The Cross Border HouseFundraiser
A Virtual Visit to The Cross Border House
Amber Poole Kieniewicz
The Jung Center Houston
I have titled this talk, The Bewilderment of Being of a War Refugee. Bearing in mind there are 7 different types of refugees, within each classification a life-threatening reason to leave one’s homeland. Hunger, persecution, physical violence, those without documentation, otherwise known as stateless, but in this case, war.
Lawrence Hillman, James Hillman’s son, once told me that his father said to him: ‘When you have a problem, make it really big so you can see it.’
So I came back to Texas, my home state, where everything is really big, to look at this problem, to see if we can’t see it together.
What does it feel like to be a war refugee?
All that was once relegated to the news or to another corner of the world, or to those things that happened to someone else is suddenly prominent in the life of a war refugee. The threat of poverty, homelessness, forced migration, human trafficking, exploitation, isolation and loneliness.
Add to this, uncertainty, fear and unfavorable public perception.
How do we get it wrong when we open the doors to a large stadium or church banquet hall, set up cots and provide boxed meals? With all of our best intentions, how do we get it wrong, how do we get it right? We get it wrong because we don’t finish the work. In the case of the Ukrainians fleeing war, we get it wrong because we don’t understand the psychology of what has just happened to 8 million people.
We get it right, because at least we try. But we’re going to have to try harder. When 2.5 million people cross your border looking for their new livelihood, it’s best not to ignore their presence.
On February 28, 2022, the bus loads of Ukrainian refugees started arriving to Sichów, my home in Poland. There was a ground swell of enthusiasm in the country. There were volunteers at train stations, there were kiosks set up at border towns to assist young mothers and their children, their senior family members, with shelter options, care packages, and government officials assuring their safety here, every hand stretched out, every door flew open to welcome these road worn, traumatised exiles, until one by one, the doors started closing, the enthusiasm waning, the subsidies drying up, as indifference emerged within the public perception.
How do we get it wrong? How do we get it right?
By April 2022, we had forty refugees living with us. These core forty are still with us today.
Here is our story.
Ten days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Paul and I were invited to a Valentine’s Day dinner. Our nephew sent a driver for us so we could both enjoy the champagne and festivities. We were in a lively conversation with guests at the table about what our programs for 2022 looked like. For the past seven years, Paul and I had run an educational center offering courses in spiritual growth, inter-faith workshops, theatre classes taught in English, and a variety of outdoor summer activities for children.
It was during this conversation that someone asked Paul what he would do if there was war. Would he agree to taking in refugees? That close to the invasion, Paul was certain there would be war and said, “I can’t not receive them. When the first bus arrives, I will open the doors.” I didn’t believe there would be such an invasion, myself. The idea that such a thing could happen was beyond my imagination. To ask that I visualise a bus carrying victims of war showing up at my door seemed so surreal to me that I dismissed the whole notion of it.
Still, our dreams were warning us. Dreams we observed and discussed daily.
On February 28, 2022, the buses did arrive.
Nothing in my history of living has ever prepared me for the fourteen months I’ve spent in a community among war refugees.
On March 8, 2022, I started to keep a war diary. I’ve been faithful to this diary until recently when I had to prepare for my trip to America. It’s a chronicle of my observations, of happenings in the house, of stories that come to us from Ukraine, in general a documentation of events.
The first week we spent together as a community, we called a meeting. In that welcome speech I said.
“We consider you as our guests and we are here to serve you. As a woman and a mother, I am particularly passionate about your comfort and your well-being. In particular about your specific needs.
I am also very aware of the need for you to maintain your own sense of dignity, way of living and routine, as best as is possible under the circumstances. Paul and I are here to help you with that.
Finally, it is of great importance to me, that for as long as you are here, you feel the freedom of protection and safety for yourselves and for your children.
We are a community now, even if only for a little while or a long while. Being in a community means that every voice is important. Please do not hesitate to ask for what you need and to share your feelings if you so desire.”
The sentiment in this opening speech is a cornerstone upon which we base our decisions at The Cross Border House. I think the website says it best: The Cross Border House is a sanctuary for the Ukrainian residents in which they can reclaim their sense of human dignity, hope and optimism. This is the goal.
Basic provisions are not enough to create a facility offering a high standard of holistic care. How do we get it right? How do we get wrong?
What is most important is to know is to know what you’re holding in your arms. What have you said yes to, and to what level of commitment have you said yes? Who are these strangers among you who now live in your kitchen, in your living room, your dining room, your study, your outdoors, who sit at your table, who are there when you wake up and there when you go to bed. Strangers all to each other. One way to look at it is to visualise yourself on a subway. Visualise yourself stepping onto the train.
Say, forty people in one car and that car freezes in time and space and each of you much make your way, one with the other. You have lost everything. You have lost your home, your belongings, your pets, your country, your dreams, and in some cases, family members and friends. Nothing will ever be the same again.
I can tell you that it’s both one of the most rewarding and most surprising occurrences in my life. If anyone here is interested in fast-tracking shadow work, come to The Cross Border House for a year or two; you’ll graduate with honors.
On May 28, 2022, Day 94 of the War, I wrote in my diary:
Let me start with a short anecdote. When I worked at the Jung Center in Houston, Jim Hollis was the director, my boss. For those of you who don’t know Jim’s work, I strongly encourage you to look him up and order any of his books, all of his books. You can’t go wrong.
One day when I showed up for work in a bad mood much like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible No Good Very Bad Day, Alexander who wants to move to Australia, I arrived to work in this state. In fact, I think I must have said something to that effect that I’d like to move to Australia. And Jim, in his infinite wisdom, in his dry response, said, “Just remember, wherever you go you take yourself with you.”
What I want to share today has been on my mind for a while and I’d like to set the record straight. I get the distinct impression that there are those who read these diaries who think that Sichów is a kind of Arcadia. Some kind of pastoral fairyland where we all get along and work together in this harmonious bubble without discord. Well it’s not.
Nothing could be further from the truth…As we have become more familiar with each other, it’s nothing that we crowd shoulder to shoulder at the stove, a little push to ensure our portion is properly dished out and maybe some of another’s onto our plate. It’s nothing to us now to carve out our personal space at the tea kettle for a cup of coffee, even if that means overlapping with your neighbor also waiting for the water to boil or take the last slice of cake for instance or home in on the basket of strawberries if you happen to be fortunate enough when they’re delivered to the door.
Not everyone who showed up that day in February came with charity in their hearts or a sense of fair play and for those who were self centered before the war, well…they’re still self centered as the war rages on and will be, likely, at its end. This is how we are. We can’t take the human out of humans.
But if you’re motivated by something greater than yourself, something outside of yourself that throughout the years has encouraged an inner journey to self-discovery, to some sense of gnosis, then you’re able to see with a greater clarity.
End of Diary Entry.
Why does The Cross Border House work so well? It’s a high functioning shelter in spite of us humans who live there. Or should I say because of us humans who live there. Seriously though, how is that we are able with all of our psychological nuances and colliding personalities live in such close quarters and not run for the hills? I’m sure there isn’t a day that goes by that one or another want to bolt, but in spite of this intermittent impulse, we stay. Why?
To adequately provide each resident the opportunity for renewed clarity, it is imperative to create an atmosphere of complete acceptance. When there is access to free time and to both private and communal space, the resident can begin to consider a way forward in their life.
This means that each individual must be consciously considered, with all of his or her moving parts, front and center above any other agenda.
Wow. What does that mean?
One of the ways we get it wrong is to think that food and shelter are enough. In some places, such as Zervou Refugee Camp on the island of Samos, asylum seekers have been living like animals for the past two years, surviving on a sub-nutrious diet, living in either tents or flat packs, without proper sanitation or even consistent healthcare with only one medic for the 3,500 residents.
In the UK and Poland alike, hotels are renting out rooms to Ukrainians, charging for basic meals but with no other assistance such as the offering of intermediary services to understand job opportunities, accommodation options and legal rights. Most are languishing in this state until the war is over so they can go home. Unfortunately, for many, returning home is not an option which makes the life of the war refugees that much harder.
How do we get it wrong?
We’re missing the point. We’re paying millions of dollars, 5 to ten to be exact, to create these monstrous camps without any staffing, relying only on whatever humanitarian aid can bring to the table.
How do we get it right?
Small numbers, multiple shelters. Earmark a portion of those millions and distribute among the few, create a healthy, sustainable living system, encourage autonomy through individual potential, with an agenda of integration.
The closer one can stay to his or her place of origin, of course, the easier it is to assimilate. In this sense, the Ukrainians have an advantage to those coming from Africa or the Middle East looking to settle in Europe because the fluid borders in Eastern Europe have been shape shifting for thousands of years. Ukrainians are essentially first cousins to the Poles, making communication and cultural identities easier to blend through language, cuisine and humor.
The Cross Border House is two hours from the Ukrainian border. Not all are so fortunate as to find shelter this close to their roots.
On June 18, 2022, Day 115, I wrote:
What does it mean to be an exile? I frequently ask myself this question.
When my husband’s parents, Rose and Henry Kieniewicz, crossed into Scotland with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the shoes in which they stood, they knew no one except other exiles from a defunct Polish army. The living conditions for this young couple were deeply dissatisfying. Rose gave birth to her daughter, Theresa, shortly after they arrived and had trouble keeping her quiet. Imagine that. The prickly, old landlady wasn’t amused. To say the least, she placed unrealistic demands on them to keep a newborn baby quiet.
So when Rose and Henry finally settled in an old stone cottage provided for them by the Earl of Scone Palace, it opened up like a castle for Rose. With no indoor plumbing and no heat other than that of a paraffin stove, she recounts her sense of jubilation that she now had her own home. Her privacy was once again restored. Her babies could fit and cry in freedom.
I do encounter some visitors to Sichów who are surprised by the high functioning level of activity here and at times, sense in their surprise, a measure of subtle reproach.
So here’s the question. Why should people, classified as refugees, be so fortunate as to have access to an art studio in which paint, draw or craft or a sewing machine endowed with good quality fabrics on which to make clothes or other items of choice? Isn’t this a luxury reserved only for those in a settled political situation?
Why should these refugees be treated to soft fruits such as strawberries, served with cream and sugar when they are in a position of charity. Are not these amenities reserved only for those who work hard, pay taxes, those of whom are in a stable and established circumstance, those who can afford such things? Is it even our ethical responsibility to allow a foreigner such a delicacy; or is it good enough to simply supply bread, water, cheese, some meat and a bed? Does it not provoke resentment from the local population who see this level of charity when they themselves are struggling economically? Should not the foreigner instead accept their station in a reduced class, an uninvited guest, and submit to a lower wage-earning status of field and housework?
Personally, I don’t find these questions complicated because I literally believe that all the residents living here today are equal to me and I to them. Nothing separates us but history, place and personal interests. All the same I can understand the bitterness in these small Polish villages hamstrung by decades of communist occupation.
Quoting Rose: “If anyone told me that by the time I was twenty-five I’d be living in Scotland, I would have said they were from the moon.”
The philosophy behind The Cross Border House model of sheltering and rebuilding depends on a few key points. The defining of the words charity, dignity, and the psychology of the individual are integral to the way Paul and I conduct ourselves and the decisions we make.
The art studio is here to maintain dignity. So is the sewing centre. Some have already lost their homes, some fear they will be next but all share in the loss of a country, at least for the moment. All are out of place. All are victims of war.
Unfortunately, we live in a world now of collective psychosis and there are some very precious children here who should be fiercely protected. One of the ways we protect is to provide. Sichów is a child’s garden of verse and play. In the art studio are drawing and painting classes and in the library room upstairs are books, puzzles, games and toys. (And as I’ve said before, if you’re lucky enough to be here on Tuesdays and Fridays you can listen in on Paul giving Olesha a recorder lesson. Magic.) The healthy psychology of a community is based on the health of the individual. If the residents here are at moderate peace and if Sichów can lessen their anxieties, then we stand a good chance at maintaining a community in balance.
When the children first came to Sichów, they were so quiet. They burrowed into their mothers side, hardly ever making eye contact. Certainly never arguing about what was on the plate in front of them. In those beginning days, it was more like living in a religious order than a shelter. I thought to myself that the Ukrainians must possess a great secret to raising such well-behaved children. Yet at the same time, I thought it wasn’t normal for children to be so composed.
How do we get it right, how do we get it wrong?
We get it wrong when a child cannot express himself without fear of being relocated. In the case of children fleeing war, they are first removed to underground city shelters where they’re under siege; missile strikes and air raid sirens roaring overhead. Later, they’re tossed headlong into the perplexity of a nomadic way of life, compounding further the uneasiness and complications of their circumstances.
Happily, it wasn’t long before they lived up to their reputation and proved me wrong. Dead wrong.
If I have painted a picture of the library where they at first gathered, playing quietly and politely, with puzzles and games and cooperatively building Legos together…nothing now could be further from the truth. We need about four official referees and an emergency medical team to cover that area.
But here’s the deal. They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re being children. In fact, most mischievous ones. An example.
When the mandarins were at their sweetest last summer and reasonably priced, I bought them by the box loads. Our orders come in on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We should have been covered. As the days passed, I was surprised that we were noticeably running low, if not completely out of oranges. Of course, I immediately blamed this shortage on my nemesis, but then I blame her for everything – even things that happened before I met her. Living together with strangers is not always easy, but it is entertaining and it does offer a glimpse into a gigantic mirror, if willing to look.
I went back and checked my invoices and thought that the amount I was ordering should have been enough to carry us through from order to order and this went on for a couple of weeks before one day, Artful Dodger ran past the kitchen door at breakneck speed. He didn’t see me standing there. He was carrying a grocery bag as big as he was. And there, in plain sight, shovelling mandarins into the bag. And then whistling for his gang who came running in from the other end of the corridor with bags of equal size and they too started helping themselves. I absolutely shrieked. “Damned delinquents. What are you doing stealing all the oranges? Get out of here. Out, out, out.” The gang members dropped their bags and ran off. But not the Dodger. Nope. He stared me down, strategically backing away, ever so tightly clutching that bag of fruit. He wasn’t about to let go of his steal. The child standing in front of me could have easily been my own, his friends and cousins. Zach, Josh, Jordan. Healthy, playful, naughty boys.
The children at The Cross Border House are not home free by any means, but at least they’re in a place where they have the good fortune to express themselves without fear of eviction.
My husband’s family never truly integrated into the British culture. This is not to say they didn’t have a good life there, only to say that it’s unnatural to be aborted from ones culture of origin by force. It’s usually without preparation that one finds themselves in such a position.
No war is any different from any other war in this sense. All war produces this displacement of its citizens. All wars leave them homeless and vulnerable.
I propose to use the word support rather than charity. To partner, even better. Never lose sight of the dignity in another regardless of how you feel about them. This is not easy because they may not be demonstrating the same toward you, themselves or others. But because we live in a structured environment I believe we can practice this level of respect toward each other with a bit less difficulty.
We do not live lavishly, we live creatively. We must live creatively if we are to maintain psychological health.
End of Diary Entry for Day 115 of a war still propagating genocide.
One of my favourite Ingmar Bergman films is one called, Shame. Speaking in an interview from 1968, he says:
“It just turned out that way. I felt that these people before this great war broke loose all around them, should end up in some place, where time had stopped…with all these wars in which two great powers collide…you can’t help but identify with the third parties caught in the middle. I suppose that’s the fear we all carry inside.”
In his irrefutable genius, he was able to capture on camera man’s utmost vulnerability. Shame. It’s not what I expected. But when living in a community of war refugees for over a period of time and if you’re compassionately observing, shame is the burden carried by all. Sitting across the table from you is a man in his early seventies who had a home and a routine, something to show you when you came to visit. Something he was proud to show you. A table to lay, a bed for you to sleep in, a chair by the fire. Now he sits in your home, with nothing, and must accept your charity.
Every day is an opportunity for meditation at The Cross Border House. Everyday forces you to look a little bit deeper. At least it is for me and I know it is as well for Paul and true for Jordan Poole, my nephew who came to help out in March 2022 who is still with us. And maybe for others this is also true but considering the language barrier I wouldn’t really know.
In order to make our lives work together, frozen in time such as we are, the ethos of our care must be to tread lightly and lovingly, honouring the dignity in each, even and especially during those moments of conflict and misunderstanding. One of the ways we do this is to help the residents understand that it isn’t us paying for the food, but the Foundation which has been generously funded by donors from around the world.
In that spirt, The Cross Border House Team was able to assess what was needed for the psychological well-being of each. We got it right.
Still, it’s essential that you know, living in a shelter is not natural. No matter how much care is provided. Living in a shelter is like being in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Strawberries and cream and cake make it a little easier but the goal is always, always to restore one to his or her own previous level of independence and routine.
Thank you for coming today. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to try and answer them.
Save the Date
Fundraiser to be held at The Jung Center Houston | SUNDAY, April 2
This program takes place at The Jung Center Houston, with seating on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission is free. Refreshments will be served. Program will take place from 2–4 p.m. Contact [email protected] for information.