Jackson Township’s Joe Palmisano embarks on his own refugee mission
JACKSON TWP. – Joe Palmisano didn’t want to go.
The semi-retired business owner was enjoying life with his wife, Kirby, and their two rescue puppies.
He was still recovering from 39 rounds of radiation for cancer.
But on March 19, Palmisano found himself on a flight to Warsaw, Poland, to help Ukrainian refugees.
He had no connections, or even a plan for that matter.
“I knew I had to go,” he said. “There was such a pull to go there. There was no doubt that I had to be there.”
After arriving in Warsaw, Palmisano rented a car and drove four hours to Medyka, Poland, where the majority of Ukrainian refugees pass through. He rented an efficiency apartment.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there,” he said. “I knew I was going to do something. I needed to help.”
Palmisano said that night he encountered a half-mile stretch of shacks 10 miles outside Medyka, a village in southeastern Poland where refugees could get hot meals, baby clothes and supplies, and where he met volunteers from all over the world.
“There were a lot of Americans,” he said. “I met a man from Cincinnati.”
“It was 95% women and children.”
He returned the next day and borrowed a shopping cart from a nearby grocery store. He drove the cart over the border to a small village in Ukraine where buses and vans were dropping off refugees for the half-mile journey to Poland. From there they would be shipped across the continent.
“It was 95% women and children,” Palmisano recalls. “They didn’t know where they were going.”
He used a translator app on his phone to communicate and assure them he was not a human trafficker.
He loaded their luggage into the cart.
“I made a vow to them to stay with them no matter how long it takes,” he said. “I stayed with them until I got them on the proper buses. It became my mission. From what I saw, I was the only person doing it.”
Palmisano said he also gave each family he helped $50 in American money.
“They didn’t want to take it, they’re very proud,” he said.
In total, Palmisano estimates that he made around 15 trips and helped guide a total of around 150 Ukrainians to Poland.
“I stayed with them throughout their journey,” he said. “There were two things that happened beyond baggage. One is trust. The other is love. I know what I was doing was so unique that I couldn’t have been there. to think.”
Palmisano, who underwent his last radiotherapy in February, said he did not take his health into consideration when he left for Poland. He returned on March 30.
“It only occurred to me after I got home,” he said. “There were days (after) when I couldn’t walk.”
Worrying about your safety at home
Kirby Palmisano admits she was worried her husband was going to a foreign country where he didn’t know anyone.
“Once he was there, I was relieved,” she said. “He sent me pictures.”
“I promised her not to go to Ukraine,” her husband said with a laugh.
Kirby Palmisano said she wasn’t exactly surprised the promise was broken.
“We’ve been married almost 41 years, I know him now,” she said with a smile.
Palmisano said the refugees shared heartbreaking experiences. News reports document detailed cases of rape, looting and alleged mass murders of unarmed civilians by Russian soldiers.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 11 million Ukrainians have fled their country, with around 5.3 million people passing through neighboring countries.
“They were going through everything,” Palmisano said. “The men couldn’t leave, remember. There were a lot of tears. I spoke to a mother and her daughter who were buried in their basement when their building blew up. They were more worried about me. They were so strong and grateful.”
“They said they preferred to die at home.”
Palmisano noted that in two cases he helped two women over 70 to return to Ukraine.
“They didn’t want to leave the house; their families forced them to leave,” he said. “They said they preferred to die at home. It changed my life.”
Palmisano remains in regular contact with at least two refugee families who emigrated to Italy. He and his wife also provide them with financial assistance.
“We were hoping to bring them in, but there’s too much paperwork,” he said. “The Italians have been hospitable.”
The Palmisanos are co-owners of Captive Radiology. Palmisano has also spent decades in sport, including coaching football for 18 years. In 1992, he started the Malone University football program which, much to his disappointment, was arrested in 2019. He coached the team for two seasons, amassing a 9-9-1 record.
A native of North Akron, Palmisano graduated from the University of Iowa where he played football. He also coached at the University of Akron as a scouting coordinator, wide receivers and defensive secondary coach, and as a defensive coordinator.
Palmisano was also an assistant coach for the now defunct Canton Legends arena football team and worked for years as a broadcaster at WHBC radio.
In 2019, Palmisano traveled to China to compete in an international Kung Fu competition, where he won two gold medals.
“I was more afraid to go to China than to Ukraine,” he recalls. “But the average people were welcoming. It’s the same in Poland and Ukraine. What it taught me is that there really are no barriers except the ones we put up.”
He describes himself as apolitical.
“I see us all the same,” he said. “We all have different cultures, but 99% of who we are is the same.”
Palmisano said the experience in Poland and Ukraine was life-changing and that he and his wife would travel to the region once the war is over to visit families who have become friends.
“What’s important to me is how can I help people? ” he said. “It’s amazing that this is happening in 2022. I don’t think the majority of Russians would support it if they knew about it.”
“It was absolutely God leading me.”
Palmisano thanks God for sending him to Poland.
“I fought the idea,” he said. “I was fighting against myself. I feel like it was absolutely God leading me; not only leading me, but helping me find my (mission). If I couldn’t do what I I was doing, there was no point in me being there. Deep down, I knew my job was to build relationships.”
Palmisano, who has been successful in life, said he also plans to increase his reach here.
“We are comfortable, but comfort is not where God wants us to be,” he said.
He urged people to start helping others where they are.
“Find a good local organization,” he said. “If you can’t do anything for Ukraine, find people who need you.”
Contact Charita at 330-580-8313 or [email protected]
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP