Durango artist Suzanne Horwich didn’t expect Ukrainian refugees to have such a strong impact on her. But after spending a week with them making art in Poland, she plans a return visit in July.
On her first trip in May, Horwich had a red suitcase filled with art supplies – watercolors, pastels, markers and beads – that she wheeled into a courtyard in Krakow near the site of a refugee relief operation. She organized art stations in the courtyard – an “invitation to play or create,” as she called it.
Hundreds of refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly, lined up every morning to receive food and supplies from the relief site. She could see the interest on their faces and invited them to join her at an art station.
But interest wasn’t the only thing she noticed.
She said women carried a burden on their shoulders because their husbands were often either fighting, being held captive or dead. Mothers smiled as a sign of reassurance for their children, but it was obvious they were trying to keep it together inside, Horwich said.
“These women are in a completely new country with their children and often with their own mothers,” she said. “There are hardly any men.”
Children made art with Horwich while their mothers waited in line for food and supplies, she said. The mothers joined the children after they left the line and would sit and create art for hours.
“Sitting with other women and creating and offering them coffee and listening to music together and laughing – they would come back day after day,” she said.
Horwich organized her first trip in May through the Jewish Community Center Krakow. She originally planned to keep the refugees’ art to make an art installation. But she found many of the refugees didn’t want to part with their art, so the installation never came together.
“It wasn’t feeling right: ‘Hey, let’s create, and now I’m going to take it away and hang it in a building,’” she said.
Horwich is still interested in the possibly of creating an art installation on her next trip, but her primary focus will be using art as a vehicle for healing.
The most important thing for the refugees, aside from emergency services, is returning their sense of dignity, she said.
“Of course these people are victims. But we have to start looking at these people as humans and return their dignity,” Horwich said. “It’s so important for them to move forward and succeed.”
Horwich set out for Poland to make a positive impact on the refugees who fled Ukraine. But she didn’t realize the impact they would have on her.
After a day of painting and creating she would return to her hotel room and cry. She said she wasn’t moved by sorrow but by an “overwhelming appreciation for resilience.”
She met other humanitarian aid workers during her stay. She recalled meeting a group of Canadians who had volunteered to fight with the Ukrainian military.
Refugees showed her cellphone footage of their escape from Russian troops with gunfire audible in the background.
She met a man who decided to escape Ukraine along with his daughters. When Horwich asked the man why he left instead of staying to fight as other men had, he told her he was afraid for his daughters because of reports of rape committed by Russian soldiers.
A 17- or 18-year-old woman told Horwich that getting on buses to make it across the border to Poland was “awful” because people were told they couldn’t bring their pets, and they had to leave other belongings behind.
“This one family in particular spent seven hours driving through Ukraine trying to avoid Russian checkpoints,” Horwich said. “They said the only reason they got out was it was raining and their papers weren’t checked, and they made it to the border.”
Horwich made art with refugees and handed out art supplies for them to keep at three different locations during her weeklong stay. Two locations were in Krakow, but a third was located at the Palace of Paszkówka, also known as the Palace of the People, outside the city that housed 40 Ukrainian families living together as a community.
She said a Denver businessman, an American Hollywood actor and JCC Krakow pitched in to rent the palace for the families, although she couldn’t recall the actor’s and businessman’s names.
“As I continue to explore how this program can assist people, I’m sure it will change,” she said. “But it’s still really the general idea of art being the vehicle to deliver the healing.”
Horwich leaves July 11 for a two-week trip to Krakow, Poland, she said. She started blogging nightly about her experiences while there the first time and plans to keep that up. Her blog can be found at http://www.artistsgivingback.org/.