Shadow of War (01_2023)

Life in the Shadow of War

by Paweł Trzciąkowski

January 2023 – IPM Monthly sits down to talk with Daniel Wardziński from The Saint Nicholas Foundation — a Warsaw-based charity established in 2002 by Joanna Paciorek and a philosopher Dariusz Karłowicz. Its initial mission was to organize support programs for the education of children living in poverty, orphans, and of other difficult backgrounds. Gradually, the foundation’s activities expanded and today it also publishes the Teologia Polityczna journal, with a focus on the intersection of political and religious studies. Helping Ukraine, which the foundation has been carrying out since 2019, is the subject of this month’s interview.

Paweł Trzciąkowski: The Saint Nicholas Foundation was present in Ukraine even before the war broke out. What did your activities consist of? Which part of Ukraine were you working in?

Daniel Wardziński: It started in 2019 when we opened the Saint Nicholas Day Centre for children in Mariupol. That was the main point of our work in Ukraine. We chose Mariupol because of the great numbers of children displaced from orphanages (as well as entire families) in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in which the fighting was going on. It was a big humanitarian crisis — I don’t know if it’s a correct way of putting it with regards to the definitions of international law, but de facto that is what it was. Many children needed to be looked after in the city, and that’s why the center was opened there. It was our absolute priority and we were in constant contact with the animators, who are still our friends. We were very proud of the way the cooperation was working out, many good things were happening with the aid of the Order of Malta Relief Service. For example, the center’s pupils prepared Christmas presents for orphans who were not under our care, and they gave out some thousands of them. Everything lasted until March 2022. However, I must emphasize that the humanitarian crisis and fighting were going on long before that. Our friends from Ukraine get upset when they hear that the war broke out in March last year, and they are right to do so. In fact, it all started earlier.

PT: What is happening in Mariupol now? Is there anything left of the Saint Nicholas Centre?

DW: No, unfortunately, there isn’t. I don’t have full information because all our contacts had to leave Mariupol. It seems that there is nobody there. It is in a similar state to Aleppo (where, by the way, we also run some projects). I’m afraid there is no life in Mariupol now. In the end, the center suffered a terrible fate. In March 2022, right after the invasion began, it became a humanitarian aid point, where water and food were distributed. The fighting in the city was exceptionally heavy and the conditions became deplorable for many inhabitants. Some fighting occurred inside the building of the center and the soldiers defending it were killed. Our special car, adapted for transporting children with disabilities to classes, was also destroyed. So the place is an utter ruin. We hope that the day will come when we will be able to rebuild it. For now, we opened another day center in Ivano-Frankivsk, which operates in the same way and partially for the same children, who escaped there from the east of Ukraine.

PT: Is that the only initiative organized by the foundation at the moment?

DW: Concerning the activities inside Ukraine, yes. However, from the beginning of the war, we were helping refugees here in Poland. That was at the center of our work throughout the entire year and in the meantime, together with the Order of Malta Relief Service, we were trying to create a new place for children who stayed in Ivano-Frankivsk. Obviously, the needs exceed our means by far. The new center was officially opened on 19 December last year, the Feast of Saint Nicholas in the Julian calendar, but actually the aid started before that. We tried to organize normal life for children in temporary locations, to draw them away from the nightmare of war. These are tough cases. Children are forced to change their surroundings, friends, and sometimes even their language. It’s hard for them to integrate. Every class, every opportunity to play together — making pots, paper chase — even though at first sight it looks quite trivial, is an opportunity for children to get back to normal life. It diverts them away from their father’s absence and their mother’s stress.

PT: Can you say something more about the classes you offer?

DW: Sure. The place itself is planned in a way that facilitates creative activities. There is a small scene — children are often asked to put on plays, which teaches them to overcome timidity and to speak in front of a group. There is also a room for silent work, which sometimes has the function of a counseling room. Finally, there is a DIY workshop, where children practice tailoring, pottery and the like. Apart from that there are classes related to the school subjects. The Ukrainians are determined to carry on with standard education procedures and to fulfill their program goals. That prevents people from developing an impression that the state has fallen. We are trying to support them in this. In addition to the day center, we are coordinating 32 help points in Poland, which we called “Saint Nicholas Safe Havens”. These places offer extra classes and activities for Ukrainian children who are schooled in Poland. For example, there are classes in photography, chess, and football, but also group therapy meetings. Each point is free to do what suits the local community’s needs. That creates a diverse picture of how we can help.

PT: Have you visited Ukraine after the invasion? If so, is there anything that made a particularly strong impression on you?

DW: I didn’t go myself, but last month a delegation from our foundation was present at the official opening of the center in Ivano-Frankivsk. They had a social meeting with the volunteers and workers of the Order of Malta. From what they were telling me after they came back, one can see how close people grow to each other in wartime. They have no electricity, so they sit all together in one room, singing songs and telling stories. The social ties among them became very strong. It seems paradoxical, but one can be jealous about that.