Columbia Heights City Council Member Kt Jacobs is a former airline flight attendant. She’s come to expect surprises when traveling. Still, nothing could prepare her for what she witnessed during a recent trip to Poland.
Jacobs and her husband, Jake, set off for the Czech Republic and Poland in mid-April; it was a vacation twice delayed by COVID 19. Although she wasn’t traveling in an official capacity, before leaving Minnesota, Kt contacted the Sister City program to make arrangements to visit with the mayors of Warsaw and of Columbia Heights’ sister city, Łomianki, as well as the mayor of Prague.
While in Prague, the couple met Mayor Zdenek Hrib, who took them to a gymnasium where they helped serve meals to Ukrainian refugees housed there. Most of them were women and children, and a few elderly men. They were not allowed to take pictures; many of the refugees fear being recognized and hunted down by the Russians. The Czech Republic is sheltering an estimated 80,000 refugees.
In Warsaw they had a “very productive” conversation about the differences between the U.S. and Polish city governments. Kt said Warsaw’s mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, serves a four-year term (it’s about to be lengthened to five years) and is responsible for the city’s budget, human resources, schools and street programs; the mayoral position in Columbia Heights is primarily ceremonial. Trzaskowski said Warsaw has taken in 300,000 Ukrainians.
They spent a day in Łomianki, about 17 miles from Warsaw, where they met Mayor Małgorzata Żebrowska-Piotrak and toured Center for Aid to Ukraine operating at St. Margaret’s Church. “Łomianki was the first city in Poland to have a system set up for refugees,” Kt said. “Now it’s the model for other cities in the country. It’s very grassroots and very effective.” She said approximately 2,000 Ukrainians are housed in Łomianki, almost all of them in private homes. Homeowners are compensated by the Polish government, but “they’re spending far more in housing assistance than they get back.”
Refugees are expected to work in some format; they can volunteer, or if they have a skill, go out and get employment. “It helps them maintain their dignity and their sense of purpose,” Kt said. Certain days of the week are set up for procuring clothing; others for groceries. Volunteers at the church in Łomianki help refugees register for health care and insurance, courtesy of the Polish government. Although they are allowed to make phone calls, communication with family back in Ukraine is difficult, especially in rural areas. The country lacks infrastructure, and much of what was there has been knocked out by the Russians. People who left home with just a backpack have no way of knowing if they have family or a house to return to. “How do you start life over when you’re 50 or 60 years old?” Jacobs asked.
While visiting the church, Jacobs presented a “substantial” donation from the Columbia Heights Lions Club to help the refugees. She said she felt “humbled and honored” to be able to deliver the check.
An article on the Łomianki website reported, “The guests were moved and did not hide their emotion while visiting the Help Center. They were full of admiration for the volunteers who selflessly joined the action.”
Jacobs said, while Americans approach the Russian invasion of Ukraine pragmatically, reactions in Poland and the Czech Republic are more emotional. “It’s different when it’s right up in your face,” she said.
Jacobs said the people she talked to in both countries are “disgusted” with what the Russians have done to Ukraine. “They’re not fearful, but they’re highly concerned about what Putin will do. They remember what it was like to live under Russian oversight, and they don’t want it. That’s why they help.”
Below: Columbia Heights City Council Member Kt Jacobs and her husband, Jake, toured a food warehouse in Łomianki, Poland, Columbia Heights’ Sister City. (Provided photo)