Poland: Planning a new life, missing the old

15 May 2023

One year after the war in Ukraine started, refugees in Poland feel torn between their old life and their new situation. The LWF community centers support local integration while preserving culture and language.

Participants witness a demonstration at the manicure workshop. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

Participants witness a demonstration at the manicure workshop. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

LWF community centers support integration of Ukrainian refugees

(LWI) - One year after they fled the war in Ukraine, refugees in Poland find themselves between local integration on the one hand and homesickness and worry about loved ones on the other. The LWF community center in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, helps them navigate their new lives.

In one room, 14 young women train manicure to start their own business. In the next, 20 elderly women craft “diamond pictures” and paper flowers, singing in Ukrainian, while a psychologist talks about managing long-distance relationships. Downstairs, their children paint and play, while a TV displays Ukrainian cartoons. All the women fled the war in Ukraine and found a temporary home in Poland, but they have different needs. While some plan for a life abroad, others seek to return as soon as it is safe.

As important as cash

Tetiana Shupytska (62) from Dnipro glues little diamond-shaped stones on a blue-and-yellow picture with a dolphin. She arrived on 5 March 2022, with one of her daughters and her grandson. “It is calm here, comfortable. We do not have to be afraid of bombs”, she says. Like many, she initially thought the war would end within days, but after a week of air raids and explosions, she decided to leave. “We only had the clothes we were wearing”, she says. “At the beginning, it was very hard.”

Bielsko-Biala in Silesia is the Lutheran hub in Poland, a country shaped by the Roman-Catholic faith. The Lutheran congregation has a big church, a parish building with its own printing shop, and several schools. The only statue of Martin Luther in Poland stands in front of the church, the parish house and the church’s own publishing house named “Augustana”. The community center, run by LWF World Service and the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland, is located inside the parish building. It features spaces for workshops and meetings, and two playrooms for children.

Psychologist Iryna Karpenko during an art relax session. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

Psychologist Iryna Karpenko during an art relax session. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

LWF initially used the centers to register refugees for multipurpose cash assistance. Later, when people had found housing and the basic necessities were taken care of, the centers moved their focus towards local integration.

“We first wondered how to make this work,” says Yevhenija Ralko, team leader of the center. “We did not think people would come here, because these community services were not as important as cash.” But the center soon became a meeting point for refugee families in the region. The women attend trainings and workshops, while the children draw, play and watch cartoons in Ukrainian. Many are home-schooled and enjoy the opportunity to meet other children, and to have so many toys available. Their mothers can also leave them for a few hours to run errands or attend appointments.

Planning a new life


Tamara Grygorenko. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

Tamara Grygorenko. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

The staff of the center are refugees from Ukraine themselves. One of them is Tatiana Krochak from Bucha. Her husband was killed in the first days of the war. She fled with her teenaged daughters and an elderly mother in March 2022. “They loved their father very much,” she says. “I promised him that if something happened, I would bring our daughters to a safe place.”

Working helps her copy with the loss, Krochak adds. “People asked: how can you work after this, but when you work, you forget about your tragedy. I need to feed my daughters. … Or maybe, I am just a strong woman.”

A boy holds a painting he made in the childcare in the LWF community center. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

A boy holds a painting he made in the childcare in the LWF community center. Photo: LWF/ Albin Hillert

As government support for the refugees has decreased, the refugees are forced to look for employment, but often lack the language skills to work in their old profession. LWF through the centers offers Polish lessons, psychological support to deal with traumatic experiences, workshops and training. The manicures workshop will help the participants to start a home-based business.

We understand each other, we all feel the same.

Tamara GRYGORENKO, from Zaporizhzhia

While the younger women often seek a way forward, the elderly appreciate the opportunity to hear their native language and discuss news from home. “We understand each other, we all feel the same”, says Tamara Grygorenko from Zaporizhzhia district. At the age of 81 years, she does not see herself starting over in a new country. “I want to return to my home very much, but I do not know when that will be possible,” she says.

Save the family

Psychologist Iryna Karpenko, a refugee herself, helps the women find their way in shifting emotions, circumstances and relationships. “The children are ready to change their life, and start a new life here,” she says. “The adults on the other hand feel responsible for those who stayed behind. They want to help them, support them as much as possible.”

Karpenko witnesses how women who have been married for decades grow apart from their husbands, who are living in a very different situation in Ukraine. She hears about feelings of guilt, because many women would like to support their husbands and fight for their country but are physically unable or have had to take their children to safety. Other families struggle with the decision whether to plan for a life outside Ukraine, or to return.

The LWF community centers help refugees navigate these questions, they support local integration while preserving culture and language. “The women ask me about stress management, for advice in family conflicts, and how to live meaningfully in times of war,” Karpenko says. In her sessions, she tries to support the women in maintaining their relationships: “It is very important to save the family.”

LWF/C. Kästner-Meyer