I was barely asleep one very early morning – in Dallas, Texas – when I heard the email alert on my phone. It was an email from WCK to set up my schedule for Przemysl, Poland. Two weeks later with some help from my little town, I was on a plane to Warsaw.
My first day in Warsaw was hectic; trying to find transportation to the border was very difficult. Many of the refugees were using public transportation. My plan was to take a train (only $12) so I could see some of the countryside. That fell through along with any buses to the border. My last resort was a taxi. A very expensive taxi ride. I got to know my taxi driver Charlie very well. He was very funny and told me all sorts of stories about himself and his family. Shortly after he dropped me off, he called me to ask how I was settling in and if I needed anything to – to call him. Charlie set the tone for how the Polish people were for the rest of my trip.
I stayed on a farm near the WCK location. There were four rooms: a Ukrainian family was in one room, an Australian Journalist named Simon in another, and I was in the middle room between the family and the journalist. I was warmly greeted by Anita. She spoke very little English and most of our communication was through Google Translate and some Russian words. An hour after being there, she ushered me to the dining table and there was a bowl of pickle soup. The soup was briney with julienned pieces of pickles, cubed carrots, and potatoes. Lots of black pepper and dill. Before you knock it, please try it. I could have eaten the entire pot of that soup. After that very lovely soup, I fell asleep until the next morning.
I spent my time in Poland communicating in Spanish.
Anita’s husband offered to drive me to the WCK location. I saw a tractor truck outside of the warehouse with the WCK logo. I had so much joy and anxiety at the same time. I tried to contain how I was feeling just to make it through registration. After registration, I was stationed in the back with a man named Paco from Barcelona. Paco and I were assigned to cutting peppers. Together, he and I went through over twenty-three boxes. There were people that would come around discarding the pepper scraps and switch out our bin containers. We worked like machines just go, go, go. Without complaint. Just in one day, I felt a closeness to everyone. The other volunteers had the same goal in mind and had the same thoughts and feelings. We all felt like we needed to be there and do our part. Everyone was warm and friendly. These people wanted to get to know you and bond.
The warehouse was separated into two main sections. One section was for production and assembly and the other was for the chefs. The chef side had these giant cauldrons with all sorts of food being cooked. Ovens had banana bread baking. Our side had an assembly line of pureed vegetables and fruit being divided into cups. They were packaged and labeled as baby food and brought to various locations near the border and Ukraine.
Paco and I spent the rest of the time peeling and cutting potatoes. Paco spoke very little English, which was fine because I have this mangled Miami Spanish and I was able to communicate just fine. Later, it became useful since my host family did not speak English but Anita’s husband spoke Spanish. I spent my time in Poland communicating in Spanish.
After a very long 7 hours, we had an incredible family meal prepared by the chef team. Our day was over. I had two more days of volunteering. Each day was the same. Going through boxes and boxes of fruits and vegetables. Peeling and dicing. Getting to know each person on my team and later realizing there were four other people with the name Jami ( spelled with an e). Every time I heard my name, I had to figure out which one of us was being called.
I made my way back to the farm and I started to feel under the weather. Anita and her daughter Magda made homemade pierogies with foraged mushrooms. I had a few of those and made my way back to my room with some tea. I didn’t sleep that well. The next morning, I had a full-blown sinus infection. I didn’t know what to do other than to take a Covid test. Thankfully, it was not Covid. So I loaded up on Polish cold medicine and two masks and headed down to the warehouse.
The last two days were foggy. I just pushed through and thankfully I did. On my last day in Przemysl, I said goodbye to my team and walked around the downtown area. I bought out an entire bakery and brought all the goodies back home.
Anita made a farewell meal for me and Simon the Australian journalist. It was our last day there and the first time we had met. He told me all the stories of being in Ukraine and inside the train stations. I worked in the warehouse, I was not in contact with refugees other than the family staying with us. Simon showed me photos of men being pushed back by officials, -being taken away from their wives and families. Those images stuck with me. Simon and I said our goodbyes. I gave the Ukrainian family my contact information and a small gift for their five-year-old son.
Anita cried as we left and the family helped me get a bus pass back to Warsaw. Just before we walked out the door and in acknowledgment that I still felt sick, her husband gave me dogwood liquor saying it would help me feel better. My cold went away but I had a very loopy and dizzy drive back to Warsaw, which came to haunt me once I was on the plane back to the states.
My experience with WCK is something I will never forget. If I didn’t have responsibilities and if money hadn’t been running out, I would have spent a few weeks there. With the little time I was there, I am so happy I could be a part of this community. Being around people that were like-minded. I will be forever thankful for that experience and for those that helped me get there.