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Stories of those escaping the war

Stories of those escaping the war

Earlier we wrote about the pilgrimage center supported by Caritas-Spes Mission in western Ukraine, which became a new temporary home for many IDPs. The Center started working on February 25, on the second day of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, and people who heard the first explosions immediately began to come here. The life of the Center was filled with people and their stories, and at the same time with the experiences of the employees doing their work almost non-stop.

We talked to the manager of the pilgrimage center Oleksandra, vice-director of Caritas-Spes of Lviv Archdiocese Fr. Mykola Biskup and the cook of the Center Mrs. Orysia about what gives them strength to continue to provide comfortable and quality living conditions for internally displaced persons for so long, what stories impressed them personally and how our Mission keeps in touch with those to whom it extended a helping hand.

Oleksandra is from Lviv and works as a manager at the pilgrimage center. She deals with registration and resettlement of internally displaced persons, as well as coordinates the distribution of humanitarian aid. Today only 40 IDPs stay in the Center, but during the first months of the war 350 people lived here at the same time. There are also those who have been living here since February 24. Those people who voluntarily decide to return home continue to receive humanitarian aid (FI) from our Mission by mail for some time. Oleksandra shared that such support is essential for many people, because after returning to their native village, people face a striking increase in prices, moreover, the lack of some goods in stores. The team also responds to requests from people to help with food for their relatives who were forced to stay at home.

"Now there are people who left the Center for Chernihiv and Kharkiv  in June. We communicate with most of the people who left. There are those who went abroad, for example, and then came back, because they had to solve their problems with documents," Oleksandra said.

"A family from Kherson region, whose daughter was born two weeks before the war, went to Poland. A mother, a daughter with a small baby, two younger brothers and a sister have been living in the Center since April. The girl, who was born before the war, literally grew up before our eyes. They also periodically return to solve their problems with documents. The younger sister went to school, so she stays here. But there are also people who try to live abroad and then return to our Center because of the difficulties they face". 

Some of the people who lived in the Center got paid jobs here. For some time, for example, there was a need for waiters, so the residents willingly offered their skills. In times of war, it is important for IDPs to have an income. For some it is an opportunity to save, for others - to help their relatives financially. The residents of the Center were also actively involved in the work on a voluntary basis. In addition to the staff who worked here permanently, about 20 people consistently helped to clean the kitchen, rooms and yard. The men were very helpful in unloading the humanitarian aid.

Mrs. Orysia, who lives in Briukhovychi and has been working as a cook in the pilgrimage center for more than a year, shared her impressions of the IDPs' willingness to help:  

"From the very beginning, we had a lot of work in the kitchen - too much for four workers, and I still don't know how we coped with such a load. There were so many people that we did not know the exact number and just cooked huge pots. We just knew that we had to feed people, so we got up earlier and left later to get everything done. People were constantly coming up to us, offering to clean food, cut, wash dishes. We even made a duty schedule, because everyone could not fit in our kitchen.  I communicated, got acquainted with people, they themselves came, asked how they could help. With such people we will definitely win," summed up Ms. Orysia.

Now 40 people live in the shelter. The trend of settlements and requests for accommodation decreased by the end of the summer, as people began to return home. The total capacity of the Center is 150-160 places, but in March-April 350 people lived here. According to Oleksandra, people were everywhere. It was the time of a massive "wave" of resettlement from Mariupol, Bucha, Irpin, Lysychansk, Kyiv and the region. For six months, the Center received from 8 to 10 thousand people, according to the manager's rough estimates. It is difficult to determine the exact number of people, because most of them were in transit. Some came here for one night to wait for the morning bus, warm up and get some food, some stayed for a couple of days or a week. Now the Center is ready for winter, although a lot of money will be spent on heating.

Oleksandra shared a story of how she accompanied 16 IDPs abroad to Switzerland on her own. The manager recalls that it was like a journey to nowhere. Oleksandra was with people everywhere: together they changed 14 trains, together they calmed seven children on their way and took care of the elderly, together they walked around the cities. The girl then took on a great responsibility - to deliver people to different destinations. Everyone who was leaving already had certain agreements with the hosts, but it was important to make sure that these places were safe.

"A family from Mariupol, who lost everything, lived in our Center. There were six of them. I understood that they would not be able to provide for their family outside the Center, and their children needed education and a future. For obvious reasons, they will not return to Mariupol in the coming years. We were going nowhere. I took responsibility for all the people, because they did not know the language and had no money," Oleksandra shared.

"We went to a refugee shelter, filled out documents, and then had to wait for a week until we were redirected to another canton in Switzerland. In Montreux, they were given a nice room with a kitchen and money to live on. We still keep in touch online and congratulate each other on holidays. They live near beautiful lakes, have good conditions and send us photos. The family is learning Swiss and English. I know that they are doing well, and I am very happy about it.

At that time it seemed to me "on emotions" that I was omnipotent and could help everyone. In times of large influxes of people, I confused night with day, because people were constantly coming to our center, and they had to be met. I never experienced burnout, but over time my strength began to decrease. There are fewer people now, but the consequences of the previous months are felt."

According to Fr. Mykola Biskup, a lot of people are still stressed every day. Although the workers of the Center cover the basic needs for shelter, warmth and food, the need to feel safe for some people remains unmet. People continue to be alarmed by news and photos from their home regions where active hostilities are taking place. Many of them are in great need of psychological assistance in order to take the war and its consequences at least a little easier. 

Psychological work is conducted with all the residents of the Center in the format of individual meetings with psychologists, the opportunity to join the spiritual life of the Center, art therapy and events for children. According to Fr. Mykola, employees and seminarians who actively communicate with people, do not impose God on people, but express their ministry.  

Every day we serve Liturgy for everyone in the chapel. All residents also have the opportunity to talk to spiritual fathers, who often replace psychologists.

 "I am a psychologist myself and I consult with my colleagues on how to work with people with traumas. Statistics show that a minority of people who have experienced such stressful events have post-traumatic stress disorder. I observe that people cope with all this themselves, but it is very important to be close to the person, listen to them, give them time," said Fr. Mykola

"When talking to a person, I try to help them find some good in this despair. I often ask what helped them to survive among all the events, who was around them. When a person begins to look at their situation from a different perspective, they begin to understand their strengths. Of course, it is not about helping to forget. Such things can never be forgotten. But we help people to move on with their lives."

28 September 2022
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