Some 5.7 million people fled their homes between the beginning of the war in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 and the first week of May. More than half of those who fled – i.e. over three million people – have been taken in by Poland. The best way to understand the magnitude of such a challenge for a country like Poland is to compare numbers. In the first ten weeks of the war, Poland took in more than three times as many refugees as Germany took in during the whole of 2015 – the year some already refer to as the refugee crisis. An interview with Father Zenon Hanas about unprecedented times.
What’s it actually like in Poland at the moment?
For many Ukrainians, Poland is the preferred port of refuge, and Warsaw is already bursting at the seams. Normally, two million people live here. The population of the capital has risen by about 20% in recent weeks. But unlike in Germany, there’s virtually no official infrastructure in place to support refugees in Poland. In other words, the majority of people are put up in private accommodation.
How are the Pallottines helping?
Among other things, we have ten big colleges in Poland, which we normally use for seminars and spiritual conventions. We’re now using them as refugee shelters. We’re currently putting up roughly 500 people, who intend to stay longer in Poland. In addition to that, thousands of Ukrainians are being housed by Polish families in our more than 30 parishes. Some are staying for a few days, some for longer.
What are the people like that they’re offering a home to?
As in other places, they’re mainly children, their mothers and their grandmothers. What’s different for us is that the people from Ukraine know about the Pallottines because we’ve been known in the country for 30 years. Most of them actually reach us in Poland through their contacts at the Pallottines. So in that respect, we enjoy a particular relationship of trust. This can be tremendously helpful when it comes to integration – not just at our colleges, but also with the families.
What sort of support do the Pallottines offer?
Apart from putting roofs over people’s heads and providing meals, we ensure everything’s in place to settle in quickly in the new environment. Our starting point for this is the children. So we ensure there are ways for the children to attend a Polish school. Even if the two languages use a different writing system, they do share the same origins. Another option is for the Ukrainian children to do online lessons in their mother tongue. The groundwork was already laid for this over the past two years during the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have also now been set up in the bigger towns and cities in Poland; they’re run by Ukrainian teachers. Whichever form of schooling they receive, in the afternoon all Ukrainian schoolchildren have Polish language lessons. The children are coping quite well with the situation. It also helps that most of them are well educated and can fall back on their language skills and understanding of computers.
Where are you getting the financial resources from to fund all this?
We rely on donations and sponsors like the PATRIZIA Foundation. So for example, we use the EduCare Europe Fund to finance different measures at our seminar centre in Warsaw. At the moment there are 80 families living there, and what we now need to do is set up some kind of infrastructure, such as sanitary facilities and kitchens. The EduCare Europe Fund is also helping us to finance special supervision programmes for children of all ages, and so-called safe spaces are being set up for young people with trauma problems.
What would your wish be for the future?
The most important priority is to offer the refugees from Ukraine the best possible care and integration options here in Poland, although we also need to prepare for the time after the war and help Ukrainians rebuild their country. This is exactly the sort of thing people need to look forward to. It makes them feel more confident about the future and helps them come to terms with the present.
Interview conducted by Andreas Menke.
Pater Zenon Hanas and the Pallottines
The Pallottines are a Society of Apostolic Life within the Roman Catholic Church. The organisation was founded in 1845 by Saint Vincent Pallotti in Rome. The community of Pallottines now operates on all continents with around 2500 members. Father Zenon Hanas has been a priest for the community since 1982. As a Provincial of the Pallottine Province of Warsaw, he is currently responsible for 350 priests. His area of responsibility also includes Ukraine. The Pallottines have been represented in the country since 1991, with ten parish communities served by 20 local priests. In addition to large colleges in Odessa, Kiev and Lviv, there are also smaller communities in eastern and central Ukraine. As well as using larger buildings in western Ukraine to provide accommodation to refugees in transit, crypts are also doubling up as night-time shelters for residents living in the surrounding area.
Father Zenon Hanas was born in Poland. He studied at the Munich School of Philosophy, where he also went on to earn a doctorate in communication studies. Before being appointed Provincial of the Pallottine Province of Warsaw in 2017, he served as a Vice General in Rome for six years.