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As Ukrainians flee, Caritas seeks to respond to emergencies and prepare for the future

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Photo courtesy of Caritas Poland

I.Media - published on 05/16/22

Ukraine's nightmare: 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced, the cost of reconstruction is currently estimated at $600 billion, and 116 churches have been destroyed.

“The war will not end with a simple peace agreement,” Caritas officials explained. In the context of trauma that will scar millions of Ukrainians for life, local branch heads said that “souls and memories will have to be healed.” The heads of Caritas Ukraine and Caritas Spes, organizations linked to the Greek Catholic Church and the Latin Catholic Church, respectively, detailed the operations of their organizations since the Russian offensive began on February 24 in a press conference held at the headquarters of Vatican Radio on May 16.

More than 14 million people have had to leave their homes, one third of the Ukrainian population.

This war has caused population movements on a scale not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War. More than 14 million people have had to leave their homes, one third of the Ukrainian population. As many as 1.8 million of the refugees are children, said Aloysius John, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis. Ukraine is living a “nightmare,” he said, adding that the cost of reconstruction is currently estimated at $600 billion and that 116 churches have been destroyed.

The Caritas network has been mobilized in Ukraine but also in neighboring countries, where “women and children easily become victims of human trafficking,” he said. John also stressed that the whole world is beginning to suffer the consequences of this war, with difficulties in food supply, the energy crisis, and the risk of a global recession.

Furthermore, the increase in military investment will come at the expense of social spending and attention to other crisis situations in the world. “The poor will pay the highest price,” warned the Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis.

Caritas leaders at a press conference on May 16 at Vatican Radio headquarters.

Healing wounds and preparing for the future

Father Vyacheslav Grynevych, president of Caritas Spes, an organization linked to the Latin Catholic Church and headquartered in Kiev, acknowledged that it is “difficult to share the truth, all the facts,” in this context of a war on the ground which is also a war of communication.

Beyond the emergency, he is also mobilizing his teams for long-term aid, noting in particular the challenge of getting children into school. “Who will be our doctors, our teachers, our leaders in the future?” he asked, noting that the war has marked a new break in education, adding to the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

But he also noted the tremendous momentum of international solidarity, as well as the creativity of Ukrainians themselves. Displaced persons sometimes take on volunteer services and show great leadership abilities. Father Grynevych expressed his amazement and admiration at the “flexibility of the human soul” demonstrated in particular in the Kiev metro, where an underground city has been set up to protect itself from the bombing. Efficient logistics have been organized for food, hygiene and medicine – even film screenings are offered.

“Solidarity is everywhere” and is an “expression of dignity and love” that allows “restoring people’s integrity in the face of the chaos, destruction and death” caused by the war, explained Tetiana Stawnychy, secretary general of Caritas Ukraine, which federates the Greek-Catholic dioceses and whose headquarters are located in Lviv, in the west of the country.

She said that the organization ensures the safety of its staff and applies very precise security protocols, with the experience of eight years of work in the war zone, in the Donbass, where services have always been maintained on both sides of the demarcation line. However, regarding the bombing of a Caritas office in Mariupol – which occurred in mid-March but was revealed almost a month later – no investigation could be conducted on the ground. The strike killed seven people, including two employees and five members of a family who had sought refuge in the building.

Massive mobilization in neighboring countries

In total, more than 1.2 million people have been taken care of by the services of the two Ukrainian Caritas branches in 50 centers. Aid operations are considerable in neighboring countries, notably in Poland, where 1.5 million meals have been distributed to more than 500,000 people from Ukraine. Mobilization is also strong in Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Moldova and Hungary. More distant countries are also beginning to be involved in the reception of Ukrainian refugees. This is notably the case of Bulgaria, where 2,000 refugees have benefited from the support of the local Caritas.

He made us feel that we are not alone, and this is the strongest message I want to take to Ukraine.

During a meeting with Pope Francis at St. Martha’s House on the afternoon of May 15, Caritas leaders in Ukraine were able to present their operations to him, which show a “Church on the move,” explained Father Grynevych. He explained that the pope had expressed “great support” to them and that he had returned to his meeting with Ukrainian children being cared for at the Bambino Gesù hospital. “He made us feel that we are not alone, and this is the strongest message I want to take to Ukraine,” he said, recalling the importance of international mobilization and saying that the Pope had blessed their efforts.

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