folk songs and leaving Kira and Jenia's eyes full of tears.
Kira and Jenia spent the rest of their stay in Paszcowka, working with the mothers. Over several days, the women opened up about their hardships and invited Kira and Jenia to lunch. They ate borscht together - a typical East-European dish.
The next day Kira and Jenia drove the mothers to a clothing shop in Krakow, to get clothes for the mothers and kids. Through one-on-one conversations Kira and Jenia learned about the mothers' hobbies: one mentioned that she misses knitting, and another said she misses painting. We managed to buy them supplies for them to continue their hobbies and have an outlet to perhaps relax and clear their mind.
Kira and Jenia created more workshops -- from slime or sports activities. One kid with special needs who was reluctant to join the previous workshops finally started to participate. The kids made and played with pinwheels, and then created clay sculptures to give their mothers as gifts.
Kira and Jenia read the kids the children's book “Where do the worries go at night?" to end the day. The story speaks about a kid who shares his worries with his doll. Inspired by the book, the kids created dolls, and then each kid shared their fears and the belongings they left behind with their new doll. These workshops and activities also inspired the mothers to continue the activities once Kira and Jenia left, and many volunteered to continue the workshops for the kids.
The pictures and words above tell the story of how we managed to bring just a little bit of light to the women and children. Representing Israel, the Jewish people, and of course, our organizations, we are proud of the modest, yet ongoing role we will play in helping innocent individuals impacted by this war. We will organize more delegations such as these in the near future.