Catholic aid agencies in Ukraine offer support and witness courage of people

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In Ukraine Catholic aid agencies together with other partner humanitarian organisations continue to provide essential food and medicine for the people of Ukraine. 

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in particular is the lead agency coordinating help to some of the millions of refugees and internally displaced peoples.

ICMC Secretary General, Msgr. Robert Vitillo, recently returned from a visit to the war-torn nation together with representatives of the Catholic Health Association of the US and the Knights of Columbus, all providing life saving medical supplies to the nation’s hospitals, food and shelters.

During his visit, Msgr. Vitillo paid his respects to the many who have been killed and visited with families grieving the loss of loved ones. The psychological traumas suffered are immense, and now also a priority area of the outreach efforts, as he desribes in the following interview.

Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Secretary General, International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) during his visit to Ukraine in March 2023

Interview with Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) based in Geneva, Switzerland

Q: Tell us about your recent visit to Ukraine….

We arrived in Lviv in the western part of Ukraine. The purpose of our visit was a second solidarity visit to our Church partners in Ukraine to let them know of the concern and the care that we have as the International Catholic Migration Commission. And also since I convene the Catholic response for Ukraine working group, the care of all of those who are involved in that working group.

We were accompanied by an official of the Catholic Health Association of the United States who has been helping us to identify medical supply needs and also medicines that are needed, identified by our partners in Ukraine. And on that case, we also have been able to put together container with one million dollars in medical supplies that will be leaving the Unites States very soon, and we’re partnering with the knights of Columbus in Ukraine to deliver those materials and those medicines to both Catholic hospitals and government hospitals that need them.

Q: What did you witness and what stories did you hear during your visits with the people?

We started in Lviv in the western part of Ukraine. One of the first visits I made was to the LvivCemetery where I saw 300 new graves of fallen soldiers. And that was a very, very difficult and sad experience for us. We also brought our solidarity to mind, not only with those who have lost their lives, but then with their families and so many people who grieve their loss, also a huge loss to this society and Ukraine because these are mainly younger men who would be important contributors to society in their country of origin.

We also worked together with the Greek Catholic Seminary in Ukraine for ICMC to fund training on mental health and psychosocial support for the seminarians. And this same training is being replicated in all of the seminaries of Ukraine both in the Greek Catholic and the Latin Catholic seminaries.

The purpose of that training is to help seminarians become sensitive to the emotional needs of people in general, but especially those who are affected by a terrible war. Many times people in Ukraine go first to the priests, they trust the priest and they’ll discuss things that they see as spiritual needs, but they’re very much affected also by emotional reactions and traumas from the war. And sowe wanted to help the seminarians recognise these needs and know how to respond and also know how to recognise those needs that they cannot handle themselves, but need to refer to professional psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers.

I attended one of those trainings and I was very much deeply touched by the reactions of the seminarians, their goodwill in wanting to be able to listen to the people and yet also their hesitancy and their fear because they wanted to be sure that they wouldn’t make the people’s problems worse. And so we had long discussions with them about how best to approach those needs and how to be sensitive to them, but also how to refer those situations that need to have more professional psychiatric or psychological care.

Q: What you’re doing is also thinking in terms of long term and helping people cope with the traumas they’ve experienced. How does this work in a context where the war is ongoing and,unfortunately, where there does not appear to be a horizon for peace in the near future?

Well, first of all, we have to stay focused on wanting  peace to come quickly and yet if it doesn’t come quickly that there will be increasing pressure and emotional impact and social impact on the people. And so it is important to be sure that the priests and people are well prepared to respond to these needs. And with many people, the sense of faith is still very deep in Ukraine. And so it’s good that people will reach out to the priest, but we want to give them the skills to help the people in the best way possible.  At the same time, they are struggling with the constant bombardments that come at any time, and you can’t prepare for them very well, We also have to take into account the social and the economic impact on the country.

But we saw many signs of hope among the people. we saw people really being involved in trying to help those in need, even those who are in need themselves are helping others. And as I went to many parish churches where a lot of these counseling programs are are being supported. I saw that the parishioners were very much involved in feeding programs for the displaced people in collecting clothes and other basic needs for them, hygienic needs, medicines, medical equipment. Even the displaced people  were responding to the needs of others. And so I see that as a sign of hope because it develops strength and it also helps people want to see an end to the war. Being involved both in praying and action that’s going to eventually help the Ukraine come out of the war and build itself into an even better country than it was before they were attacked.

Q: If you were to make an appeal now, especially after your visits there, what would it be?

The appeal first is for prayers because only God could really help us solve this situation of unjust aggression in a country, but only God can help us do that. So we need to have prayers. We also need prayers for the strength and the resilience of the people. They have amazing resilience in Ukraine, but they need to be able to prepare themselves for the long haul. And then also it’s to support the efforts that are going on. I’m amazed at the local Church efforts in Ukraine. As one who’s the head of a global Catholic organization, I thought that we would have to send in staff, send in experts, but I saw that was not necessary. There are well prepared experts, both in the psychological and the mental health areas and even in the response areas, humanitarian response. But they need help to pay people’s salaries to get extra goods that are not available in Ukraine right now and to know that people care about them. So our charitable efforts are still much needed and wanted in Ukraine and the people constantly expressed their gratitude for those efforts during my time there. Finally, we have to help them still look at the long view and begin already to prepare for development and for rehabilitation of the infrastructure in the country. I have no doubt that the Church will be a very, very important strength as those efforts will be necessary once peace is established.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add about your work assisting all people in recovering from the traumas they have experienced?

Another thing that ICMC has become involved in is partnering with the Knights of Columbus on making possible intensive trauma treatment to returning military and their wives and their family members. I visited one of these sessions. They’re scheduled in three weekend intensive sessions, and they really work on helping the returning military to be able to express their pain, to express the horror that they were involved in and to reestablish the family links once they’re coming back home to their families. Many of the staff told me that it was very difficult because the men kind of closed in on themselves and therefore, were not so available to the family that needed them so much to return home to them, both emotionally and physically. I listened to some of the discussions that were held during this intensive treatment program. And I was very impressed with the experts that came to help facilitate these programs. A number of them are priests, they are professional psychologists, but they also have brought in some experts to give them extra training on trauma treatment. I’m very pleased that we could be involved in something like that to be able to assure not only a reentry of military but a real integration within their own families.

I think the other thing is just to say that I was extremely impressed with the engagement of the bishops that we invited and whom we visited in the many dioceses as we rode from Lviv to Kyiv. They’re directing engagement in the charitable work of the Church. In every shelter, in every counseling program that I entered with the bishops, the people knew the bishops, they respected them deeply and they really knew him as a friend and as a father to them. I think that’s very important when we think of the strength of the Church right down to the grassroots, we also have to see the strength of their leadership through the bishops and the clergy.

Q: Could you describe your visit to some of the war-torn areas, such as Bucha and Irpin during your travels there in Ukraine?

These are two cities that we’ve heard a lot about at the beginning of the war. I guess I always had in my mind that these were very far east in the country, but in fact they are ten km away from the capital city of Kyiv. As we were in Kyiv, we went there. We visited with a woman, named Olga, who had been in hiding for two weeks in the basement of the house because on her street, the Russian and the Ukrainian tanks were fighting each other on that same very small dirt road. So she hid in the basement of another house with a number of people. Each day one of them would go out to try to get supplies and the Russian soldiers would be shooting at them. At night they would have to sneak outside to try to get water from the well of the house and also to cook some things on an outside grill. But each time they felt that their lives were in danger. They spoke about how most of the people in that neighborhood of Irpin left, and they would bring food to the people who were in hiding there, just leaving their food as they left the city. Eventually, after several weeks, they decided that they needed to leave as well, and they were evacuated by the Ukrainian army.

She brought us to see a family who had lost everything that they had during that attack. They lived on a property where they had been for four generations. They had three houses on that property and all three of them were completely destroyed. The mother of the house showed me all of the destruction and was crying terribly as she said, “we’ve lost everything, we’re trying to build one of the houses back, but we have nothing anymore.” She also asked us as we were leaving her home, she thanked us for visiting her and showing our solidarity. But as we were leaving, she cried, “please tell the world what is being done to us, please tell the world.” As I looked down, I saw that she had been gardening there in the midst of burnt wood and dust all over and I could see a flower blooming. That gave me a sense that there still is hope even in all of this destruction and all the more why we need to pray for God to help us find the ways of peace and development once again in Ukraine.

We also visited Bucha’s seminary, the Roman Catholic seminary that had been occupied by the Russian soldiers for several weeks. The spiritual director of the seminary told us that he was there when they arrived and also when rockets sent mortars into the seminary grounds. He showed us the holes that were made by the mortars and showed us some of the shrapnel and the metal from the mortars. He told us that he was celebrating Mass for people when the Russians arrived and that he found themselves very frightened, yet he stayed with the people to try to calm them and then help them find a way out of the seminary property. He told us that this was a faith experience for him, who teaches seminarians how to be compassionate and how to love their neighbors. He realized that he had not loved his neighbors enough, and so he spent the rest of the time during the occupation, and now again in trying to serve those who have needs. They have hundreds of people coming to the seminary each week to get care packages that are put together by the Knights of Columbus in Ukraine. These are things that really helped me to understand the depth of faith and how that faith can bring strength to the people in Ukraine. Their faith will also give them the resilience they need now and supply them with the inspiration of hope so that they can look to the future.