By Zhang Zi-fang
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
A married couple in Poland has worked with Tzu Chi to help aid reach Ukrainian refugees.
Monica Chang (second from left, back row), Łukasz Baranowski (third from left, back row), their children, and other volunteers delivered distribution items to two Ukrainian refugees who couldn’t come personally to a Tzu Chi distribution in Rokietnica, Poznań, because of illness. Courtesy of Tim Lu
It was not yet nine in the morning, but a line was already forming in front of the Minor Basilica of St. Vincent de Paul in Bydgoszcz, northern Poland. Those queued were waiting for a Tzu Chi distribution, soon to begin. Some looked sad, others uneasy. A worried-looking, older woman checked with a volunteer to make sure she was on the recipient list. The woman mentioned that she had arrived too early for the distribution and was feeling hungry. Volunteer Monica Chang (張淑兒) responded by bringing her some bread and fruit to eat while she waited.
The first distribution that day was one of four Tzu Chi held at the church in Bydgoszcz in early June 2022. The events were a joint effort of Tzu Chi, the church, and the Bydgoszcz city government. The list of potential recipients was supplied by the city government. The Ukrainian refugees who were notified to come to the events had to bring their identification papers and produce them on-site before they could be processed and receive their gift cards.
At one point, a commotion arose from the desks where identification was being checked. Chang and a Ukrainian volunteer, Olha, hurried there to find out what was happening.
At the source of the hubbub, they met a 63-year-old woman and her eight-year-old grandson. The young boy, making a fuss, was the source of the noise. “My grandson’s parents were both killed in the war,” the grandmother explained. “He has a congenital recessive disease, and his emotional state became even more unstable after we had to flee Ukraine to escape from the war.”
The boy appeared very tense. His grip on the hand of a volunteer beside him was extremely tight, but as soon as the volunteer tried to loosen it, he began to scream. Chang and Olha brought fruit and bread to the woman and her grandson, then tried to soothe the youngster.
The two felt such deep sympathy for the grandmother, who not only had to bear the pain of losing her daughter and son-in-law, but also had to fend for her ill grandson alone in a foreign country. How could she take care of their living expenses in Poland, not to mention her grandson’s medical bills?
Chang and Olha couldn’t stop crying later, watching the grandma and grandson leave. Chang reported them to the city government and listed them as a potential case for Tzu Chi to track and care for. She hoped Tzu Chi’s help that day had at least given the grandma and grandson some sense of hope.
Stepping up to the plate
Chang, originally from Taiwan, had settled in Poland after marrying a man there. She lives with her husband, Łukasz Baranowski, and their three children in Poznań. The couple began helping Ukrainian refugees by offering financial aid and daily supplies after the war started in February 2022. “Then I thought, ‘what else can I do for these refugees?’” said Chang. She believed Tzu Chi was sure to give help to these refugees, even though she didn’t know when they might arrive in Poland.
Instead of waiting for Tzu Chi to come, Chang decided she might as well take the initiative to contact the foundation. She used to work at Tzu Chi’s Da Ai TV in Taiwan, so she contacted a former colleague there. That was how she and her husband began helping organize Tzu Chi’s humanitarian work for displaced Ukrainians in Poland. Even though the couple had to take care of their three young children and were busy at work, they bravely stepped up to the plate to do what they could.
The couple had never worked on refugee relief before. They had no idea where to start, but learned as they went. The most challenging part was the paperwork; there was a lot of it to be submitted for approval and processing. It was hard in the beginning, but they have since become adept at it. Be it handling contracts, customs affairs, legal issues, dealing with factories, or negotiations with the government, they can take it all in stride now.
“We talked with government agencies and discussed contracts and legal issues with our partner organizations,” Chang observed. “We also helped Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan translate documents, and repeatedly reviewed contract terms and conditions with them.” Because of the six-hour time difference between Poland and Taiwan, she and her husband never felt fully rested during that period due to sleep deprivation. Yet they persisted—all because of a desire to help the needy.
In March and April, they checked out various shelters for Ukrainian refugees in Poznań, purchased necessities locally, and donated them to help the displaced. In May, they began helping Tzu Chi and one of its partner organizations, the Red Cross, hold distributions of gift cards in Poznań and nearby cities. Shipment after shipment of gift cards and other aid items provided by Tzu Chi arrived in Poznań during that period. They were all stored in the couple’s home.
Łukasz Baranowski is a manager at a tech company. He was surprised at the trust the Tzu Chi Foundation had placed in them. At the same time, he could sense the heavy responsibility that came with the trust. It pushed him to do his best to help the foundation’s aid reach the needy.
Just as Tzu Chi has treated them with respect and trust, the couple treats the Ukrainian participants of a Tzu Chi work relief program with respect and trust too. “If we have a difference of opinion with a participant,” said Chang, “we always discuss and talk it over.” She told the participants she and her husband worked on the same level as they, that they were not in a higher position, and that they were helping Tzu Chi with the same sincere desire to aid those in need. The couple has, due to their work together, become good friends with the Ukrainian helpers. The ties the Ukrainians have developed with the couple have further helped them feel less lonely in a foreign country.
Chang said they never stopped encountering kind people who reached out to help of their own accord after the distributions were launched. They offered distribution venues, helped move relief supplies, served as liaisons, provided refreshments for the events, and even helped look for resources. “We’ve run across fantastic people,” Chang observed. “Everyone is more than willing to contribute what they can. That’s why we have come to enjoy our work more and more.”
A distribution held by Tzu Chi at the Minor Basilica of St. Vincent de Paul in Bydgoszcz, northern Poland, on June 4, 2022. Lu Pei-ling
I have never seen as many tears in my life as when I participated in our relief mission for Ukrainian refugees. Despite the language barrier between us, I can fully understand their pain. I am an ethnic Chinese and used to live in Laos, but I fled my hometown after Laos fell to communist forces. I eventually ended up in France. With no one to depend on in a foreign country, I couldn’t have made it through that difficult time without friends’ help. Because I was once a refugee myself, I can empathize with the displaced Ukrainians, even though all I can do is hand them Kleenex when they cry.
—Kuang Ling-fang (匡齡芳), Tzu Chi volunteer from France
I help operate the sound system at our distributions. I was deeply stunned when I looked down from the stage and saw the faces and expressions of everyone in the audience. Most of those who came to our distributions were older people, women, and kids, especially mothers with children in tow. They reminded me of my own daughter. I thought of how hard it would be for her and how my heart would break if today it was she who had to flee from a war with young children in tow. I really wish I could be like a mother to these refugee mothers and help make their journey through this trying time easier.
—Zheng Ci Lu (鄭慈璐), Tzu Chi volunteer from the Netherlands
I’m not really fit to participate in an international relief mission. I’m 75 and the help I can offer is limited by my linguistic ability. Most of the time I use body language, hugs, or smiles to convey my love and care for those we’re helping. But I still volunteer for our international relief work because I love Master Cheng Yen very much. I want to help her carry out the work she wants to do; I want to love everyone she loves. So, as long as I’m still able, I’ll keep at this. I’ll keep at this until the day I no longer can.
—You Yue-ying (游月英), Tzu Chi volunteer from Austria