Former exchange student returns to Poland amid Russian invasion of Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees flock to Poland to escape from Russian aggression


Wiktoria Ludwiczak

Wiktoria Ludwiczak and fellow journalism student Giorgia Scordato visit San Antonio restaurants. Scordato had recently moved to the U.S. from Italy.

Emma Siebold, Editor-in-Chief

Wiktoria Ludwiczak hates tomatoes with a passion.

But as she sat in front of her host family’s television on Feb. 24, 2022, she couldn’t help but think about the taste of authentic zupa pomidorowa, traditional Polish tomato soup.

At the time, Ludwiczak was a junior exchange student from the small Polish village of Rzeczków staying in San Antonio.

But her mind was elsewhere: Back home in Poland, which shares its eastern border with Ukraine. That day, Russia launched a large-scale military assault against Ukraine, escalating the conflict between the two countries and creating Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.

“I was really worried,” Wiktoria said. “The first thing I did was turn on the TV. I stayed up watching YouTube videos and talking to my parents all day because I was so stressed. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

As the war in Ukraine approaches the 12-month mark, reports state that over 7,000 Ukrainian civilians and 13,000 soldiers have been killed in the conflict. The United Nations has reported that more than 8 million people have fled to other European countries, such as Poland.

Wiktoria returned home to her parents, Aneta and Adam, in March, just three weeks after the initial Russian invasion. Despite continued Russian aggression in Ukraine, fervor of the war has died down in Poland

Wiktoria Ludwiczak
Wiktoria Ludwiczak visited the United States as a junior in high school.

However, people in Poland are still feeling the effects of the war as the refugee crisis continues. When Wiktoria returned home, her village had a few more residents.

“I have about 10 Ukrainians in my house,” Wiktoria said, just two weeks after returning home in late March. “Since the refugees started coming to Poland, people actually started helping everybody. All the people in my village started coming, asking if we need something, like food or bikes for the kids. That’s amazing. I think people just want to help.”

Ludwiczak decided to become a foreign exchange student through Greenheart Exchange to improve her English and gain new learning opportunities. Upon arriving, she played tourist, visiting a few San Antonio staples, such as the River Walk and the zoo.

On her first day at Smithson Valley High School, Ludwiczak was surprised at how big the school was — especially the football stadium.

“The school was huge and there were a lot of people,” Ludwiczak said. “I met so many nice people. When I saw all the football fields, I was like, ‘That’s amazing.’”

She said she was surprised by what she called the school’s “cowboy culture.”

“It was totally different, and that was the thing that I most wanted to experience,” Ludwiczak said.

During her time in Texas, Wiktoria played on the junior varsity tennis team and signed up for Jason Gonzalez’s Principles of Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security course.

Gonzalez’s class is an introductory course on criminal justice, which aligns with Wiktoria’s dream to become a lawyer.

“Wiktoria was a very bright and respectful student,” Gonzalez said. “Wiktoria was always the first person in class and always said ‘Goodbye’ at the end of the class day.”

As she continues her journey in studying law, Ludwiczak lives by the notion that there are “no bad people — there’s just people who get lost in their life.” And she wants to help them get back on track.

Wiktoria met one of her current best friends, Swiss exchange student Karolina Miszkiewicz, in her journalism class.

“We were there for each other in tough times,” Miszkiewicz said. “So it was easier and she’s a really good friend to me now.”

Wiktoria and Karolina’s friendship surpassed international barriers — the two recently spent time together in Poland, and Wiktoria will visit Karolina in Switzerland later this year.

There are no bad people. There’s just people who get lost in their life

— Wiktoria Ludwiczak

Miszkiewicz found the separation from her friends and family to be the hardest part of the exchange program.

“The most I missed was my friends and family,” Miszkiewicz said. “Just to be with them and spend time together.”

Ludwiczak initially found Texans to be much more welcoming and generous than Polish people. But then she returned to her home country, and she saw how her neighbors uniting to help the refugees flooding into the country.

“I think our community welcomed them really nice, and they’ve been invited to many events,” Ludwiczak said. “We’re glad they’re here and will help them for as long as they need.”

Back in Rzeczków, Wiktoria is attending a night school to further her English proficiency, while also learning a bit of Ukrainian from her refugees in her hometown.

At long last, she finally has what she missed most while being in the states — zupa pomidorowa. She still really hates tomatoes, but there’s just something about the soup that dulls their flavor and brings out the taste of home.

It’s her grandmother’s recipe, but her mother makes it. And according to Wiktoria, it’s the best.

Published for “San Antonio Express-News” on November 18, 2022