Hospitality in a Time of War
Knights of Columbus families in Poland open their hearts and homes to Ukrainian refugees
By Adrian Walczuk 4/25/2022
When Blessed Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, a primary purpose of the new fraternal order was to aid families in need, especially those who had lost their breadwinner. The plight of these 19th-century American families is reflected today in the experience of refugees from Ukraine, most of whom are women and children. While many of their husbands and fathers stayed to defend their homeland, they have found themselves in foreign countries on their own, with few belongings and unsure of their future.
Millions fled Ukraine in the first weeks of the war — most of them to Poland, where Knights have mobilized to welcome families at the border, at parishes and in their homes. As soon as the Russian invasion began, the Poland State Council responded to the call of the Polish Bishops’ Conference to host refugees, assembling a database of medium- to long-term housing options, including Knights of Columbus families willing and ready and open their homes. Three of these Knights’ stories are shared here.
‘A Space We Can Share’
Dominik and Marta Kołodziej have always been open to guests. The decision to welcome refugees into their home in Kraków, Poland, came naturally.
“We were facing an influx of people who were fleeing the war, who had lost their homes, who lost that sense of security we have here,” said Dominik, a member of Blessed Michał Sopoćko Council 17667 in Kraków.
The Kołodziejs have two young children — Nikodem, 6, and Dominika, 3 — and are expecting their third child in June, but they had no doubts.
“Already on the first day of the war, when we saw that people were fleeing the bombing and looking for shelter, we agreed that this was a space we can share,” Marta recalled.
Dominik and Marta made a room in their home available, and five days later, on Ash Wednesday, they welcomed guests from Odessa, Ukraine: Inna, her 12-year-old daughter, Eleonora, and her mother, Tatiana. They communicate with each other primarily in English, but also in their native languages.
Inna, whose husband died a number of years ago, fled with her daughter just a few days after the war broke out. She recalled the first day of the conflict, when the sounds of bombs woke them in the early morning and she rushed out to buy food and medicine.
“While I was in the pharmacy, a terrible explosion came from the street, and the pharmacy clerk, a young woman, became so frightened that she sat down on the floor,” Inna said. “I asked her to get up and not be afraid because people needed medicine. Terrified that my home was being bombed, I then took my purchases and ran back to find my daughter waiting for me.”
Inna’s mother, Tatiana, initially wanted to stay at home in Odessa, but after hiding in basements for a week, she fled in a car 800 kilometers (500 miles) to Lviv, and eventually reached the Polish border.
“Both young and old were very scared. Frankly, we didn’t know how we were going to live,” Tatiana said. “We came to a very good family here in Kraków. Dominik and Marta greeted us with such warmth and generosity.”
The two families have since lived together as one, sharing a common living room, bathroom and kitchen.
“God is an important point of reference for us in this common space,” said Marta. “Christ teaches us to feed the hungry, welcome newcomers, be supportive of each other.”
At first, Dominik assumed that welcoming guests would feel like a sacrifice. “But it turned out to be quite the opposite,” he said. “We get along great. We already feel like family members with each other.”
Being welcomed by the Kołodziejs has allowed Inna and her family to process their experience and think about the future.
“We were in shock. For the first two weeks or so, we didn’t understand at all what happened,” Inna said. “But then, thanks to their friendly and hospitable attitude, we started thinking about how to live, how to make plans.”
‘Their Second Home’
Włodzimierz and Edyta Stec responded to a call to take in refugees on the day the war in Ukraine broke out.
“On Feb. 24, State Deputy Krzysztof Zuba notified all K of C leaders that the state council was collecting the names and contact information of individuals and families who could accept refugees from Ukraine,” recalled Włodzimierz, who is grand knight of Our Lady of La Salette Council 15142 in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski, in central Poland. “Without a second thought, Edytka and I decided that we would welcome a minimum of four people.”
On March 5, just after 10 p.m., Włodzimierz received a call that 11 people were waiting at the border for help — four women and seven children. He and some friends immediately drove in three cars to pick them up and bring them to a safe place.
The Stecs took in a family from Kremenchuk, in central Ukraine — Alina and her three sons, 2-year-old Zahar, 6-year-old Makar and 9-year-old Maksym — with whom they communicate in Russian.
Alina did not want to leave her homeland and husband behind, but her middle son’s fear during the bombing raids persuaded her to flee to Poland. She was afraid that if the situation escalated, the trauma would become unbearable.
“We are very happy here — safe, comfortable and warm,” Alina said. “This is like a second home. Our second family.”
Welcoming a trio of rambunctious Ukrainian children into their home has brought big changes to the normally tranquil life of Włodzimierz and Edyta, whose 28-year-old son is married and living in Warsaw. But the Stecs practice patience, knowing that the most important thing is to help those in need.
“I must admit that sometimes I have moments of weakness, doubts,” Edyta said, acknowledging that her once quiet home life has been turned upside down.
“One day Włodek said that we have to give up own comfort, such as returning home after work to rest in peace and quiet,” Edyta added with a laugh. “That’s how my husband is. I think that’s why he’s a Knight of Columbus. He’s in the right place, and I support him in all of this.”
Włodzimierz’s comfort zone has also been challenged.
“I have a funny situation because sometimes the boys call me ‘diadia,’” he explained. “‘Diadia’ is Russian for uncle, but I thought it meant grandpa. I told them, ‘But I don’t want to be called grandpa,” Włodzimierz said with a smile, adding that contact with Alina’s sons has, indeed, helped prepare them to be grandparents.
“This is meant to be their home, their second home — at least until it’s all over,” said Włodzimierz. “That’s what Edytka and I want, and we are working to make it that way.”
In addition to hosting refugees, Włodzimierz Stec and his friends renovated a house for another Ukrainian family. It has a large backyard and was outfitted with furniture, kitchen appliances, a washing machine and other necessary equipment.
‘Bringing Families Together’
When Adam Weigel-Milleret arrived at his office in Igołomia, Poland, on Feb. 24, he learned about the Russian invasion from one of his employees, Oleh, a native of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.
“Oleh was so distraught that he couldn’t concentrate on normal daily activities,” recalled Adam, a member of St. Brother Albert Chmielewski Council 15128 in Kraków. “I simply told him that if he had family there, he should bring them here.”
For the next several days, Oleh was constantly on the phone, anxiously helping family members navigate the more than 600 miles (1,000 km) from Kharkiv to the Polish border.
Witnessing Oleh’s frantic efforts to help his family was one thing that motivated Adam and his wife, Marta, to act.
“Next to our company’s headquarters there is a large, unused house,” explained Adam, who runs an international transportation and mechanics company east of Kraków. “And we managed to shelter several Ukrainian families there.”
First, the couple took in Oleh’s daughter, her cousin and her two children, ages 5 and 12, who arrived from Kharkiv after traveling nonstop for three days through their war-torn country. They soon started helping on a larger scale and are currently hosting 39 refugees, including 21 children.
“Adam’s family welcomed us very, very warmly. My grandmother had arrived here before, and it was she who asked Adam if he could give us a room,” said Angelina, who fled from southeastern Ukraine with her young son, Artur, sister Margarita and cousin Sofia. “On the spot they gave us bedding, towels, diapers and porridge for Artur — everything he needed. They gave us everything we needed as well. I can’t even express our gratitude.”
Many of the refugees have arrived so exhausted they can barely get out of the car and walk, especially the children. The trauma of their experience is still very raw. One night, a Ukrainian mother staying in the house heard the sound of a toilet flushing and thought there was a bombing.
“She panicked, picked up her baby and ran out because she didn’t know what was happening,” Adam explained. “I think this incident best illustrates what people are going through in Ukraine.”
Adam hopes that the house is not only a shelter, but also a space where mothers and children — deprived of their husbands and fathers — can experience a sense of family and community. He noted that several rooms are currently occupied by a large extended family consisting of sisters, cousins, grandmothers and mothers-in-law — bookended by a great-grandson and a great-grandmother.
“I can’t help but think of the mission of our founder, Blessed Michael McGivney,” Adam said. “He was combating the effects of industrialization on family life and working toward unity. And by a complete accident, I find myself working toward the same goal now, helping to protect families and bring them together.”
ADRIAN WALCZUK writes from Kraków, Poland, where he is a member of Father Michał Sopoćko Council 17667.