Restaurant co-owner Michael Mazzeo traveled to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees. This is what he saw | Berkshires Center
PITTSFIELD — Amid the streams of families fleeing war in Ukraine, there was something about this one that struck Michael Mazzeo, a Pittsfield man who volunteered to deliver relief at a border crossing.
A young woman arrived pushing a stroller with a baby, along with three other children aged 3, 4 and 5. The scene tugged at his heart.
“They came to us with next to nothing,” Mazzeo said, recalling the moment. “They had two bags of stuff. We gave them another stroller, hygiene kit and blankets. We comforted them and directed them to a bus to be relocated.
Mazzeo, co-owner of Mazzeo’s Ristorante in Pittsfield, spent two weeks in April as a volunteer with “Operation Blessing” distributing food, water and blankets to Ukrainian refugees who passed through Medyka, Poland.
From April 15-30, except Sundays, Mazzeo took shifts with the 40-year-old nonprofit, run by the Christian Broadcasting Network.
The organization has carried out humanitarian and disaster relief work in 90 countries, including the United States, according to its website.
“Operation Blessing” left its headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia on March 2 and has been in Poland ever since. In addition to relief efforts in Poland, the nonprofit has worked to get food, water and supplies to areas hardest hit by Russian artillery and overrun by Russian troops.
“CBN is such a strong organization, full of caring people,” Mazzeo said. “I saw the difference we made because CBN knows what these people are going through.”
The United Nations estimates that 4.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia invaded the country in late February. Some were experiencing full-scale warfare for the second time in their lives, having survived World War II.
“A woman I met had endured Nazi Germany when she was six, but managed to escape the horror of war early in her life,” Mazzeo said. “Now a woman who could barely walk was fleeing the war towards the end of her life. It was very easy to admire him. She had a lot of pride and was resilient.
Mazzeo said he sees between 500 and 1,000 shelters every day. Those passing through the ‘Operation Blessing’ area in southeastern Poland thanked the volunteers, he said, as they braved the cold and rain that fell almost every day .
“Our mission was to warm their stomachs and warm their hearts. We were told not to get emotionally attached to them,” he said.
Nonetheless, Mazzeo said he was moved by what he saw and realized how blessed he was, as he stayed with four other volunteers in a two-bedroom apartment for the two weeks.
“The first night I was there, I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But the refugees walked great distances in the cold and the rain, so it didn’t seem so bad to me,” he said.
Mazzeo says he’s committed to helping kids, since he doesn’t have any of his own. He said he would come back to Poland in a heartbeat. “I learned that a little goes a long way. My time there showed that I was helping people,” he said.