Ongoing Support: Catholic Charities Continue to Show Ukrainian Refugees the Face of Mercy
‘We’re in this for the long haul,’ in terms of physical and spiritual aid, entities promise.
The plight of millions of refugees affected by the war in Ukraine continues to be a humanitarian crisis, and relief efforts for the displaced Ukrainians, many seeking aid in neighboring Poland, continues. Two major organizations continuing to provide aid are Cross Catholic Outreach and the Knights of Columbus.
“Like everything we do, we try to do with and through the local Catholic Church and organizations already on the ground, rather than send Americans there. We empower the local Church to do what they can do better and are already doing,” Jim Cavnar, president and co-founder of the Vatican-endorsed charity Cross Catholic Outreach, told the Register.
“They and the other mission partners Cross Catholic work with know the culture, the roads, the territories,” and therefore how best to serve the needs of the refugees, Cavnar explained.
In one case, papal almoner Cardinal Konrad Krajewski of the Office of Papal Charities personally delivered ambulances provided by Cross Catholic Outreach to hospitals in Kyiv and Lviv in the name of the Holy Father. The vehicles were intended to transport both the war-wounded and refugees with normal illnesses to safely access and receive medical treatment.
Cardinal Krajewski wrote Cross Catholic Outreach: “I carry with this venerable gift the thanks of Pope Francis himself for this concrete support of his pastoral initiative and [the Holy Father] imparts to your ministry a special Apostolic Blessing for grace and divine consolation that from his heart he imparts to you and all the staff of Cross Catholic Outreach.”
Cavnar said this partnership began when several priests in Rome who work with the Florida-based organization were speaking with the cardinal and “discovered how much we have in common. Our organization is going to be related to this dicastery now.”
Cross Catholic Outreach is also providing assistance for items including generators, food and clothing. “The cardinal recently brought wheelchairs and prosthetics there,” Cavnar added, “and set up treatment and counseling for refugees.”
He explained that Cross Catholic also partners with the Archdiocese of Przemyśl, Poland, which is about 8 miles from the Ukrainian border. It has welcomed hundreds upon hundreds of refugees, many in families, at its receiving centers. With Cross Catholic’s help, the archdiocese is providing food, shelter, trauma counseling and prayer and is working to find long-term living arrangements, accommodations and employment. Parishioners also opened their homes, where 600 refugees found welcome.
In the latest July report from the archdiocese, Cavnar said that 770 refugees have been successfully relocated, some to Spain and France, and made contact with Catholic churches to find them local lodging. They have also been assisted in registering children for school.
Katarzyna Dudek, the international communications assistant in the Department of Pastoral Family Care in the Archdiocese of Przemyśl, informed the Register that, thanks to Cross Catholic Outreach, among other efforts, they have been able to run several reception centers to welcome refugees, offer free food and accommodations (where those in need can rest, take a shower and wash their clothes), help with legal matters, offer free transport to further destinations within Poland and other European countries, provide language classes, employ refugees in reception centers, and promote job searches. Medical and psychological care comes through the collaboration of international doctors and nurses.
Dudek noted that, currently, more than 1,500 people have been helped. More than half have found a home in other European countries. Natalia, a refugee and now a house manager there, said in a recent local Polish TV interview, “At our center, people have a moment to rest from the horrors they’ve been through, to assess their situation, to take time to look at their children, to call their loved ones, and to find this ‘space’ in which to think [about] what to do next.”
In the same broadcast, Oksana praised the center. “This is really a remarkable place, and the people who are helping us are doing something great, especially for mothers with small children, but for those with older ones, too. Here, I feel looked after. For the first time in five months, I slept peacefully.”
Luda came seeking refuge and medical help. She said, “I came here, and I met with so much goodness! In my entire life, and I am 73 years old, I have never met such people with such compassionate hearts.”
Father Marek Machala, director of the Family Care Department, explained: “We began by helping individuals, and we try to treat everyone as family members.”
Cross Catholic Outreach is also a member of the Caritas in Veritate organization, it’s third partner in the Ukraine relief efforts. Caritas has three relief centers in western Ukraine for refugees heading to Poland. Cavnar said, “Our funds are helping provide blankets, hygiene kits (tooth brush, wash rag, soap), food, water, powdered milk, baby formula, as well as transportation vehicles to pick up people who can’t get all the way there but are close by.” Cavnar also provided for the purchase of two ambulances for Caritas.
He shared Cross Catholic Outreach’s basic method. “We don’t consider ourselves a first responder with helicopters and staff to set up a hospital on the ground. We see ourselves as the ‘first suppliers.’ We can provide funds. … It’s better to give them [the three partners] the cash and let them buy the necessities, like the sanitary kits, and put it together in their country [which is quicker than shipping from the U.S.]. Right now, the most effective way to help them is to wire money to them,” although Cross Catholic also ships huge amounts of food to its partners.
With so much continuous need, including generators for those places without power, Cavnar hopes people will donate to help (CrossCatholic.org/Ukraine). All relief donations go directly to aid, with the mission open-ended. As Cavnar concluded, “We try to be first suppliers, and, afterwards, we look for what we can do long term. After the earthquake in Haiti, we were building houses 10 years later. We’re in this for the long haul.”
So are the Knights of Columbus. The fraternal organization rushed to aid the Ukrainian refugees both in that country and in Poland after the war began. “The Knights will be in Ukraine as long as it takes,” said Szymon Czyszek, the director of international growth in Europe for the Knights of Columbus.
“The Knights are uniquely situated to respond to the war in Ukraine,” he told the Register. Czyszek has been working closely with brother knights in Ukraine and Poland since the Russian invasion began, helping coordinate the many facets of the Knights’ response.
“When the millions started fleeing Ukraine, the Knights were there,” Czyszek said, adding that there are 7,000 Knights of Columbus councils in Poland and 2,000 in Ukraine. Right after the war began, the “courageous leadership collected $1.5 million to help people affected by the war. We collected medical supplies, food and clothes and were sending them on trucks to Ukraine — charity convoys filled with supplies.”
According to earlier reports, Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly and his family had a private audience with Pope Francis on April 11, at which the Holy Father blessed an Easter basket representing 10,000 Easter care packages assembled by the Knights of Columbus in Poland for Ukrainian families seeking refuge there and for those still in Lviv to help them celebrate Easter.
Kelly then went to Poland to visit the Knights of Columbus Mercy Centers and to deliver the care packages in person in the Archdiocese of Lviv. At that time, he said, “Today I was blessed to see firsthand how Knights in Poland and Ukraine have taken up the Holy Father’s challenge to serve others — especially mothers and children — with St. Joseph’s spirit of creative courage. Our efforts in Ukraine and Poland have only just begun.”
The Mercy Centers, which opened along the Poland-Ukraine border and at parishes in cities including Warsaw, Radom and Częstochowa, follow in the spirit of the organization’s World War I recreation huts with the famous motto, “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free.” Refugees have been welcomed with hot drinks and food. Knights and their families have kept the center well-stocked with clothes, diapers, baby formula and strollers for the families — as well as medical supplies.
By the end of May, at these Mercy Centers, “the Knights welcomed more than 300,000 people fleeing. That is 10% of the Ukraine population,” Czyszek said. “They were traveling from Ukraine to Poland in freezing temperatures.” They were able to rest and replenish in the centers.
“We also had Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy (St. Faustina’s congregation) there. We wanted to show them the face of mercy — the Knights’ charity to any people who are suffering.”
Refugees also receive spiritual care from the sisters and the presence of Knights of Columbus chaplains.
The Knights are taking another step for the long term. “Throughout Poland we have established these mercy centers in parishes and councils to help them integrate with society. We help them get out of the refugee state,” Czyszek explained. In Częstochowa, the Knights purchased equipment to set up a kitchen where Ukrainian women could cook for refugees and the local community to earn some money. Additionally, the refugees wanting to stay in Poland receive lessons in Polish.
Czyszek is inspired by the Ukrainian refugees, citing “stories of resilience and of great courage.” In one instance, he was moved as one woman, who fled from the bombs and suffering, traveled with her eight-day-old baby for five days through freezing temperatures to find refuge and regain hope.
There were many orphans from Ukraine at the beginning of the war. The Knights brought 100 children to the Częstochowa center. “These children often came from very difficult backgrounds. We see these orphans will need help in the future,” Czyszek said.
“There is a need now for even more commitment to help and support the Ukraine people,” he stressed. “The needs of the Ukraine people have not diminished, but grown.” They need help with medical care and help “with proper psychological counseling, with proper understanding of Christian anthropology.” They face the challenges of a new country and new language. There are people with disabilities and families with children who have disabilities that also need care.
The Knights are there to help, whatever the need. “In this, we want to show every life is worth living,” Czyszek emphasized. “One bishop told us the Polish people passed the test of Christian faith. In Poland we had no refugee camps, so Ukrainians were welcomed into the homes of Polish people. We have a saying, ‘A guest in the house is God in the house.’”
Czyszek shared three things the Knights ask everyone to do: First, stay informed about what is going on in Ukraine; it’s important that the Ukraine people are not forgotten. Second, continue to support them financially. “All the donations we receive for our operations funded by the Knights of Columbus go directly to the people” for humanitarian aid, he underscored. To date, the Knights have received nearly $19 million in donations (visit the Ukraine Solidarity Fund).
Third, “We ask people to pray. We all have to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people through prayer. Prayer has the power to transform hearts and minds.” He said, so far, tens of thousands of Rosaries have been prayed. Prayer is “a clear indication of another dimension of our work — a spiritual dimension.” Praying the Rosary is “a sign — we encourage people to join our prayer for peace in Ukraine.”
Czyszek finds the efforts in Poland and Ukraine trace back to Knights’ founder Blessed Michael McGivney, the humble Connecticut priest “who worked to care for the most venerable, families, women and children who lost their husbands and fathers. As we rejoiced in his beatification, we see that the work of the Knights in Ukraine and Poland shows the universality of the Knights and the mission of Father McGivney. After 130 years since his death, we see his vision and his mission is even more relevant to this day, even to the other side of the world. That is really amazing.”
Those who have seen that mission firsthand are ever grateful.
Shortly after the war began, after spending two weeks in their apartment building basement without lights and scant food, Tatiana Alexandrovna fled from Kharkiv with several grandchildren, as the Knights relate online. Arriving in the small town of Hrebenne, Poland, they were welcomed at the first Mercy Center. “I am so grateful to the people who helped us escape and to the Polish people who have received us,” Alexandrovna said.
Grateful, too, is Mammadov Sevinch, now living in Poland with her daughter and granddaughter. She is thankful for the Knights’ generosity and welcome: “The children are already attending kindergarten and schools, and we have been coming to church.”
She added, “We are very grateful that there is such an organization in the Church.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP