SARANAC LAKE — Saranac Laker Anna Hoyt hopped on a plane to her home country of Poland in June with nearly $10,000 in cash in a secret pocket in her pants. In three weeks, she spent it all on supplies for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, medical aid for Ukrainian soldiers fighting a Russian invasion of their country, and helping four Ukrainian brothers and sisters – refugees living with a family in Warsaw – to settle into a new life in a new country like theirs has been torn apart by war.
It was the second time since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February that Hoyt had traveled to Poland with a wad of cash for Ukraine. She said all the money she brought was raised at Saranac Lake. She was amazed by the donations from friends, friends of friends and people she doesn’t even know in this “small community in the Adirondacks.”
When Hoyt visited her mother in Warsaw to celebrate her mother’s 90th birthday in March, she arrived on the 13th day of the invasion. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees passed through Poland every day at the time. In a rush two days before she left, her students at Fitness Revolution in Lake Placid raised $2,000 for her. She bought medicine, bandages, clothes, drinks, headlamps, candles and food during this trip.
In the eight weeks between that trip and his trip in June, Hoyt said people gave him more than $10,000 to bring. Ten thousand dollars is the maximum amount of money that can be brought from the United States to Poland before having to declare the money at customs. The rest of the money, over $10,000, she gave to Father John Yonkovig of St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, who sends money to organizations in Ukraine.
Hoyt said that because she brought in cash and had connections in Poland, she didn’t lose a penny in running costs.
Finding places to spend the money wasn’t difficult, she says. She connected to a network of organizations and charities supporting refugees and soldiers.
Hoyt said she knew more this time and after doing her research, she knew exactly how to spend the money.
During this visit, she said the food needs were much greater. She bought large amounts of food, clothes and laundry. These supplies were loaded into vans and transported to Ukraine.
Hoyt helped load a car with a Ukrainian who has lived in Poland for five years. This woman drove the car to her native village in Ukraine to bring aid to the people living and fighting there.
She said supplies sent to Ukraine were now more directly linked to the conflict. Blankets and towels went to hospital beds, adult diapers were provided to wounded soldiers in those beds, and dark colored clothes were sent to those on the front lines.
Hoyt said $3,000 of the $10,000 was used to buy a van to transport wounded soldiers from the front lines to hospitals. She said there was a great need for these vans, as they keep getting destroyed in battle.
Hoyt said Ukrainians she spoke to feel they have been relatively successful in repelling the Russian invasion of their country.
“As much as any small country can succeed against this enormous power”, she says. “The will of the Ukrainian people to be free, the will to fight, to be their own people, is incredibly strong.”
Hoyt said the mood in Poland had changed.
“In March it was frantic, helping (refugees) arriving in Poland. Now it’s more stable. she says. “People are realizing that it’s much more permanent, both for the Ukrainians there and for the Poles helping out.”
But she also said aid had stabilized. After months of intense efforts in Poland to give homes to refugees and support the Ukrainian army, while fearing that the conflict will cross their border, people seem tired, she said.
Making a difference for a refugee family
More than 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees fled Poland and about half of them stayed there, Hoyt said, either starting a new life or staying with host families.
Her brother in Poland has childhood friends in Warsaw – Irmina and Jerzy Sterniccy – who have taken in four siblings to live with them: Katia, 13, Kostia, 15, Liza, 17, and Ania, 28.
Their mother and older brother are still in Kyiv – the mother is a paramedic and her 22-year-old son is “the age of combat”. These four siblings left their country because Ania needs a kidney replacement and if she doesn’t get 7 hour dialysis three times a week, she could die.
“The decision to leave was made in 15 minutes” the Sterniccys wrote in a letter to Hoyt.
Ania is on a list for new kidneys, but first she needs a full checkup. She can take most exams through the Polish healthcare system, but dentistry has to be done in a private practice and is expensive. Hoyt helped fund a dentist appointment for Ania so she could have the surgery she needs.
Ania is a Formula 1 enthusiast. Katia cooks and paints. Kostia Skateboards. Liza studies cinema, gastronomy and English.
Katia and Kostia are preparing to attend Polish schools in September, but they don’t speak the language. Hoyt helped pay for summer Polish lessons so they could study at school.
Meanwhile, she says, the Sterniccy family is trying to create “normality” for kids.
“They try to find themselves in a new reality, among new friends who don’t understand their language, in an unfamiliar house without their mother, their favorite clothes and their stuffed animals”, reads the Sterniccy letter to Hoyt. “It’s difficult for them.”
Hoyt gave them money for a camping trip. The Sterniccy family said they hoped it would allow the siblings to “to feel like children and not to think about the fact that the war took away their childhood and their home”.
Hoyt said there are not many refugees from Ukraine left in Poland.
Many people still live in the western part of Ukraine, further from the fighting, she said. Many of these people have fled eastern Ukraine and want to stay in their own country, she added, but they do so as national refugees. It is still not safe, even in the western part of the country, which has recently experienced deadly attacks.
“There is no security” said Hoyt.
But the eastern and southern part of the country is a “totally destroyed war zone”, she says.
A world of help
Hoyt grew up in Poland under Russian rule. When the country gained freedom in 1990, she moved to Lake Placid to open a Polish store. His whole family still lives in Poland.
She said the invasion of Ukraine is familiar to Poles, but the response from the global community is different this time.
“Poland was in a similar situation in 1939, exactly the same situation, and nobody helped”, said Hoyt.
His mother, Barbara Kucharska, remembers the Second World War. She was 7 when Poland was invaded and 13 when the war ended. Kucharska speaks Polish, so Hoyt translated for her while describing to the Enterprise what the war was like for her and her family, who were displaced from their rural farm near Warsaw by Russia during the war.
Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939. People fled east to escape the war, Kucharska said. Then, on September 17, Russia invaded from the east. Poles were pinned down and became refugees in their own country, seeking safety wherever they could find it.
Kucharska said she witnessed horrific things – bodies being flattened by tanks and buildings collapsing on people hiding inside. Kucharska said they felt hopeless because they didn’t think the world could help them.
Poland had treaties with England and France, but those countries did not immediately provide aid to Poland, she said. Help was slow to arrive. The United States only helped after the war, she said.
Today, Kucharska is proud of Poland’s help to its neighbour, Ukraine. She said the country immediately opened its border to refugees and opened up its infrastructure and transport to bring aid from around the world to the front lines.
Poland is Ukraine’s neighbor and its closest member of NATO, she stressed.
“They are not left alone like we were during the war”, said Hoyt.
Hoyt said there are currently many American troops in Poland, indirectly supporting the fight. She saw all kinds of giant planes transporting tanks, military equipment and supplies from Poland to Ukraine. She said it keeps the Ukrainians’ will to fight going.