Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The Children of Radymno


Polish buildings and a chimney with smoke behind a gate

It would have been a bitter cold, but we couldn't be bitter, really; we all chose to be there - Poland in January. We slogged through the icy muddy ground below us for another day of painting blue and white, walls and ceilings. No, it was hard to be bitter, because our work for the day was turning a dreary old simple building into a temporary home for women and children who had escaped war.

There were many children from toddlers to those approaching their teenage years. I didn't know if I should expect that they would be interested in what we were doing there; most days I would say no, not at all. I felt a bit invisible, which was mostly fine. There was the little girl with a mild injury to her face who enjoyed practicing her "hello" with us and feeling the muted glow of how a child feels when she got something right. Small girls carried smaller children, and the little boys mostly ran, so we had to ensure our paint containers were out of the pathway and that our drips were kept to a minimum.

Mostly finished Disney princess puzzle taped to a window

One of my first days, I had to prepare the walls and fixtures for painting, and I found a mostly finished Disney princess puzzle proudly taped up on display. I wouldn't know if I was doing a kind gesture or taking too much care for something no one wanted, but I retaped it to the nearest window in the hope that some child would rediscover their masterpiece when our work was complete. A metaphor, perhaps - familiar innocent joy moving forward despite the missing pieces?

Aside from our organization, the only men in the building typically were local Polish construction workers. I was quite certain they did not speak English, but I could understand their regular reliance of the one Polish swear word I learned against my will upon passing through Krakow. My original judgment was that they might not be very nice men, so I kept my distance. One day as I painted the ceiling from atop a bucket, I was particularly observant of the creatures running below, and there were two boys running in and out of their apartment, each time slamming the door - not really in anger, but to cause a ruckus as unsupervised boys do. It was annoying, but I chose to simply accept it due to a number of reasons - not the least of which that I don't speak Ukrainian either. Annoying, nonetheless. However, when I saw the roughest of the Polish workers pause his work and approach the one boy, I was actually somewhat frightened for him. To my surprise, the man gently but firmly explained to the boy his trespass by showing him in a kind non-expletive-laced manner the calm and quiet way to enter and exit one's adobe. The boy took pause, slinked back inside admonished, and it hit me - there are no fathers here.

It is hard to pick a best day, because every day I just felt sympathy for these kids who had little more than they could carry away from war. They were provided for by the people who ran the shelter, but still far from ideal. Every lunch break, I would practice learning Tagalog with my phone app for five minutes outside. It was always chilly, but the fresh winter air was refreshing, and it was some of the few available alone times I could find as a volunteer. This one day there was a group of about five younger children playing outside with one another, likely most or all siblings. There was a nearby only partially deflated ball, so I challenged them to a game of soccer. It was a good break. Not bitter at all.

I hope they take comfort in their well-painted temporary home, and that they are reunited with their fathers sometime soon.

Man in purple t-shirt and red hardhat near a blue and white wall