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A Ukrainian family found refuge in the home of a Polish Rotarian

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On 24 February 2022, Russia invades Ukraine. Its 22nd Army Corps advances on the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia, the city on the Dnieper River in southeastern Ukraine that is home to the Morhun family.

Olena Morhun, a pharmacist: I found out that the war had started at night. My husband woke me up and said that Ukraine was under fire and Russian troops had crossed the Ukrainian border. He told me he didn't want me to stay in Ukraine while we have war. He wanted us to go far away from Zaporizhzhia, away from eastern Ukraine. That's when we started talking about where we could go and how.

Alisa Morhun, one of Olena's children: One day before the war started, I went to visit my friend, and I stayed at her place for the night. Sometime in the morning, at about 6 o'clock, she woke me up. I was still very sleepy. She told me, "The war has started in Ukraine." It all seemed very strange to me. At first, I couldn't even make any sense out of it. When you read the news, you start comprehending all those things that are happening. It is hard to understand, in a quick flash, that your normal life is being destroyed.

Left: “Sofiia draws and paints. She’s really good at it,” says RI staff photographer Monika Lozinska. When you look at this photo, you see a smiling person. But what’s on the inside can be a totally different story. She is reserved and quiet. We talked privately toward the end of the day. I held her hand and saw on her arm what she told me was the imprint of past trauma. She seemed sad. She misses her best friend a lot. Everyone is separated, and you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again.”,  Top right: Olena Morhun with her daughters, Alisa (left) and Sofiia, and her son Vitalii. “Even though it’s a difficult situation for Alisa, who’s in college, it is easier for her to stay in touch with people, to continue studying, to have a bit of normality,” says Widlicki. “Whereas Sofiia, she is very sensitive. She’s this artistic soul.” , Bottom right: As Vitalii Morhun looks on, Tymur Shakirov reads a book with Krystyna Wilczyńska-Ciemięga, the Polish Rotarian who opened her home to two refugee families from Ukraine. “The two boys played together really naturally,” says Kim Widlicki, the Zurich-based senior marketing and social media strategist who was part of Rotary’s three-person interview team. “It seemed to us that the boys have known each other for years. They had a very nice bond between them, as did all the families together.”

On 27 February, Olena Morhun leaves Zaporizhzhia with her daughters, Alisa and Sofiia, and her son Vitalii, known affectionately as Vitalik.

Olena: We left Zaporizhzhia on the Zaporizhzhia-Lviv evacuation train. Our intention was to stay in western Ukraine, but when we got off the train and started talking to people in Lviv, they talked us out of it. Their city was also shelled. It turned out that the place we thought would be safe wasn't safe at all. All of Ukraine was in danger. A girl at the volunteer center sat down with me, and we talked for a good part of the night. She helped me make a decision to go to Poland instead of staying in Ukraine. I'll never forget that girl.

Alisa: When we were crossing the Polish border, we didn't know where we would end up or what we would be doing over here. There was no plan at all. We just hoped for the best. We crossed the border on foot and then ended up at a distribution center. Volunteers helped us. They found people who wanted to help and take Ukrainian refugees into their own homes.

  1. Vitalii Morhun plays as his mother, Olena, and Wilczyńska-Ciemięga look on. “I remember the day when Weronika [Wilczyńska-Ciemięga’s daughter-in-law] said Vitalii needs to go to preschool,” says Olena. “I had such a negative reaction. I couldn’t understand why he had to go to preschool in Poland if we were going back to Ukraine soon. But Weronika reassured me, saying that even if he goes to the preschool for a week, it would only be good for him. He has learned a lot at the Polish preschool.”

  2. Ulzana Shakirova, Weronika Kowalska, and Alisa Morhun. “Look at Ulzana and Alisa in this photo,” says RI staff photographer Monika Lozinska. “If you didn’t know better, you would think they lived there. They do the activities and the everyday things together. They’re not treated like guests; they are part of the family.”

  3. Tymur Shakirov pauses while enjoying a meal. “When Krystyna is playing with Tymur, she will turn her head and say, ‘Vitalii, come here,’” says Lozinska. “She pays attention to both children. It’s not like she likes one of the boys more than the other. It was really sweet to see that.”

After a four-day journey of more than 700 miles, the Morhun family reaches Puławy, Poland, where Krystyna Wilczyńska-Ciemięga, a member of the Rotary Club of Puławy, lives with her son, Grzesio, and her son's wife, Weronika Kowalska. (In addition to the Morhun family, Wilczyńska-Ciemięga opens her home to two more people from Zaporizhzhia, Ulzana Shakirova and her son, Tymur.)

Krystyna Wilczyńska-Ciemięga: We waited until midnight, then midnight came and went, and they hadn't arrived yet.

Alisa: Vitalik fell asleep in the car while we were traveling, and when it was time to wake him up, he was very upset. He cried. This was tremendously stressful for him.

Krystyna: They were completely exhausted, the children especially. I can't even describe it. They had traveled by train for over a day just from Zaporizhzhia to Lviv. And then, the various obstacles with transport to the Polish border took time and the rest of their strength. So, they only wanted to sleep, sleep, and sleep some more.

Olena: When we first arrived, I thought it wouldn't be too long. A week or two, maybe a month, and we'd go home. I didn't plan to live in Poland. I couldn't accept the thought that I would be here for a long time. After a month or so, I started to understand that I wouldn't be able to get back home so soon, that the war might last a long time.

Krystyna: From the beginning, there was no such thing as us hosting. Because you can host someone for three days, and after three days, sometimes, you have had enough of the guest. We knew that it was going to be for a long time, and there was no designated end date. And from the beginning, relationships were formed as if we were family here.

Olena: Krystyna loves children. Vitalik is reserved with people he doesn't know, but he accepted her right away. He even hugs her, which he doesn't do with strangers.

Krystyna: From the moment the war broke out, it was obvious that Poles not only should accept refugees but that they were simply going to. We wanted to give them a heartfelt welcome. I do have some memories that influenced my decision. I still remember both the war [World War II] and the stories about the war, my parents' stories most of all. We too were chased from place to place. Maybe those are the memories that led me to say, Yes, I will help. But I think it's generally my character. The character of every Rotarian is based on a preference to give rather than to take. People ask how it feels to do something like this, and I tell them that the first emotion is joy because people like to give.

Left: Olena Morhun hugs her son Vitalii. “Sometimes a picture speaks more words than talking,” RI staff photographer Monika Lozinska says. Top right: From left: Weronika Kowalska, Krystyna Wilczyńska-Ciemięga, and Dorota Wcisła, the editor in chief of Rotary Polska. “Krystyna is probably known by all the Rotarians in her district,” says Wcisła. “She is a warm, friendly, and good-natured person who would share what she has with anyone who needs help. When I mention at a meeting with Rotarians that I am going to visit Krysia, they all ask me to greet her. So I bring her lots of warm greetings from Rotarians in Lublin and Zamość. There is a great family atmosphere at her home. Weronika teaches them Polish, and in the mornings she drives the children to school. They share the cleaning, the laundry, and the cooking and come to an agreement without any problems, just like a good and happy family.” Bottom right: Ulzana Shakirova pauses in a park while walking with Wilczyńska-Ciemięga’s dog. “There’s no leash here; he listens to her,” marvels Lozinska. “He came to her when she called him in the park. If the dog is able to adopt you like that, it says something. Animals will not just trust anyone so easily.”

By the end of April, it begins to dawn on the Morhun family that they won't be returning to Ukraine soon, forcing them to grapple with how to plan for an uncertain future.

Olena: My thoughts are always about Ukraine. That's why it's so difficult for me. I've been trying to realize that I'm not at home and somehow I need to build my life over here. But how can I build it? So, to say that I have some plans — I have only one plan, to get back home. But I do understand that this plan, it won't happen quickly. So I'm making some small plans: to learn Polish, to find a job, and so on.

Alisa: My hope for the future, my dream? Zaporizhzhia is the city where I was born, and I want to get back to it. I left my home without knowing whether I'd return to it in a week or in two years. So first of all, I want to go back to Ukraine, to my home, and then to get on with my life. Maybe it will not be soon, maybe after many years, or maybe never. In that case, I'll have to move on with my life somewhere else.

Krystyna: In 1993, when the Rotary Club of Puławy was chartered, if you wanted to be a councilor or a politician and act on behalf of others, you had to have the soul of a social activist. That's what it's called in Poland, and we all belonged to that class of people. We already had this thing in our character, that we're supposed to act for the benefit of others, just like the main motto of Rotary: Service Above Self. So it's kind of second nature to all of us who are in the Rotary Club of Puławy.

This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

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