Ukraine parish becomes reception centre for refugees
22 MARCH 2022, THE TABLET
People seeking help from Fr Draus’ church generally came from Kharkiv, Kyiv and Sumy, cities heavily bombed by Russian forces.
A parish in western Ukraine has transformed itself into a reception centre for hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing the conflict that has created Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
In the first three weeks since Ukraine’s invasion by Russian forces on 24 February, “about 2,000 people have passed through our church,” Fr Grzegorz Draus of St John Paul II parish in Lviv told The Tablet by phone.
The church, which lies 45 miles from the Polish border, is providing beds, food and showers to up to 200 people a night, as well as offering a kindergarten and access to a psychologist.
Fr Draus said he and a team of around 30 volunteers had converted his church rooms and halls into accommodation for the mainly women and children arriving, most of whom were headed to Poland. Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 are required to stay in the country to fight, although a volunteer said that men with more than three children under 18 are exempt. Some 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
People seeking help from Fr Draus’ church generally came from Kharkiv, Kyiv and Sumy, cities heavily bombed by Russian forces, the Polish-born priest added. He and his volunteers provide people arriving at Lviv’s desperately overcrowded railway station with advice, and details of families in Poland with whom they could stay. “I met a mother with a two-month-old baby at the railway station,” he said. “Russia is fighting against children. It is not army against army.”
Mother-of-two Natalia Karpenko reached the church with her nine-year-old son and two-month-old daughter Anastasia by bus from their home in the Boryspil region near Kyiv. She said she planned to stay in Lviv in the hopes that the war would not last long. “I fear losing my husband, losing everything. I fear what the future holds,” she said. “We live for today because we have only today.”
A 16-year-old schoolboy, Kyryl, told The Tablet he fled the south-eastern city of Dnipro with two school friends and their mothers by car, but left his parents and elder brother at home. “For my parents, moving to another country or city is a problem,” he said, adding: “It’s real bad that I need to leave my country; I hope the war is stopped in months or weeks and we can come home.” When he spoke to The Tablet he had spent two nights at the church, and two days later he had left for Poland, where he hoped to enrol at college. He said his 28-year-old brother “is ready to start with the territorial defence but these people who want to sign up are so many … [and the authorities want] people with experience”.
Natalia Lysiuk, a self-employed English tutor from Lviv who has joined the church team of volunteers, said the people staying in the church were “disorientated; they don’t know what to do, what to eat, where to sleep, or what the next day will bring. Most of them are absolutely lost.” The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need has provided more than £1 million to priests and Sisters across Ukraine, including Fr Draus, to support people affected by the war. His church has also received donations from the people passing through their doors, and individuals, churches and charities in Ukraine, Poland and Hungary.
Meanwhile, on his return from his second visit to the Ukraine, Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ, the Prefect ad interim of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told the German Catholic podcast Himmelklar: “I personally did not experience anything similar to what has been shown in the media. No chaos, no overcrowded camps. People have been heartily welcomed everywhere. In most places their reception was very well organised but at the same time quick. It was both humane and competent.”