Anna Hoyt, left, and her mother, Barbara Kucharska, hold a box of Ukrainian prune candies Hoyt was given in June, a gift of gratitude from the refugees she was helping support with $10,000 she brought to Ukraine’s neighbor and her home country, Poland. Hoyt said all the money she brought was raised in the Saranac Lake area. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)
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 off a Russian invasion of their country and helping four Ukrainian siblings — refugees living with a family in Warsaw — settle into a new life in a new country as theirs was torn apart by war.
This was the second time since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February that Hoyt has flown to Poland with a wad of cash for Ukraine. She said all the money she’s brought over has been raised in Saranac Lake. She’s been amazed by the donations coming in from friends, friends of friends and people she doesn’t even know in this “tiny community in the Adirondacks.”
When Hoyt visited her mother in Warsaw to celebrate her mom’s 90th birthday in March, she arrived on the 13th day of the invasion. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees were crossing into Poland every day at the time. In the hurried two days before she left, her students at Fitness Revolution in Lake Placid raised $2,000 for her to bring. She bought medicine, bandages, clothes, drinks, headlamps, candles and food on that trip.
In the eight weeks between that trip and her trip in June, Hoyt said people gave her more than $10,000 to bring over. Ten thousand dollars is the maximum amount of money that can be brought from the U.S. to Poland before needing to declare the cash at customs. The rest of the money over $10,000 she gave to Father John Yonkovig at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, who is sending money to organizations in Ukraine.
Hoyt said because she was bringing cash and had connections in Poland, she didn’t lose a penny to operational costs.
It was not hard to find places to spend the money, she said. She got connected to a network of organizations and charities supporting refugees and soldiers.
Hoyt said she knew more this time and after doing her research, knew just how to spend the money.
On this visit, she said the food need was much more serious. She bought large quantities of food, clothes and laundry detergent. These supplies were loaded into vans and transported to Ukraine.
Hoyt helped load a car with a Ukrainian woman who has been living in Poland for five years. This woman drove the car to her home village in Ukraine to deliver aid to the people living and fighting there.
She said the supplies being sent to Ukraine are now more directly related to the conflict. Blankets and towels went to hospital beds, adult diapers were provided for injured 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 on the front lines to hospitals. She said there is a big need for these vans, because they keep getting destroyed in combat.
Hoyt said Ukrainians she spoke with feel they have been relatively successful fending off the Russian invasion of their country.
“As much as any small country can be successful against that humongous power,” she said. “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 has changed.
“In March it was frantic, helping (refugees) who were getting to Poland. Now, it’s more stable,” she said. “It is dawning on people that it is much more permanent, both to Ukrainians there and Polish people who are helping.”
But she also said aid has leveled off. After months of intense efforts in Poland to give refugees homes and support the Ukrainian military, all while worrying that the conflict will cross their border, people seem tired, she said.
Making a difference for a family of refugees
More than 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled through Poland and around half of them have 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 took four siblings in to live with them: Katia, 13, Kostia, 15, Liza, 17, and Ania, 28.
Their mother and oldest brother are still in Kiev — the mother is a paramedic and her 22-year-old son is “fighting age.” These four siblings left their country because Ania needs a kidney replacement and if she doesn’t get 7-hour dialysis treatments three times a week, she could die.
“The decision to leave was made within 15 minutes,” the Sterniccys wrote in a letter to Hoyt.
Ania is on a list for new kidneys, but first, she needs a full health check-up. She can get most exams through the Polish health system, but dentistry needs to be done through a private practice and is expensive. Hoyt helped fund a dentist appointment for Ania so she can get the surgery she needs.
Ania is a fan of Formula 1 racing. Katia cooks and paints. Kostia skateboards. Liza studies film, gastronomy and English.
Katia and Kostia are preparing to attend Polish schools in September, but they do not speak the language. Hoyt helped pay for Polish-language summer classes for them so they can study in school.
All the while, she said, the Sterniccy family is trying to create some “normality” for the children.
“They try to find themselves in a new reality, among new friends who do not understand their language, in a strange house without their mother, their own favorite clothes and cuddly toys,” the letter from the Sterniccy’s to Hoyt reads. “It is difficult for them.”
Hoyt gave them some money for a camping trip. The Sterniccy family said they hope this will allow the siblings to “feel like children and do not think about the fact that the war took their childhood and home away from them.”
Hoyt said there are not many refugees coming from Ukraine to Poland anymore.
There are still many people living in the western part of Ukraine, further away from the fighting, she said. Many of these people fled eastern Ukraine and want to stay in their own country, she added, but they do so as domestic refugees. It is still not safe, even in the Western part of the country, which has seen recent deadly attacks.
“There is no safety,” Hoyt said.
But the eastern and southern portion of the country is a “totally destroyed warzone,” she said.
Hoyt grew up in Poland under the Russian regime. When the country gained its freedom in 1990, she moved to Lake Placid to open a Polish store. Her whole family still lives in Poland.
She said the invasion of Ukraine is familiar to Polish people, but the response from the global community is different this time.
“Poland was in a similar situation in 1939, the exact same situation, and nobody helped,” Hoyt said.
Her mother, Barbara Kucharska, remembers World War II. She was 7 years old when Poland was invaded and 13 when the war ended. Kucharska speaks Polish, so Hoyt translated for her as she described 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 Sept. 1, 1939. People fled east to escape the war, Kucharska said. Then, on Sept. 17, Russia invaded from the east. The people of Poland were pinned and became refugees within their own country, seeking safety wherever they could find it.
Kucharska said she witnessed horrible things — bodies flattened by tanks and buildings collapsing on people hiding inside. Kucharska said they felt hopeless because they didn’t think the world could help.
Poland had treaties with England and France, but these countries did not immediately provide aid to Poland, she said. Help took a while to come. The U.S didn’t help until after the war, she said.
Today, Kucharska is proud of Poland’s help for its neighbor, Ukraine. She said the country immediately opened its border for refugees and that it has opened its infrastructure and transportation to bring help from around the world to the front lines.
Poland is Ukraine’s neighbor and its closest NATO member, she pointed out.
“They are not left alone like we were during the war,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt said there are currently many U.S. troops in Poland, indirectly supporting the fight. She saw all sorts of giant planes bringing tanks, military equipment and supplies from Poland to Ukraine. She said this keeps Ukrainians’ will to fight high.
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