Each week, Valeria Baklanovski’s aunt stops by her family’s apartment and waters the flowers. They’re one of the few remaining signs of life in their home in Ukraine, still blooming at a time their city has shriveled under occupation by Russian forces.
It’s been more than two months since Baklanovski and her parents fled Kherson, an economic hub in southern Ukraine, and traded the fear that comes with living among constant shelling for the uncertainty that comes with waking up every morning in a new country.
“It was very hard to leave,” Baklanovski, 18, said in an interview with The Colorado Sun over Zoom, adding that the pain of leaving everything they knew has worsened as they have struggled to communicate with loved ones who chose to stay.
But, for now, Baklanovski and her parents have found a safe place to live near Krakow, Poland — far away from the ravages of war but still close enough to see reminders of the suffering it has caused as other refugees there also try to piece together their lives. The family moved just outside Krakow in the beginning of May, settling into one room in a 19th-century palace that a group of Colorado business and nonprofit leaders helped convert from a destination for weddings and tourists to a temporary home for Ukrainians. The palace, sitting on 6 acres that include plenty of green spaces and a pond, houses between 80 and 90 refugees, some of whom have come and gone, others who have stayed longer and some who arrived with bullet holes in their car bumpers.
Soon, it may take in 38 Ukrainian orphans and five caregivers who are still in danger amidst the fighting.
Michael Graham, owner of Colorado-based hospitality group Lost City, initially committed to paying the lease of the palace for three months while also helping shelter refugees in a nearby hotel. He recently extended the lease for another three months through October. But just as Ukrainians are questioning how long the war with Russia will go on, Graham and the coalition he helped form to address the need for refugee housing are asking just how far into the future they can continue to provide families a safe resting spot.
“I think like many, we thought we’d closed the chapter on large land wars of aggression in Europe,” said Graham, who has been at the center of coordinating help for refugees in an effort known as “Palaces for People.”
“And to see this sort of massive conflict and millions of refugees spilling out, I wanted to do something,” he said. “And the idea really was really to build a coalition of people and groups that could do something together about it and something practical.”
Graham, who owns three Lost City coffee shops in Denver and Boulder and one market in Boulder, often runs toward crises as they’re unfolding. In addition to contributing to international development efforts in Afghanistan and human rights projects in the U.S., Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Rwanda, he helped spearhead the Denver Metro Emergency Food Network to deliver meals to families impacted by food insecurity at the start of the pandemic.
After Russia launched its invasion, Graham began scouring vacation home rental websites like vrbo.com to try to pinpoint a spacious building to rent for Ukrainians making their way across the border. He found the Paszkowka palace and hotel and was drawn to the site by the palace’s large communal spaces, including a big kitchen, as well as its expansive grounds, where children could play, residents could barbecue and anyone could find a moment of calm underneath the trees.
The palace, which Graham described as grand and gaudy, has 13 rooms that have been converted to oases for families — with beds, bunk beds, couches and private bathrooms. Separately, the hotel has 22 rooms.
In securing the lease and preparing to welcome refugees to the palace, Graham traveled to Poland in April, staying overnight in the palace and meeting a couple refugees.
He has partnered with Colorado residents as well as the nonprofit WorldDenver and First Baptist Church of Denver to raise about $25,000, with Graham donating all profits from his coffee shops to the cause. Their efforts have also been boosted by actor Mandy Patinkin, who has promoted “Palaces for People” on social media, and by musician Gregory Alan Isakov, who has offered up proceeds from part of his recent tour.
The Colorado coalition also plans to hold a benefit concert on Sept. 1 at First Baptist Church of Denver to generate as much funding as possible, Graham said.
Even as many grapple with “crisis fatigue” after more than two years of a pandemic, “the reality is we can’t look away,” said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president for community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative and one of the leaders raising awareness and dollars for “Palaces for People.”
“We don’t have to solve for all of it, but we can solve for some of it,” he added.
And while Graham, Mascareñaz and other Denver locals and organizations have taken responsibility for much of the financing, paying about $16,000 a month to lease the palace and nearby hotel, the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow has matched that funding by covering utilities as well as staffing, meals and other necessary expenses.
The palace is only one part of the JCC Krakow’s emergency response to Ukrainian refugees. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the Polish nonprofit mobilized to help the country and those whose lives have been upended. The organization is running a dozen programs to support Ukrainians, nearly doubling its staff to more than 50 to stretch itself and meet the basic needs of refugees, said CEO Jonathan Ornstein, who is from New York City and has lived in Krakow for 20 years.
The organization oversees a food pantry, where at least 500 people come each day to stock up on food, clothing, toiletries, sanitary supplies, diapers and toys. It has also housed about 400 people each night since the beginning of March — including those residing at the palace — as well as stood up a day care for children and offered classes for women wanting to learn English or Polish and needing job training. Additionally, JCC Krakow has helped connect women who have been victims of sexual violence with pscyhologists trained in responding to trauma, provided free legal counseling to refugees, sent supplies into Ukraine to help civilians living close to the frontlines and assisted those fleeing with travel expenses.
The organization has taken on all those extra resources and programs while continuing its primary mission of “trying to rebuild Jewish life in a community that was decimated by the Holocaust,” Ornstein said. The nonprofit, located a little over an hour from Auschwitz, is working on growing a Jewish community, operates a preschool that was the first Jewish preschool to open in Krakow in almost 70 years and cares for Holocast survivors — many of whom have told Ornstein that “they suffered and they are so proud that we now as a community are trying to alleviate the suffering of others.”
“We have to not be silent,” Ornstein added. “We’ve learned the lesson of the Holocaust, not to be indifferent, not to be silent when others are suffering, and we have the responsibility to do all that we can.”
“We have all we need”
The palace has fostered new connections among the dozens of refugees staying there, who moved in as strangers and have built their own sense of community — a “beautiful community,” Ornstein said, after being ripped from their normal lives.
While adjusting to their new stage of life, families have ventured to a local zoo, taken advantage of a computer lab set up in the palace, shared meals with community volunteers and sat in on a music workshop geared toward kids.
“It’s something really remarkable to go there and visit,” Ornstein said. “There’s a warmth there and an energy there that’s fantastic to connect to.”
And it’s a place that has cradled Baklanovski and her parents, offering them a new sense of safety since they came to terms with their decision to leave Ukraine. There, they struggled to access food and medication for Baklanovski’s father while he contended with a heart problem. Meanwhile, she lived in fear of being assaulted by Russian soldiers.
“We are happy (at the palace),” Baklanovski said. “We have all we need. We have good people.”
The family — who brought with them little more than some clothes, a computer so that Baklanovski could study, passports and medical and education documents — tries to keep themselves busy within the palace and throughout the grounds. Baklanovski and her father have helped keep the palace clean. The teenager has also spent time practicing her English and assisting palace staff from JCC Krakow with distributing donations among palace residents. Her mother used to hole herself up in the palace kitchen to cook alongside other refugees. But during the last few weeks, she’s been recuperating from surgery after a health scare with her intestines.
The three are relieved, acknowledging that had they stayed in Kherson, where Russians control health services, Baklanovski’s mother could have easily died.
“She is smiling,” Baklanovski said during the Zoom call — a nod to her family’s optimism even as they know they can’t return to their home any time soon. Apart from Baklanovski’s plans to study psychology at a university in Krakow this fall, her family’s future holds little clarity. She recently moved into an apartment in Krakow with her boyfriend. Her parents will continue to live at the palace.
Jolanta Koziol, who is working on a contract with JCC Krakow, is one of the palace staff members who has helped shoulder the anguish and grief of refugees like Baklanovski and her parents. The Polish resident originally thought much of her support would center on the basics as she gave families food and a place to sleep at night. She quickly learned they needed so much more as they tried to navigate life in a foreign country and make sense of the tragedy they escaped.
Koziol turned to Facebook to ask for donations of bicycles and sewing machines. She also plopped a trampoline outside the hotel, introduced yoga and brought in a psychiatrist for refugees, doing whatever she could “to activate them to feel that they are really alive and that they are able to take control over their lives, that they have some … kind of influence on their own decisions and lives,” she said.
A psychologist explained to Koziol that during the first couple of months, every war refugee is like a child “that needs to be taken care of.” Over time, they need to be nudged to make decisions about how to move forward, she said, noting that many refugees living at the palace feel “frozen.”
While trying to comfort refugees, Koziol has had to steer some difficult conversations, confronting families with the possibility that their country might be in turmoil for years and helping them hatch a plan to survive.
“What can we do?” she asked. “What can be done (so) that our lives go on?”