Unable to Return to Ukraine, US Teacher Helps Refugees in Poland
Hands-on aid and praying the Rosary guide Nick Koeppel’s efforts and those who volunteer with him in Krakow.
After spending the Christmas holidays in his native St. Louis, Nick Koeppel, 30, was eager to get back to his new home and friends in Ukraine.
But just 10 days after returning to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where he worked as a university instructor, Koeppel had to leave again after the U.S. State Department advised American citizens to evacuate because of a possible Russian military attack.
“The Ukrainians didn’t think an invasion was going to happen,” he said. “We all thought it was just the news hyping things up a lot. I was shocked that it actually happened. But it was definitely the right move to leave.”
As the war between Russia and Ukraine has stretched to almost two months, Koeppel doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return to Lviv, but he believes God is using him while he’s living about 200 miles away in Krakow, Poland.
Dividing his days between teaching his Ukrainian students remotely and helping to provide relief to some of the thousands of Ukrainian refugees flooding the city, Koeppel spends his evenings praying the Rosary for Ukraine with refugees he lives with at a religious community, along with Ukrainians in Lviv and others in the U.S. who join on Zoom.
Going to Poland wasn’t Koeppel’s plan, but he feels fulfilled and happy serving.
“I’m working part time, volunteering the other part of the time. … I’m happy. I’ll see how long it can continue, and I’ll see what God’s will is for me after that.”
More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the conflict began on Feb. 24, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. More than 2.8 million have sought refuge in Poland. According to another source, refugees account for a 20% increase in Krakow’s population of 770,000.
After earning a master’s degree in marriage and family studies at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria, Koeppel taught English to Ukrainians over two summers before being offered a position at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv last fall. Teaching mainly English courses, he also offers an elective class on the theology of the body, Pope St. John Paul II’s teachings that give an integrated vision of the human person.
When he heard about the evacuation advisory, Koeppel considered going to Poland on his boss’ recommendation, but he went to Rome first, planning to teach there remotely, as the university had resumed classes. Feeling far away from the Ukrainian situation, he traveled to Krakow after a few weeks.
“There weren’t a lot of refugees in Rome, so I felt similar to how I would feel in America,” he said. “By living in Krakow, I feel like I’m able to be really close and hands on in helping refugees.”
Until now, the region around Lviv has not been as directly affected by the war as the eastern part of Ukraine. The city has drawn thousands of refugees from other parts of Ukraine and currently has a housing shortage, Koeppel said. Several times, air-raid sirens in Lviv have forced him to stop classes as students went to bomb shelters.
When Koppel isn’t teaching, he’s helping to stock or purchase food, hygiene or clothing items for the hundreds of refugees who come to one of two distribution centers in Krakow each day. He finds the process “really fulfilling”: to take a donation and procure needed items — and then see refugees select those necessities from the distribution centers.
With housing in short supply in Poland, some refugees have been sent on to other countries. Overall, Koeppel said he has been amazed at how the Polish people are assisting the refugees.
“They have a lot in common. Their countries are right next to each other. Their languages have a lot in common.”
In the evening, Koeppel returns to his home in Krakow: a community of about 30 Ukrainian refugees and Polish students run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. He often has dinner with the refugees, who are nearly all women and children. A February declaration by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy bans all male citizens age 18 to 60 from leaving the country while it remains under martial law — at least until April 26.
The children especially miss their fathers, Koeppel said. “Where I live, I’ve been talking to a 13-year-old girl who’s there without her dad,” he said. “Just being there for her to talk, I think that’s a good thing.”
Some community members and the religious sisters come together after dinner to pray a Rosary for Ukraine that Koeppel started when the war began. University instructors and others in Lviv, as well as several Americans, join them on Zoom.
The Ukrainians, both in Krakow and Lviv, are grateful for the prayers for their country, he said.
“A lot of them are bogged down and sad because of watching the news,” Koeppel said. “Even watching the news in Ukraine, learning about other cities in Ukraine. It’s really discouraging, so praying together, praying the Rosary is something that can really lift people up and be a positive force for good.”
The Rosary decades are prayed mainly in Ukrainian, Polish and English. Sometimes priests either in Lviv or in St. Louis join the Rosary and offer a blessing.
While he’s in Eastern Europe, Koeppel has temporarily stopped leading another Zoom Rosary he started in 2020. Participants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico keep it going.
Koeppel hopes to get back to his friends and students in Lviv soon, as he’s already planning to stay another year in Ukraine. But while he’s in Krakow, he continues to offer support and friendship to Ukrainians who are away from their homes.
“They really think victory is possible,” Koeppel said. “They’re definitely praying for that, hoping for that.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
To assist the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in providing housing for refugees, to contribute toward the purchase of food and hygiene items Nick Koeppel helps distribute to refugees, or to get a link to join his Ukraine Rosary on Zoom, email him at [email protected].
Koeppel has been accepting donations through PayPal on his account “[email protected].” To make a credit-card donation, email Koeppel the amount of the donation, and he will send an invoice.
More ways to help can be found here.
- susan klemond
- church in poland
- archdiocese of krakow
- ukraine war
- Ukrainian refugees
- polish religious