72 hours in Poland: A personal perspective on why CUs must be financial first responders during the Ukraine War

Signs showing Poland’s solidarity with Ukraine are featured across the country.

A noise on the street outside made him flinch suddenly. I hadn’t even noticed the noise and he looked at me apologetically: “it’s the war.”

This was a few minutes into my interview with Mr. Z, president of one of the largest credit unions in Ukraine. Over the age of 60 and thus not under the same military conscription orders as younger men in Ukraine, Mr. Z had been able to drive across the border to meet with me in Rzeszow, Poland. A short summary of our conversation is available on World Council’s Global Credit Union Podcast. The real takeaway from this encounter with Mr. Z and other Ukrainians I met in Poland, is that we must not grow numb.

My meeting with Mr. Z in Rzeszow.

My translator for the journey was Alice, a young Ukrainian woman who came early and well-prepared for every meeting. She was articulate and precise in her calm explanations of the heart-wrenching stories of personal resilience and the adaptation of credit union employees, as reported by Mr. Z. Behind the scenes, I learned that she and her husband were both from Kharkiv, now a well-known scene of carnage and destruction from the intense battles in eastern Ukraine. Their family members had fled, some living with Alice in a small apartment in Europe, while she had found others a place to stay in other towns.

Her in-laws, both doctors,  chose to stay in Kharkiv. She regularly checked her app to monitor explosions–marked in real time in a bright red color on a map of Ukraine. Her mother kept asking to return to her flat in Kharkiv, the only place she knew as home. But Alice had cautioned her to accept that home would not be there—that it was better to accept that fact and move on. As a younger generation Ukrainian, Alice admitted, she can say this. For her parents’ generation, it is simply unconscionable.

An official perspective

Meeting with Oleksandr Plodystyi (second from right), Ukrainian Consul General to Gdansk.

“We are 57 days at war,” began Oleksandr Plodystyi, Ukrainian Consul General to Gdansk, Poland, in a presentation to me two days later at the Sopot headquarters of the National Association of Cooperative Savings and Credit Unions (NACSCU). He laid out sobering facts about the war’s impact and costs in terms of death, displacement and economic devastation. Plodystyi told me nearly 2,000 Ukrainian civilians had been killed by Russian forces, with another 500,000 taken from Ukraine to Russia—more than 150,000 of them children. He also described the physical devastation, noting the Russian military had destroyed:

  • 300 bridges
  • 324 health care facilities.
  • 300 kindergartens.
  • 99 schools, with another 1,042 damaged.

All the devastation has caused an economic loss for the country of more than $600 billion to date.

The 24/7 news cycle is an unending stream of images, facts, figures and horror stories unimaginable in today’s time. Time has a way of normalizing and numbing us to the raw shock of human atrocities and devastation that is war. The worst outcome is to sit back and watch from afar. The disaster unfolding before our eyes, live wired on social media, can render one helpless. My trip to Poland last week was a stark reminder that we can and must continue to act, even as days and months drag on. Leadership is action, not position.

Credit unions assist refugees

Kasa Stefczyka’s Corporate Branch Lobby in Gydnia.

“What do I put for home address?” the call center operator asked a manager at Kasa Stefczyka, the largest credit union in Poland. Located near Gdansk, where a small Ukrainian refugee population is growing daily by the hundreds, the manager quickly identified a solution—finding a temporary residence to use for the refugee in question. In the two months since war started, Kasa Stefczyka has hired a few Ukrainian-Polish speaking operators and added over 500 Ukrainian refugees to its membership. I was struck by the all-hands-on-deck-solutions-team at this credit union.

Kasa Stefczyka created an application to allow any of its members to donate to Ukraine with one click. It added a web page in Ukrainian language for refugees, so they know how to apply for credit union membership, receive loans and access housing. Facing a growing housing shortage, the credit union repurposed one of the business premises it owned into residential apartments to house refugee families, one of whom had 15 family members.

There are countless other examples I could name of the heroic efforts that volunteers in Ukraine and Poland are doing to support Ukrainians in this crisis. Not many of us have the opportunity to experience firsthand, as I had last week, such personal accounts of heroism and leadership. But we each have the opportunity, in one way or another, to act. Our objective at World Council in the coming months is to create a channel for sharing information and mobilizing the collective action of our global credit union movement to support Ukraine.

Nearly 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced over the last 60 days—six million of whom remain in western Ukraine, where credit unions are uniquely positioned to help communities host new members, rebuild and recover. We must not grow numb as the days drag on, nor resign ourselves to the thought that there is little we can do to help. On the contrary, my travels this week proved that there is much we are doing and more we should do as individual people and as a movement to ensure the survival and recovery of the Ukrainian credit union system as first financial responders.

In the last of our 36 hours in Rzeszow, I met two United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA) representatives who were part of the humanitarian cell, or rented workspace, that the UN offers non-profits and humanitarian workers in town. I started to explain what World Council does and one of them stopped me, nodding knowingly that she knew all about credit unions. She was, in fact, a longstanding member of Van City in Vancouver, Canada.  This is a nice surprise I find frequently in my encounters with people—a personal connection to our work. I had the great fortune to meet everyday leaders like this on every day of the trip, in big ways and small.

These connections are all the more reason World Council is in a prime position to leverage money, people, talent and networks to do global good. As my new UNOCHA friends reminded me, Ukraine is unfortunately not the only crisis where human suffering is acute, where food security and violence are life-threatening risks and where financial support translates into life or death. Let us not grow numb to any crisis nor forget that this is the history of why credit unions exist. I am proud to work in service of so many everyday heroes and leaders who are making a difference.

Elissa McCarter LaBorde

Elissa McCarter LaBorde

Elissa McCarter LaBorde began serving as World Council of Credit Unions’ President and CEO in August 2021, bringing more than 20 years of experience leading organizations in delivering financial services ... Web: https://www.woccu.org Details