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With child care and coffee, L’Arche welcomes Ukrainian refugees in Poland

Ukrainian children interact with a volunteer at the ecumenical L'Arche community in Wroclaw, Poland. The children play war games at every opportunity, said Joanna Stasienko, who heads the Wroclaw L'Arche community. (CNS photo/courtesy Joanna Stasienko)

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(CNS) The ecumenical L’Arche community in Wroclaw, Poland, set up a day care center for Ukrainian refugees, and the children play war games at every opportunity, said Joanna Stasienko, who heads the local community.

“It’s terrifying,” she told Catholic News Service in early April. “You can see their parents are very stressed and worried, and that they have had harsh experiences related to the war.”

Stasienko overheard a conversation between a 5-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy that she said broke her heart. The girl said, “Our Ukraine is already dead,” and he disagreed, saying “I think it is not all dead.” To her insistent “I am telling you, it is dead, nothing is left,” the boy said, “I wish a little piece of it would not be dead.”

L’Arche International, which provides group homes and spiritual support for people with intellectual disabilities in 37 countries, is hosting refugees fleeing the Russian war in Ukraine. The decision for L’Arche in Wroclaw to host the day care center was made in early March, and “a week later we were up and running,” Stasienko said.

“There is so much need” among Ukrainians who have fled to Wroclaw in southwestern Poland, she said, noting that people across the city “have been working together to see what we can do to help with what we have.”

In Wroclaw, the L’Arche community has 24 residents who live in three houses on a property that includes a large hall that is now being used for the day care center. Adults with mostly developmental disabilities are the core members of L’Arche, and they live in community with those who care for them.

“Our residents always come and say hello to the children when they arrive in the mornings. There’s a feeling of community and they are very welcoming,” Stasienko said. Most of the children are 4 to 6 years old, “although we do take children up to the age of 10,” she said.

Ukrainians in Wroclaw have pitched in with local volunteers to help at the day care center, Stasienko said, adding, “It is so good to have Ukrainians helping because they can communicate well with the children.”

Stasienko said the community is hosting a Ukrainian mother and her six children, including a 22-year-old disabled man.

“They live as part of the community,” Stasienko said, noting that the mother helps care for a L’Arche resident who uses a wheelchair. “Five days a week, she helps her with getting dressed and eating.”

“Our people are doing all they can to be welcoming, and they’d talk the guests’ language if they could,” Stasienko said. “One of our residents, Paul, changes the Polish words when he offers coffee in the morning,” and his hospitable intentions are welcomed with humor and warmth by everyone, she said.

The day care center was set up so that “mothers can leave their children in a safe place while they take care of urgent matters or even just chat to others in similar situations for support,” Stasienko said.

Among the volunteers are a Franciscan priest, who helps resolve problems at the center, and his mother, who cooks dinner for the children and their assistants every second day, she said.

Stasienko and her family have given free accommodation to a mother and two children from Ukraine since early March. Her friend, Marta Konwent, is also among the many Wroclaw residents who have opened their homes to people who have fled Ukraine and need a place to stay.

Konwent and her family hosted a young woman from Congo who had been studying in Ukraine and wanted to get to Brussels, where her brother lives.

“She had great difficulty getting into Poland because she isn’t Ukrainian,” Konwent told CNS.

“My father’s construction firm employed many men from Ukraine who have now gone home to fight,” Konwent said. At the same time, these men have “done everything possible to get their families here” to Wroclaw.

Five L’Arche communities in Poland are accommodating seven people with disabilities and 11 of their family members, as well as 27 other Ukrainian refugees, according to the country’s L’Arche Foundation.

Children with disabilities, including autism and Down syndrome, and other vulnerable people were fetched from the L’Arche community in Lviv, Ukraine, and taken to safety in Poland by a L’Arche volunteer in late March, the foundation’s website said.

As well as providing accommodation and food, the communities help to find jobs for Ukrainian adults able to work, schools for children, and psychological and other support for those who need it.

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