Can We Be Anything but Hopeful? – By Celeste Mokrzycki SSJ

Landing at Newark airport after two weeks of helping the Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl, Poland, I was surprised by the blossoming of the cherry blossom trees. It was still winter in Przemyśl, a small town of 65,000, which is most often seen on newscasts about the plight of the Ukrainian refugees. I stayed and served with the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, a traditional Polish congregation garbed in full-length blue habits. The Sisters worried about finding me at the airport in Rzeszów, but I recognized them quite easily. There were many visible differences between us: our dress, language, spirituality, and the way we pray. My “Polish” knees were not up to the task of genuflection, but when it came to the mission of Jesus, our hearts and minds were the same.

Every day, the Sisters and I would wait for the train’s arrival from Ukraine. We would find the most vulnerable refugees, women and children, who had no place for the night. The Sisters, the police and the Caritas volunteers were very concerned about the potential for human trafficking. Hauling mostly plastic bags filled with items grabbed quickly, the Ukrainian refugees arrived on packed trains. Dazed and traumatized by their forced exodus, they were tired, worn and fearful. Volunteers from across the world greeted them with words of welcome and carried their bags and sometimes even exhausted children. For many, this was their first experience of warmth and compassion since escaping the constant barrage of bullets, bombs and piercing sounds of sirens.

Although somewhat familiar to us from the nightly news, the stories we heard and witnessed were horrendous. They tore at our hearts. The young woman talked to her neighbor on her cell and heard that her entire family was killed. With loud wailing, she collapsed, then became comatose and incapable of caring for her infant. Grabbing my arm, the elderly Ukrainian woman was desperate because she had nowhere to go. With tears rolling down their faces, the two elderly women clung to each other for life as they walked into the unknown, leaving the familiar comfort of their small villages. I have never experienced the tragedy of war directly, only what I have witnessed on the news or read in magazines. I never knew my heart could be carved so profoundly to hold the suffering of my dear neighbors.

When we were waiting at the station, we would wonder about where this war would lead and speculate about Putin’s intentions. Would there be a world war? Would Putin attack Poland? What would be left for the Ukrainians as they returned to their land? Each night just brought more dire news about the war, which seemed to have no end. We could have been overcome with hopelessness, yet we saw and celebrated the glimmers of God lighting the darkness in all of this. Every tragic story shared with each other ended with a message of hope in a God who wept with us, covered us with love and strengthened us for the next day’s journey to the train station. I was reminded of these words from the song “Do Not Fear to Hope” by Rory Cooney:

Hope is for a pilgrim people
Searching for a promised land.
Hope is like a rose in winter,
Or an open hand.
It celebrates the light of morning
While working in the dark and cold
It gathers us together
To share what we’ve been told.

What were the signs of hope in this devastation? The people of Przemyśl opened their hands and heart, pouring out the love of God in their embrace of the dear neighbors. The Poles in this area had longstanding wounds suffered after the Second World War when each side inflicted death on the other. Now, the Poles opened their arms in forgiveness and compassion because they knew the pain of being forcibly moved out of their land and the loss of their freedom. Only a year ago, Poland’s President Andrej Duda signed a law to build a border wall to keep out his neighbors, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. He now offered government assistance, free passage and work visas to the Ukrainians. Only God can heal and transform hearts so amazingly.

Our brother and sister refugees were signs of hope as they headed to their temporary Promised Land. Despite their painful journey, they remained a strong and proud people. Their gut-wrenching decisions made without time for discernment didn’t destroy them but strengthened their resolve to rebuild and thrive. Their plight reminded me of the passage from 2 Corinthians 4:9: “We were persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

For me, a seed of hope was planted when I drew a child’s portrait. One day at the train station, there were so many volunteers that I tried to see how I could serve. I noticed a young girl drawing a picture as I entered the playroom. I was inspired. I asked one of the Sisters who spoke Ukrainian to ask her if I could draw her portrait and I did. A line soon formed, and children were filled with joy as they ran around showing off their portraits. One mother asked me to sign the portrait so her child could have a happy memory of this time. She knew her daughter would live and thrive!

President Biden’s visit to Poland was a sign of hope for the people, both Poles and Ukrainians. His presence meant everything to them. The refugees knew that America did not forget them. They were not abandoned and alone.

Toward the end of my two weeks, the Sisters asked me to stay an extra week. They longed for me to see the beauty of their land with the new life that Spring awakens. Although the greening hinted of what was to come, I did not need to see buds or hints of green to see the beauty of Poland. The hope of new life sprung not from buds but from the faith of the people. In Romans 12:12, Paul admonishes the people to be joyful, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer. We will probably never know what happens in the next step of their journeys. I hope that they will find the “Promised Land” that they seek and that they will return to the land they love. I know that God’s heart is with His people and that our prayer will sustain them along the way. We, as faith-filled people, can do nothing else but place our hope in a God who promises resurrection!