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The most important thing is awareness: to feel needed
Interview by Miłosz Horodyski

Janina Ochojska - brilliant humanitarian activist; founder of The Polish Humanitarian Action; organizer of the first Polish mission in Kosovo, Chechnya, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Darfur and the Palestinian National Authority.

Do you often watch the stars?

Janina Ochojska - brilliant humanitarian activist; founder of The Polish Humanitarian Action; organizer of the first Polish mission in Kosovo, Chechnya, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Darfur and the Palestinian National Authority.

Do you often watch the stars?

Janina Ochojska: As a qualified astronomer, too rarely, I think. Once I dreamt I'd watch them every day, I dreamt I'd be a researcher in a secluded observatory. And this is how I imagined my life. When I read about some great astronomical discovery, I wish I was there, but I've already come to terms with it. Astronomy requires constant attention, keeping up with novelties. I obviously cannot do it and sometimes it's difficult for me to understand what happens in contemporary astronomy. I have this feeling that I'm doing something sensible in my life. I feel needed because I do something that others were not able to do. As an astronomer, maybe I'd find a trace of a super new phenomenon, but I wouldn't have met so many people in my life who were worth lending them a helping hand.

How many such people have you met?

Ochojska: More than the number of stars in the sky, for sure. But you get bogged down in details. In fact, numbers don't count. That's only statistics. 20 years of activity, 42 visited countries, missions in South Sudan, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, or in Palestine, 400 families injured in the earthquake in Haiti who, thanks to us, aren't homeless, thousands of people who got our help in Japan and Libya. Schools, wells built, many educational programs, such as education for girls in Afghanistan or vocational education in South Sudan. In general, we're a small organization, but many people have gained our help which gave them independence. We can quote more data, but this is not what it is about. Not the scope. I've just come back from Kesennuma, Miyagi, where we reconstructed the kindergarten which had been destroyed by tsunami. And the joy of those children, the gratitude of that community... These were first two reconstructed buildings. I felt proud that we, Poles, can do something like this, that we gave those 20 children something they will remember for the rest of their lives. A nice, colorful, safe place. And this is important.

Does this need of helping others come from the fact that you yourself know how important another person's help is?

Ochojska: That's true. The way how life has treated me since I turned 5. Perhaps not many people know that since I was a child, I've been disabled, I've gone on crutches so I've always needed others' help. Back then, I did not walk at all. There were no wheelchairs at that time. And I always had to deal with difficult situations. The sense of being close to another person during difficult moments is something that you can't put a price on. I experienced this when I went to university and got involved in the Student Ministry. I realized my existence makes sense when it is an existence for other people. In the long term, living for yourself doesn't bring happiness.

Why did you decide to look for people in need so far away?

Ochojska: The distance doesn't matter. It is an issue of secondary importance. I just wanted to show the world what kind of people the Polish are. And to show to the Poles themselves that they can be citizens conscious of what happens in the world, conscious of their own moving force to change the world for better. I wanted to show that they can make the dreams about a better world come true. We have a massive potential as a nation, but unfortunately we don't make use of this capability. This awareness is still not strong enough. Many changes can be introduced both in Poland and around the world as long as we change our attitude, once we understand that the shape of this world depends on us. Whoever we are, wherever we are. Whether we are tall or short, the disabled or the able-bodied, red-haired or dark-haired - each of us can do some good in the world. But unfortunately, the awareness of our own potential and the knowledge about the world is still not strong enough.

And you want to change this, don't you? Do you think you'll succeed?

Ochojska: I am conscious that if the Polish Humanitarian Action that I created did not exist, aid in Poland would spread between a couple of minor organizations. So thanks to the fact that we are together, we have managed to have an impact on how development help is provided by Polish government. This is also very rewarding for me. I have a rather strong character. If I want something, I can make it happen. Managing people, which is very important in such an institution, interests me more on the level of involving people into something. Doing something together, arousing enthusiasm, faith that we are able to actually do something. I was worried that my health wouldn't allow me to be as active as I used to be. I was in South Sudan last year and I thought that it'd be my last time, but this year I've managed to do it again. So I hope it will continue to last a while...

It is perhaps because it's fun to travel? Maybe that's where this enthusiasm comes from!

Ochojska: This is not a never-ending vacation as some would like to think. Chechnya or Bosnia during the war are the last places that tourists would venture to visit. Even today when you say 'South Sudan', you can hear that it's still very dangerous there. We started organizing trips to help war victims. I couldn't send a convoy to Bosnia or Chechnya while I stayed at home. There were gunshots there, it could have been very dangerous. The help that we offer countries that suffer from wars or disasters or countries with extreme poverty cannot be thought of in terms of a 'nice trip'.

You could have lost your life.

Ochojska: You could. There was one moment when I regretted it was over. Our convoy coming back from Sarajevo was shelled. We rolled down the precipice, but one car stopped at a stone just above the precipice. It was a miracle. Not even two months later, about ten Frenchmen rolled down this very precipice. No one survived.

So you say it was a miracle?

Ochojska: Heaven's in us. Miracles happen. Life is a miracle. I just make use of this gift called life. Everyone wants to be happy. But you have to create your own happiness. I don't mean my life is a series of successes; I went through difficult moments, too. I had polio, or infantile paralysis, when I was six months old. I spent my whole childhood in hospitals and sanatoriums among disabled children. If someone sobbed because they missed their mum or because of pain, that person was called a cry-baby. And he or she stopped crying. But when the horrible problems with my spine started, I was adult already. No one in Poland wanted to operate on me. They considered my case as not holding any promises. Now I have a steel spine which has been completely stiffened. But even with such a spine, or maybe because of it, a lot can be done. I am very happy about this position that I found myself in by doing what I do. People look for excuses for why they are suffering from a disease. Instead of asking 'Why?', it's better to ask 'What can I do about it?' Sometimes I even joke that it's easier for me because I have four legs and thus I have a more stable hold on earth.

Is it easier to help when you have a big institution behind you?

Ochojska: That's true, I do manage a 70-people-strong company. Additionally, we hire local workers. But I started from nothing. I wanted to send a convoy to Sarajevo. I felt the need to do something for the people and for the country, ravaged by war, that was not so far away from me. First, I went there with the French. And I just couldn't leave and forget about everything that I saw there. However, I didn't know from where I'd get the people, trucks, money, gifts, and even how I'd get there... Whenever I was asked about this, I replied 'I don't know,' but I knew I had to it. As it turned out, believing that I could it - it was enough. I took the first step: I told thousands of listeners of Polish Radio Program 3 that I wanted to send a convoy to Sarajevo and I got everything I needed. A month was enough to organize a convoy of 12 trucks. We took journalists with us. We got to Sarajevo and the rest was just the consequence of that action. There I started to feel that I have been called upon to do something, that there is a mission I have been entrusted with.

Did you start to feel the calling?

Ochojska: I wouldn't say it's a calling. I just feel called upon. And there is a difference because it doesn't come from me. I started to feel that my life isn't aimless, I am called upon. I'm trying to respond to this calling. I was chosen the Woman of Europe by the European Union. This was also the sign that I should continue what I've been doing. There has to be a reason why someone is offered such possibilities. Sometimes when I think about it, I'm filled with terror what an enormous responsibility this is. But responsibility isn't something that you should be scared of. You must think about your ideas, desires, and bring them to fruition. I think about helping in such a way as to create for others the conditions for their independent development. In other words, I don't want just to give, I want to help them develop. For example, a well - one of many which we've been building in Africa - means access to water, but at the same time the water facilitates development in many different fields, from agriculture to education and health. Thus children, instead of carrying water, they go to school, so the influence on a person's life is massive.

Did you know since the very beginning how to help?

Ochojska: I'm not a smart aleck. I learnt everything while organizing PAH (Polish Humanitarian Action). Some time ago I didn't know the mechanisms that caused famine around the world. I thought these countries were not developed enough to deal with it. Now I am conscious of the whole structure of factors, such as the lifestyle in northern countries - we have a negative affect on the life in the South. I realized this not so long ago.

What is the most important thing in providing help?

Ochojska: Something which can seem a discrepancy: you have to be both empathic and assertive. Only a person who is empathic can sympathize with and understand the situation of the people in need, to establish contact with them. Providing aid cannot be unilateral, you have cooperate with those we intend to help. At the same time, you have to be assertive because sometimes you have to make choices. These are very difficult choices because they are often life-or-death choices.

Have you ever been in such a situation?

Ochojska: Once I had to make such a dramatic decision. When we were leaving Sarajevo, a woman with a child got on our bus. When I arrived at a stop, she had already been sitting there. She believed we'd take her away from Sarajevo, but I had to throw her out of the bus because I knew that at the next checkpoint the Serbs would pull her out and rape or kill her, or both. Besides, I knew if we tried to take anyone away from Sarajevo, we wouldn't be allowed to come back anymore. It was horrible. This woman was kneeling on the snow, embracing my legs. This was one of the most dramatic experiences of my life. But I knew I had to do it. If I hadn't been assertive, I could've said to myself 'I'm saving this woman. Maybe I won't save her because the Serbs might kill her, but I'm taking the risk.' This would have meant the end of any further help, no entrance to Sarajevo. I don't know what happened to this woman. I tell this story to young people who want to work for us, so that they understand that when, for instance, they see a group of ragged children in Sudan, that they won't necessarily be able to help them. They won't be able to feed all of them. They won't be able to pay their tuition fees. They go there to build a well, a school, to introduce agriculture programs. This is their task. We will never be able to do everything. This is what you have to learn in the course of action...

Do you feel like a modern Strongwoman?

Ochojska: I feel that my story is, despite everything, more optimistic. Though if you consider the issue of building awareness, I believe that everyone who lead normal lives, who work - they can positively affect the changes in the world through very simple actions. They simply have to be aware of this. The building of this awareness is one of our very important tasks. In fact, it is due to changes in Polish people's awareness that we were able to do so much.

How can awareness, only that, improve the life of people in Africa, for example?

Ochojska: In a very measurable way. For example, by reducing our consumption. Let's stop buying from big companies. I don't. I buy at the local shop in Kleparz. If everyone else did so, the big companies would have to take this into account. Just as they started taking into account the strength and significance of the so-called Fair Market Trade. Food production has come under control of big companies which speculate with food, they even destroy food so that the prices remain high. Briefly speaking, famine is caused by the improperly concentrated production and distribution. Food production in the world is distributed unequally. There are whole communities that have no way of producing food as they lack access to water. There is water, but it is located so deep under the ground that specialists are needed in order to extract it. If we realize what is the cause of the world's problems, such as lack of access to water or food, we can introduce such changes in our lives that in time the situation around the world will change. This time is determined by the number of people possessing this awareness.

Is the fight of an ordinary person with big companies doomed to failure?

Ochojska: Someone who has 20 PLN and wants to donate it to Bosnia won't do anything by themselves. But if there's a middleman - and that middleman collects 20 PLN from a couple thousands of people... Believe me: with little funds, everyone can change the world for the better! In the world, there is about a half of billion households which are able to support four people. If they were enlarged for two more people, the problem of famine would disappear. But it's not always necessary to think in terms of having to give something to someone. Sometimes self-restriction can also be a way of exerting influence on the shape of the world around us. Sometimes it's worth considering whether one really needs a new mobile phone every year. Do I have to live a life dominated by commercials convincing me that I will have more friends and be more popular as long as I have some incredible gadget? Whenever we buy a cheap pair of jeans, we force the countries from the South to produce them cheaply. We take advantage of those people. These are not mechanisms introduced by nature or God. It is us, humans. And it's by a minor group of us. If we are aware of this, we will be able to oppose that minority.

How much can we do on our own?

Ochojska: Quite a lot. For example, there's the matter of being wasteful. Each of us buys more than they can use. Every third Polish person admits that they throw food away. Usually, the products are bread, potatoes and meat. I think a great deal depends on the individual attitude of a person who will refrain from excessive consumption. It's enough to think a little and take a different approach to certain matters in order to change the world. For example, the money that is saved up due to this can instead be donated to organizations.

Wouldn't it be easier for you to change the world if you were a politician?

Ochojska: Politicians are bound by too many interests and are not able to do it. I don't mean to accuse anyone; I'm just stating a fact. People are the real force. It is them who have to become aware of the power they possess. A power not against politicians, because the mechanisms that lead to people dying of starvation are mechanisms that have been created by man. If I were to become a politician, I would lose my power and wouldn't be able to do as much as I do. I was offered the opportunity to join the Parliament, both the Polish and the European one. I have always turned this proposition down because I thought that this is not the way. As a matter of fact, politicians are helpless, and very often their actions are only appearances.

Have you always shunned politics?

Ochojska: I was involved in the creation of the 'Solidarity' movement. During the time of the martial law, I distributed leaflets - my disability proved to be helpful in doing that. When I was getting off a train, uniformed people helped me carry my parcels down on the platform. They didn't even know that these parcels contained prohibited books and leaflets. It was an anti-system activity that I continue to carry out to this day. Back then I also thought that we should influence people's awareness.

Do you sometimes think: 'It's too much for me to handle'?

Ochojska: You can't think like this.

Don't you ever feel depressed?

Ochojska: I don't think so. Or maybe I can't remember anything like that.

So where do you draw such strength from?

Ochojska: From work, believe it or not. When I do something which makes sense and I can see the fruits of my labor very soon - then I get that energy buzz. The fact of my disability doesn't even come into the picture. I was lucky I was brought up by the people who taught me I am just like any other person. It's just that have a certain problem. Either I accept it or not.

The rumor has it that you are very rich?

Ochojska: I've heard I have two tenement houses in Cracow. I have a palace in Warszawa, I have a mansion near Magdalenka. And I have something in Torun, I don't even remember what. A lot of real property, right? (laughter) It's a joke for me because I know what I have. I do, in fact, have a really beautiful flat and that's my life's work. I don't pay attention to rumors. What is important for me is to not to betray people's trust in me. What I do binds me to a certain set of standards. I was brought up to feel responsible for other people because of my disability. It may seem paradoxical, but this is the way I was brought up. I was in a special institution for disabled youth. I cannot do anything dishonest because it'd destroy something very crucial, something that is bigger than me. You have to be aware that if you do something there will always be someone else who will claim that I didn't something properly and that I even benefited from it. It will always be like this, so there's no point in worrying about it.

PAH (Polish Humanitarian Action) is sometimes accused of organizing help for countries wealthier than Poland...

Ochojska: Please remember that it's not like we, as PAH, say: 'We want to help Japan', we organize some money and we give the money to Japan. We say: 'The catastrophe happened in Japan, we will appeal for help, since even though Japan is a wealthy state, it's been affected by a horrible tragedy. We cannot deny the gesture of solidarity.' I treated this help as a gesture of solidarity. Meanwhile, it turned out the catastrophe evoked such immense sympathy that people gave a lot of money. And when someone gives us money for Japan, we spend this money for Japan. We don't decide who we should help. We appeal, but if someone thinks this help is pointless - helping Japan, for example - then this person doesn't have to help. We do not force anyone to give their money. Everyone can appeal for help for any reason. Someone can appeal for help for the king of Saudi Arabia, and if someone thinks the kings need help, they will donate money. And if not, then they won't. I'm trying to make people realize that what we do depends, in general, on them. Of course, we get money entitled 'donation for PAH (Polish Humanitarian Action).' In such a case, it is we who decide what to spend this money on. Usually, we help fund our activities or we open a new mission in South Sudan.

Does help sometimes result in more help?

Ochojska: I think so, because the people who gather for a specific reason will always find a way to support one another. For instance, when I was in Japan, I took part in the emperor's ball, during which there was also a lottery. I won a beautiful necklace and I said: 'We'll sell it and build a Polish-Japanese well.' And already there are people who say: 'We will be happy to help you.' And again something is being made. I know that the same thing will happen after my return from South Sudan or Somalia. I'll in Somalia for the first time - we founded there a mission at the end of last year. So it'll be my first time seeing this new place where our help will be of a completely different nature than the one in South Sudan. Although we're building wells in both Somalia and South Sudan, the conditions differ. In order to reach water sources, wells in South Sudan need to be as deep as 350 meters, but in Somalia it is only around 80 meters. So every time I confront the local reality, regardless of whether it is South Sudan or post-flood areas in Poland, it gives me so much energy to act and help those in need. I'm not the kind of person that gets depressed because of the extent of damages.

You were never depressed, but where there any failures?

Ochojska: When it comes to humanitarian aid, you always feel unsatisfied. You can always do more, for more people in need. It is a kind of failure for me that we only managed to raised 40,000 PLN for Libya. We analyze such failures, we look for possible mistakes, so that we can avoid making them in the future. However, there has never been a case where we started doing something and it ended in complete failure.

July 7, 2012
Photos by Waldemar Kompała


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