Theater as Therapy
McGivney House workshops help Ukrainian refugees rebuild skills for their new lives
By Peter Gedicks10/25/2023
In a well-lit room at the Blessed Michael McGivney House in Radom, Poland, a small group sits in an intimate semicircle. Participants share supportive glances as a young woman begins a social theater exercise. As she speaks, she looks to the encouraging face of the workshop leader, Mykola Panasiuk.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, Panasiuk had a successful career as a professional actor and director. Now, he is using his talents to serve Ukrainian refugees displaced by war. Social theater, also called drama therapy, employs theatrical exercises to help participants work through trauma and improve social skills. The class Panasiuk teaches is just one of many programs and services offered at McGivney House, a resource center for refugees opened last year by Knights of Columbus in Radom.
“In civilians, post-war syndrome manifests itself in such a way that basic human skills disappear,” Panasiuk explained. Grappling with anxiety, painful memories and language barriers, many refugees close themselves off from the world. Even everyday activities can be a challenge. In his social theater workshop, refugees practice communicating, adjusting to their social and cultural environments, developing trust and dealing with rejection, among other skills.
“The aim is to transform social situations that cause fear,” he said. “Through acting, we confront them, work through them and then reflect. In short, we don’t learn how to be an actor here, but how to deal with life.”
Finding the right organization to host his workshops was difficult for Panasiuk, who was looking for a group devoted to helping others without self-interested purposes. He worked with several other organizations before finally discovering the Knights of Columbus and Blessed Michael McGivney House.
Our Lady of Częstochowa Parish and Knights from Our Lady of Częstochowa Queen of Poland Council 14004 created McGivney House last year, transforming a partially finished rectory into a resource center for the millions of Ukrainians fleeing to Poland. The new facility was completed in late 2022, and Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly joined Bishop Marek Solarczyk of Radom, Father Wiesław Lenartowicz, pastor of Our Lady of Częstochowa Parish and assistant state chaplain, and other Knights of Columbus leaders for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Dec. 3. McGivney House now offers refugees a host of services, including Polish lessons, art classes and child care for Ukrainian parents looking for work.
“This is a place where, if anyone comes who needs help, help is given,” Panasiuk explained. “Without people like the Knights, we would have a much worse situation in the world. The guys from the Knights of Columbus are making this world a better place.”
Panasiuk said that because the war will affect people psychologically long after the conflict ends, continued support will be necessary. Efforts such as those at McGivney House are helping to build a future of hope for Ukrainians affected by the war.
Ania, an adult participant in the social theater program, found it hard to open up at first, but the workshop helped her overcome her fear.
“Everyone here is from a different part of Ukraine and has experienced, to greater and lesser degrees, the painful consequences of war,” she said. “Despite all the hardship, we gradually became more open because the exercises allowed us to look at our problems from the outside. After the first class, I realized that everyone here has their own problems and wants to support each other. It is easier to start solving our problems in an environment like this.”
Ania and her 11-year-old daughter, Arina, attend the workshops together.
“We grow closer in these sessions,” Ania said. “I discovered new things about her and myself as we overcame challenges together. It’s cool to watch your child grow in these classes. My daughter jumps for joy at the thought of coming here.”
To learn more about the Order’s Ukraine Solidarity Fund and associated efforts, visit kofc.org/ukraine.
PETER GEDICKS writes from Kraków, Poland.