Despite losing leg in Ukraine explosion, volunteer returns to war-torn country to help disabled

Municipal workers clean an area at the site of a Russian missile strike amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine, Nov. 6, 2023. (OSV News photo/Nina Liashonok, Reuters)

KRAKÓW, Poland (OSV News) -- As the world celebrated International Volunteer Day Dec. 5, Grazyna Slawinska, a young Polish volunteer who left her comfortable job to aid people with disabilities in Ukraine, was in eastern Ukraine to spend another December in the war-torn nation.

Last Christmas she lost her leg due to a mortar shell explosion in Bakhmut. But this did not lead her to abandon those in need.

Helping people with disabilities is Slawinska's passion. Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Slawinska, 33, taught special education at the Pedagogical University of Kraków, preparing students who in the future will work with people with disabilities.

She also had for many years been involved with Klika, a group of lay Catholic volunteers at the Dominican Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Kraków. Active for half a century, Klika seeks to make people with disabilities feel wanted and to know that the volunteers who spend time with them do so not out of pity, but because they genuinely want to hang out with them.

Although Russia’s war of aggression has been trying for all Ukrainians, it has proven especially challenging for those with disabilities.

"Already before the war, the situation of Ukrainians with disabilities was difficult," Slawinska told OSV News. "Many of them felt unwanted and so they did not even feel it necessary to fight for themselves." After the Russian invasion Feb. 24, 2022, Slawinska took a year of unpaid leave at the university and ultimately quit her job, knowing well that relocating to a country under military occupation could entail the loss of life or limb.

If war is challenging for a healthy person, it is a nightmare for a disabled one, Slawinska said. Not only does Ukraine lack the accessible infrastructure for the disabled common in Western countries, but during Russian bombings they are often physically unable to go down to bomb shelters and basements, which makes them especially prone to attacks. Since the war's beginning, Slawinska and her colleagues have helped to bring people with disabilities, the ill, the elderly and others with limited mobility to safety during bombings.

For her efforts, Slawinska was honored with the Good Samaritan Award this September, presented by the St. Elijah Volunteer Network and the Krakow Medical Association.

On Jan. 6, 2023, when eastern Ukraine's Orthodox majority celebrated Christmas, Slawinska went to Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk oblast that has been regularly shelled during the war and which she calls "probably the biggest hell on earth today." Slawinska and her colleagues went to visit the people who had not yet evacuated the city to bring them bread, soup, the traditional Eastern Slavic sweet Christmas sweet poppy dish kutia and a sense of normalcy.

"Even in times of peace, spending Christmas alone is terrible," she explained. "No one should have to spend Christmas under artillery fire with no heat, running water, or electricity," she said. Many of those who remained in Bakhmut included numerous children and people with intellectual disabilities, including those unwanted and thus left behind.

That wartime Christmas, tragedy struck: A mortar shell hit Slawinska, which necessitated an amputation of her right leg just below the knee. After surviving such an ordeal, anyone would be fully justified in wanting to go home for good. But after several months of treatment back in Poland, Slawinska returned to Ukraine in June. She considers herself "tremendously lucky" for having "just" lost her leg and knowing that many Ukrainians with disabilities still require Christian charity.

Although based in Kharkiv, Slawinska and her colleagues travel across Ukraine. In sites threatened by bombings, they help bring people with disabilities to safety. "I don’t really consider myself to be a volunteer. 'Volunteer' is such a formal word, but I went to Ukraine because my heart told me I must go. That's the most important part of volunteering -- wanting to accompany another person in need and take on his or her perspective," she told OSV News.

Slawinska planned to visit the city of Mykolaiv to organize celebrations for St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, with the local children left behind in the besieged city. However, she will be spending Christmas this year in Poland with her family.

She emphasizes that after all the support they gave her during her treatment, they have the "sacred right" to spend the holidays together. Yet in 2024, she will go back to Ukraine for an indefinite period.

"After you've seen all the human dramas I've seen in Ukraine, it’s impossible to go back to your desk and be calm," she said. "It doesn’t suffice to see other people suffering. Thanks to my work, I know I can help people suffer just a little less."

Slawinska said that for her, every day little miracles happen -- use of an apartment from a local businessman who was grateful for the volunteers’ help in local communities and a transfer of money to their crowdfunding campaign that fills their needs precisely in a given hour -- but the needs are huge every day.

Slawinska and her fellow volunteers need fuel to continue traveling across Ukraine and helping all affected by the war as well as firewood and flour for families in the harsh Ukrainian winter. "Just this past week, I spent $2,000," she said.

For her, being a volunteer became an everyday reality and an unpaid full time job. She said she will continue because "Nobody deserves this war."


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