“We work on ourselves in order to help others but also we help others in order to work on ourselves.” — Pema Chödrön, American Tibetan Buddhist

As inflation negates wage gains, civil rights are revoked and political and institutional arsonists work to burn down American democracy, it’s easy to forget that Ukraine is on fire.

John Wiercinski has a message from Ukrainian refugees in Poland: Putin is still trying to erase us.

“The thing I heard most was, ‘Please don’t forget us,’ ” John said, quoting Ukrainians he met over nine days as a volunteer in Poland.

“I told them, ‘I consider it my mission to help people not forget about you. That’s one of the reasons I’m here — to share your story, to share who you are. I’m here to share not only your sadness, but your strength and your resilience.’ ”

On Tuesday, John shared all of the above with me so I can share it with you.

John, 60, is a retired hospital administrator. Three of his grandparents were born in Poland, the fourth was a child of Polish immigrants. Moved by the Polish people’s generosity toward Ukrainian refugees, John felt compelled to help.

“I always profess to tell people, ‘Never miss an opportunity to make a difference in somebody’s life,’ ” he said. “I have this thing that I share with my students and my children, ‘When you have more than you need, build a bigger table, not a higher wall.’

“If I’m going to be a man of my word, I can’t just stand around saying, ‘We should do something.’ I’ve actually got to do something.”

What John did was email Jacek Majchrowski, the mayor of Krakow, Poland. John listed his credentials and offered to help in any way he could. The mayor replied, putting John in touch with a refugee relief program director. Soon, he was booking a flight to Krakow.

John checked in at a hotel near the train station, where most refugees arrive in Poland’s second-largest city. Shortly after the war began, Poland was absorbing more than 100,000 fleeing Ukrainians a week. The flow slowed as Ukrainian army victories inspired some to return home. Recent Russian gains sent a torrent of refugees pouring back to the border.

“All these people were asking, ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ ” John said. “ ‘We’re being slaughtered, our families, our children. It’s indiscriminate. There’s no conscience. There are no rules of war. The Russians are just killing indiscriminately. Why is this happening?’

“I didn’t have any answers for them. All I could do is see if I can try to make a difference in the world for a small period of time.”

John worked at a refugee center distributing food, clothing and blankets. He soon connected with a 22-year-old Ukrainian man named Sasha. A university student who fled the heavily shelled city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, Sasha speaks Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and English, which made him invaluable as a volunteer.

“The U.N. finally said to him, ‘We’re going to put you up in a flat for a month or so, and you run this refugee center,’ ” John said. “They paid him a nominal fee to be there, but he just texted me today and said, ‘This ends in two days. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ ”

Polish officials and volunteers work hard to ease the uncertainty that torments refugees, John said. The first step is bringing some stability to the chaos that replaced their daily lives.

“The train stations are packed with volunteers and signs welcoming the Ukrainians,” John said. “They are welcomed with open arms and given directions on how to access someplace to stay, how to access food, how to access clothing. If they need a SIM card, they’ll give them free SIM cards for their phones.

“It was amazing to me, the generosity of the Polish people. They really opened up their borders and their hearts and their homes.”

John said he saw a poster in Krakow bearing the Pema Chödrön quote at the beginning of this column and immediately understood he and his fellow volunteers were living its message. The work gave him a new perspective on what “freedom” means outside the American experience.

“We’re thinking about our wants. These people are thinking about their needs,” John said. “We’re thinking about what type of car we want to buy. They’re thinking about bread and water and shelter. They’re thinking about being bombed or shot to death, about keeping their families safe, keeping their children alive.”

And they’re determined to defeat Vladimir Putin’s barbaric campaign to erase them.

“The resilience of these people just touched my heart,” John said. “You don’t know how you’ll respond until you’re attacked. They’ve been attacked and their response was to stand together and fight for their homes, for their country, for each other.

“We had that feeling after 9/11. The country came together because we were attacked at home.”

We’re a long way from there right now. America has never been more divided and the gulf seems to widen by the day. We’re too busy making war on each other to remember why America is worth fighting for, too distracted to follow the example of patriotic refugees and the neighbors who open their hearts and homes to strangers in need.

“When I was leaving, I went to a local market and bought all the women that were on the food line with me a sunflower,” John said. “They were so touched. They said, ‘You truly understand. Please tell America not to forget about us.’ ”

While we’re at it, let’s remind ourselves to remember America.

Chris Kelly is a columnist for The Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pa.

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