Choosing Your Child: Reflections on the Przemyśl, Poland experience
As I waited outside the arrival platform in Przemyśl, Poland for the afternoon train from Lviv, Ukraine, an anxious couple approached the secure area where I was waiting alongside an American mercenary who was headed into Ukraine to “help encourage the Ukrainian military.” The wife did not speak English and the husband asked for information from a nearby agent in what was clearly British English. The agent gave the impression that he did not speak English, so I entered the scenario with an attempt to answer their questions: what time was the train from Lviv arriving; what was the pathway of the passengers after they arrived; would every passenger pass this way?
My role in Poland was that of a purveyor of information – the gap that our team of volunteers and specialists with Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM), the global aid and justice arm of the Church of the Nazarene had discovered needed to be filled was to become givers of information. The World Central Kitchen was wonderfully present throughout the area providing food – we did not need to supply food; local aid organizations were providing shelter at a repurposed department store that had recently closed down – we did not need to provide shelter; other volunteers who had come as concerned global citizens and those with smaller aid organizations were all collaborating – so many needs were being met. These mostly young mothers with small children and elderly people would arrive at their first stop outside of Ukraine – not knowing the language, not knowing the transportation system and not even knowing where to go next. All they knew is that this was the first place where they could feel safe and that they needed someone to share information with them on what to do next. That’s where we came in.
Within days of the war starting and as millions began to flee their homes, volunteers like those of us with NCM would help these mothers and elderly folks carry their luggage to the ticket office where they would collect a ticket to Krakow or Warsaw. They would in turn connect to somewhere deeper in Europe. Nations were quickly opening their doors to Ukrainian citizens. Once tickets were acquired, we would help them connect to the correct platform and those who spoke either Ukrainian or Russian would help answer questions; our team would entertain children for a moment so their overwhelmed mothers could catch a breath. Our priority was to make sure these traumatized neighbors knew they were safe – and seen. We wanted them to feel human and to know that we recognized their dignity.
Weeping mothers – carrying the heaviest burdens (and suitcases) life could throw at them were encountered everywhere. I remember snapping a photo of a mother standing on the train platform while her daughter looked at her from inside the train – both of them had cupped their hands together to make a heart gesture to each other through the glass window of the train. It was puzzling to me why they weren’t traveling together.
It turns out, the British man and his Ukrainian wife were awaiting the arrival of her sister and one of her teenage boys; they would be taking one of the boys with them to England and the mother, this woman’s sister would then return to Ukraine.
Not long after answering their questions and sharing what limited information I knew with them, the train arrived – packed with travelers from throughout Ukraine; most of them had originated from places like Kharkiv and Mariupol, places we now know to have been decimated by the Russian forces. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw unfold before me. The couple quickly waved as they saw their nephew, perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old and his mother, the woman’s sister coming out of the Polish immigration office. Hugs were exchanged and the mother of this teenage boy broke down in uncontrollable grief.
She had made the agonizing decision to return to Ukraine where the boy’s eighteen-year-old brother, her firstborn son had to remain – the Ukrainian government prohibited men ages 18-60 from leaving the country in the event they would be needed to defend their nation. Her decision boiled down to the fact that her youngest son could travel with his Aunt and Uncle far away from the reach of the war, safe. Meanwhile, she could not abandon her firstborn son who could not leave the country – so she would remain at his side. Can you imagine the anguish of a mother having to choose which son to be with?
I was overcome with emotion as I remembered story upon story from the boys we once sheltered as a part of the program our NCM Center, Mosaic Compassion ran in Florida under the direction of the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. We sheltered and protected unaccompanied children, mostly the age of this Ukrainian boy. Mother after mother had sent their young boys away from the danger in places like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to the border of the USA where these boys would present themselves to US Customs and Border Protection.
My heart broke in that moment – throughout the world, mothers from places like Yemen, Syria, Honduras, Cameroon, Myanmar, Afghanistan and now Ukraine – mothers were being given no choice but to send their children to places unknown, trying to shield them from war, violence, persecution, devastation. My mind was then drawn to Mary, the mother of Jesus who was often confronted with the anguish of wanting to protect her Son. How many times did she long to send her Son to a safe place? How often did Mary toil over what she could do to make sure her Son would survive?
I left that moment – changed. I left sensing even more compelled that my obligation as a follower of Jesus Christ was to continue to stand in the gaps – whether it is simply purveying information on how to move forward safely in life or to stand watch over those who are especially vulnerable. The love of Christ compels me to engage in the lives of these who are especially overwhelmed, highly traumatized and unfortunately vulnerable to being taken advantage of or being harmed.
And while I cannot be at the Polish border carrying luggage for mothers every day, I can help share their story. I can ask followers of Jesus to care more deeply, to pray more fervently, to give generously and to use their voices to speak up for those whose voices cannot be heard.
Rev. Joel Tooley is the Lead Pastor of Melbourne First Church of the Nazarene in Florida and the Executive Director of Mosaic Compassion, a Nazarene Compassionate Ministry Center that engages in the lives of vulnerable children and immigrants. He is also a consultant with the Evangelical Immigration Table and coordinates advocacy efforts in the state of Florida and beyond.