Travel the Poland-Ukraine border, March 2022.
By: Natalia Germán Kestler
I came back because reality summons me to solve the daily issues of my life: work, home, children, my partner, friends. Maybe better so, after all, who is going to take care of my life if I don’t do it?
My daily life was what I thought most about when I crossed hundreds and thousands of women in the refugee centre in the border town of Przemyśl. I couldn’t help but see myself reflected in that modernly dressed mom, with a new suitcase and two beautiful children behind her. Beautiful all three, beautiful and tired, ojerosos, somewhat disheveled and a face of deep confusion. She perceived the mother’s gaze looking on the horizon for a welcoming place, a space of protection, a future out of danger in the immediate and willing to do everything for her children, accepting uncertainty and struggling with extreme fatigue.
To be honest, I must say that during my stay in Przemyśl I did not have much time to reflect on the war, but there were moments of a refined and deep understanding of destruction and hope. Those moms, like me, two weeks ago went to work, took their children to school, in the afternoon they attended Pilates class, at night they shared dinner and reneged with their husband for whom she bathed the boys. Then they would tell a tale about magical fairies and go to sleep. From one day to the next, his routine vanished forever.
My task at the refugee centre, together with a group of fantastic volunteers, was to create a space for infants and children, where they could simply be, play and be children again. Having no language in common, I developed a strategy as simple as it was effective: play. If I chose a board game like Jenga or a Puzzle, I would play alone and the children would naturally join my game. If I wanted to do tattoos or stickers, I would get tattoos of dragons and flowers on my arms and the guys would come over and choose their tattoo and point me to which arm to stamp it on; if I wanted to play the game “let the balloon not touch the floor”, I challenged myself and the boys were joining. It’s that simple, me in Hebrew or Spanish and they in Ukrainian. I learned that you don’t need a language to play, to give a smile, to make a cuteness and to receive a bear hug from those who caress your soul deeply.
During the days I was in the refugee center, I had the privilege of feeling and doing what the heart dictates. Without too many thoughts, with the sole objective of making children smile and providing peace of mind to mothers in those dark moments of their lives. An hour of tranquility can mean a less heavy stone in the heart.
On more than one occasion, when dancing with the boys, when jumping, sweating and being fully focused on the game, I was encouraged to look around and see the mothers crying, collapsing that dam that formed all those days of marching escaping the imminent danger. To see his son playing, under a comfortable roof, with a crazy Israeli Argentine who spoke to them, sang to them in other languages, painted a cloud on their faces, gave them a balloon, a bad and funny word said in Ukrainian and a dance with many smiles.
A Return to Sanity, a pinch of normalcy, that was my bit.
One day we cleaned our children’s “club”: broken toys, fibers without lids, jars of finished soap bubbles, dry plasticines, dirty teddy bears. Outside the place there was a mountain of cardboard that would be thrown in some garbage dump that I never knew where it was. In the corridor of the refugee center I see an older gentleman dressed in elegant sportswear, wiping the floor of the corridor with a rag. I approach him and ask him in basic English, if he can tell me who is in charge of cleaning – in our known world it would be “his boss” – to ask that they come and remove the cartons. This gentleman, Irish – I learned later – with the bearing of the head of a company, immediately offered to give himself to the task of removing all the garbage from the place.
I do not know why, or how, or what is the reason that led the Irishman to take care of our garbage, but the truth is that he was there, doing it. And just like him, several dozen volunteers from around the world were stationed in the refugee center, cleaning, cooking, healing, tidying, babysitting, hugging, offering both hands, giving everything from their most sincere humanity.
The most powerful grandmother in the world
One day, on several occasions, I saw an elderly lady, limping on crutches, with her grandson of about six or seven years with Down syndrome holding one of the crutches in the absence of a free hand. Every time I crossed them, I saw them alone, walking, going to the dining room, on the turn for the bathroom, or just walking through the hallways. This particular couple gave me deep sadness and deep admiration. I understood that war leaves no choice.
If until now I had believed that my life depends only on me, I learned from war that the crazy decision of a wretched man with power is enough to destabilize the balance of the world. I learned that man loves life but cannot avoid war. I learned that war is a snowball and you can almost never go back. I learned that migration is a human act of natural order in situations of danger, from Homo Sapiens leaving Africa to the present day. I learned that we depend on each other. I learned about versatility.
When I accepted the idea of participating in a humanitarian act of such a measure, without hesitation and without too many questions I gave myself to the march without knowing who I was going to work with and without attaching greater importance to this issue.
Our kids’ club team turned out to be the most unequal group that could have formed, both in ages, backgrounds, occupations, general interests, languages. There were tensions and challenges, everyone faced the situation in their own way. But I can say that in just a handful of days, we became the most integrated and effective team on the planet. That “power is in the mix,” well, that. And I would add: the good use of humor.
Fantastic people with a big heart.
*Pipi Card alludes to an inside joke of our team.
One autumn afternoon in the 90s, Grandma Paulina told me a short story about a very curious lamp that adorned the corner of the living room in her apartment on Oroño Street.
That transformed lamp was originally a samovar of yesteryear that his grandmother would have rescued fleeing from her home in a city in Ukraine after being persecuted for the mere fact of being Jews. In this story, her grandmother fled with her daughters, taking what she was wearing and with her samovar in tow because it was something of great value. The outcome of this story leads to a moment of tension in which her grandmother realizes that she has lost the samovar tap on the road and decides to look for her again under imminent danger. He succeeds. Months later, they would be building their new home in distant lands of a country called Argentina.
This anecdote, which somewhat struck me in that moment of childhood, crossed in my identity a close bond with the Jewish people, a feeling of belonging rooted.
From this place I can feel in the fibers of my body that life has enigmatic and undoubted twists.
The Miracle of the Fish
Miroslav is a ten-year-old boy. He resides in the refugee centre with his father three weeks ago waiting for a visa to Canada.Miroslav was in the kids’ club all day, playing, dancing, helping, sleeping and also asking the volunteers to lend him the phone for a while.
One night, my roommate Ira told me that it would be very nice to get Miroslav a mobile phone so that he can have access to the internet and be able to stay in touch with his friends. Half by chance, I had in my suitcase a disused phone (from work) and I decided to offer it to him.
The next day, upon receiving the consent of his father, who had a common telephone without Internet, we agreed that the mobile would have the father and during the afternoons, it would pass into the hands of Miroslav.
That child’s joy at receiving the phone filled me with happiness.
Later, a Parisian volunteer who had opened a makeshift “Internet Café” for refugees, offered Miroslav a pair of bluetooth headphones, thus completing the kit that any average child in the modern Western world has.
The next day, Alina, a volunteer on our team, heard the story of the phone and decided to post a post on Facebook asking friends for disused smartphones. In less than the next 48 hours, 20 telephones made their way to Przemyśl.
Today, two weeks later, I learn that the French volunteer named Emanuel, who had opened the makeshift “Internet Café” in the refugee center, had to return to his life, to his daily life, to his home on the outskirts of Paris. In his caravan travel two luxury guests: Miroslav and his father.
I only ask God, that war will not be indifferent to me, it is a big monster and stomps all the poor innocence of the people. Leon Gieco