Leverett couple, descendants of refugees, heading to Poland to help those fleeing Ukraine

  • Dean and Annette Cycon, pictured in their Leverett home, are heading to Poland for a two-week humanitarian trip to assist Ukrainians fleeing the Russian military invasion. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Leverett resident Dean Cycon checks the GoFundMe campaign to help Ukrainian refugees in his home office. The campaign had raised more than $88,000 as of Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Annette and Dean Cycon, pictured in their Leverett home, are heading to Poland for a two-week humanitarian trip to assist Ukrainians fleeing the Russian military invasion. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Dean Cycon in his Leverett home. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Leverett resident Annette Cycon points to a picture of her mother, Wanda Kokurewicz, from World War II in Poland. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Annette Cycon with a Polish banner in her Leverett home. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2022 10:05:59 AM
Modified: 3/18/2022 10:05:19 AM

LEVERETT — Annette and Dean Cycon were taking their morning walk a couple weeks ago when Annette told her husband she wanted to go to Poland to help Ukrainians fleeing the Russian military invasion.

“Oh, thank God,” Dean replied. “So do I.” Dean founded Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Co. in Orange in 1993 and has built the business around humanitarianism.

It’s been full steam ahead since that Monday after the invasion’s launch, and the Cycons are headed to Poland on March 17 for a two-week humanitarian trip to assist those in need. The two are flying into Warsaw and heading south to Krakow before taking a train to the border town Przemysl. The Cycons said representatives of World Central Kitchen, a not-for-profit non-governmental organization that provides meals to those affected by tragedy, told them they will be assigned responsibilities after they arrive.

“This is not ‘The Dean and Annette Show,’” Annette said. “It’s not about us at all.”

The Cycons are renting rooms while they stay in Poland. They will be accompanied by Nadya Tkachenko, a holistic health provider and Montague mother of four. She is a native Russian speaker because she was born and raised in Kazakhstan and her father is Ukrainian. They will also be joined by Jamestown (R.I.) Fire Chief Jim Bryer Jr., who has the highest credentials as an EMT.

The two have set up a GoFundMe page (bit.ly/3IfHHQm), “We’ll Deliver Cash Directly to Ukrainian Refugees,” which had raised more than $88,000 as of Wednesday afternoon. Dean said he and his wife — who speaks Polish because her mother was born there — plan to identify a quality local grassroots organization on the ground in Przemysl and donate the money via cash or wire transfer. He also hopes to connect with locals to establish a way to stay involved after he and his wife return home. The two believe donors have been particularly generous due to this area’s high concentration of Americans of Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish and Russian descent.

But charitable efforts are not new to the Cycons. Annette co-founded MotherWoman — now known as the Women of Color Health Equity Collective — and Group Peer Support, a trauma-responsive support group. Dean, who throughout the 1980s worked as a Providence, Rhode Island-based lawyer advocating for the rights of Indigenous people, especially in South America, founded Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Co. in Orange in 1993 and has built the business around humanitarianism. He has traveled around the globe offering development and crisis support to coffee farmers, and has been an election observer protecting the democratic process in Guatemala. Three years ago, Dean’s Beans won a Flourish Prize, a global award given to the company in recognition of its work toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in eliminating poverty.

But this humanitarian crisis is more personal to the Cycons, both descendants of European refugees.

“It was like a pull through my DNA,” Annette said of seeing television images of Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country. “I just can’t stand it anymore.”

Annette’s mother, Wanda Kokurewicz, was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1929. When World War II started, Wanda’s father joined the Polish government-in-exile in London, after alerting the family the Nazi invasion was coming. They fled to a family home in Lithuania, where they spent the first year of the war.

However, Annette said, the Soviet army came to the home, arrested the men, and took the women and children to a work camp in Siberia. Wanda, then 12, happened to not be home at the time and was left in Poland. Two years later, in 1944, she was part of the Polish resistance that fought the famed Warsaw Uprising to try to save their city. Like most girls during this effort, Wanda served as a courier, carrying grenades and messages past Nazi soldiers in the street.

When the uprising failed, resistance survivors were sent to German death camps. Wanda, however, was saved by the Red Cross because a resistance leader convinced the organization Wanda was the daughter of her own elderly mother who needed medical care.

Wanda’s father got her out of Poland in 1945 with false identification papers in a secret convoy. She joined other Polish refugees in London, married, had a son, and then immigrated with $300 to Canada, where Annette was born in 1958, and then the United States.

“I am taking this trip to the Polish border to honor my mother’s courage and also that of the people, whom I will never know, who saved her life countless times. If it had not been for their courage and compassion, I and my own daughters would not be here today,” Annette wrote in an email. “If I can do the same for another woman and child, then I will have served my purpose. My Polish is rusty, but I’m sure it will all come back quickly once I’m surrounded by my mother tongue.”

Annette’s other grandmother, Helena Kokurewicz, and father, Jerzy, also fled a Russian invasion of their home in eastern Poland. Helena served as a spy and carried intelligence over the Polish border, and the two were captured by Nazi soldiers and sent to a prison in Hungary. They were there three months until they were put on a train to an undisclosed German death camp. Helena asked the prisoners to give up anything valuable — gold rings, teeth, coins sewn in the hems of their coats — and bribed their German guard to let them all escape off the train in Vienna.

On Dean’s side of the family, his grandmother, Sarah Golembi, was a 6-year-old in 1906, when their family fled the massacre of Jews in the pogroms (violent riots) of what is now Belarus, and made it to Ellis Island. The Cycons named their daughter after Dean’s grandmother.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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