People walk by a church in Lviv as smoke rises after an airstrike People walk by a church in Lviv as smoke rises after an airstrike   (AFP or licensors)

As Ukraine prepares for winter, Church continues support for the displaced

In Ukraine, the population is preparing for a second winter in the midst of war. In addition to the threat of further power and heating cuts, displaced people have no prospect of returning home. As a result, they are having to reinvent their lives, often with the help of the Greek-Catholic Church.

By Xavier Sartre
Autumn envelops the Basilian monastery of Briukhovychi, around ten kilometres north-west of the centre of Lviv, in a certain torpor.

After a hectic period at the start of the war, the church, convent and seminary of the Greek-Catholic monastic order have regained their calm.

Earlier in the conflict, these large, white-fronted buildings on the edge of a forest were taking in up to 140 displaced persons at any one time. Today, there are only around sixty. The others have gone abroad, or managed to find accommodation in the surrounding area.

Andryi is one of those who stayed. Originally from Donetsk in the east of the country, with a round face and a three-day beard, he was forced to leave the region when civil war broke out in 2014.

After the Russian invasion in February 2022, he fled again, this time with his wife Tatiana, heading to the West of the country, where he joined their daughter, who had been taken in by one of her friends.

Since then, she has left Ukraine for Ireland, returning occasionally to the country to visit her parents.

For Andryi, the pain of separation is still great. Having found a job in the railways, however, he at least has a roof over his head, and can count on the solidarity of the local people.

“They treat us well," he says shyly. “I've seen that people here are more generous than back home; I could give so many examples. Even before the war, when we came to the mountains [in the south-west of the country], we saw that the people here were different, that the atmosphere had nothing to do with the East."

Yet life is far from simple, he admits, before musing: "I'd like my daughter to join us and for us to go and live in the south of Ukraine, where there's more sun and it's warmer".

Andryi with his wife Tatiana, Yulia, Daria, Victor, and Fr Francis
Andryi with his wife Tatiana, Yulia, Daria, Victor, and Fr Francis

Daria takes a risk, and agrees to answer a few questions. This young woman, the mother of a little girl, has arrived from Zaporijjia, the site of Europe's largest nuclear power station and the scene of fierce clashes between Ukrainian and Russian troops. The memory of her flight still grips her heart.

"When we left with my daughter, we were very scared, we didn't know where we would end up, whether in Ukraine or abroad", she recounts, her voice trembling. "We only had small bags and nothing else. We finally arrived in Lviv, thanks to the help of volunteers. The brothers welcomed us and offered to let us stay.”

“It was a surprise for us,” she continues, moved, “not only because they gave us a roof over our heads, but also because they gave us food and the chance to talk. They supported us and for that we are very grateful. So how do we feel? Even though it's not our town, when we’re in Ukraine we feel at home.”

Of course, she misses her old life: her home, her family, her friends. Will she stay in the West or try to return to Zaporijjia? Daria doesn't know yet, it's too soon and the country is still at war, with her town close to the front line. Her daughter is her main source of joy. She goes to school and socialises with children her own age, but above all, "she no longer has to see the destruction caused by the fighting and she doesn't have to endure too many air raids".

Two worlds collide

A few dozen kilometres south-west of Lviv, the Univ Lavra – a monastery of the Studite order – has been a centre of spirituality in Ukraine for several centuries.

The historic buildings are home to a community of monks who live their lives according to the rhythm of the services, and who normally welcome large numbers of pilgrims.

Here too, in the first weeks of the war, in the midst of the chaos, hundreds of people fleeing the advance of Russian troops converged on this haven of peace, which was turned upside down.

At times there were three hundred people taking refuge there. Their numbers then gradually declined. Last summer, there were still around thirty people. As autumn draws to a close, the Studite community is now home to just one family from Vouhledar, a town in Donetsk oblast, whose house has been destroyed. The son is invalid and bedridden, and the parents cannot afford to find a new home, as they do not work except to help out in the monastery.

Fr Jonas, head of the Univ Lavra
Fr Jonas, head of the Univ Lavra

For the monks, opening their doors was an obvious response to the plight of their compatriots, exiled by the war. But that didn't make it easy, especially during last winter, when there were many power cuts and heating shortages due to Russian bombing of the country's energy infrastructure.

If they were able to cope with the extra expenses, it was thanks to the solidarity of Œuvre d'Orient, a French charity that has been supporting Christians in the East since 1856, and Greek Catholics in Ukraine since 1924.

Father Jonas Maxim, a Slovakian who will head the Univ Lavra until the end of the year, admits that the experience has transformed him and his brothers.

“Our horizons have broadened, really broadened, because here, with all the people who have arrived, we have got to know Ukrainians from the East," he explains. “We have discovered their mentality, their habits, how they are, how they think, and over time it has become something interesting: in a way two worlds, which were divided, have come together".

War still fresh in minds

Most of the displaced people came from eastern Ukraine, were Orthodox and practised their faith little, if at all. Trust and dialogue gradually developed between the Studite community and their hosts. Five marriages were celebrated, and six baptisms, including that of the daughter of a Muslim woman from Daguestan, married to an Orthodox Ukrainian.

The latter did not previously attend church, but in this Greek-Catholic monastery, he did not hesitate for long before bringing his little Marie to the baptismal font.

The rhythm of life in the community was not overly disrupted by the presence of the displaced people, who quickly integrated and took part in the common work.

“In the end, it was the presence of the children that was the biggest change," admits Father Jonas with a smile.

What struck him most was that these displaced people "had real experience of war. One day, he recalls, as the children were playing on the grass in front of the monastery, a Ukrainian fighter plane flew past. As soon as they heard it coming, they suddenly stopped, dropping their toys on the ground, not knowing what to do. The mothers immediately came out of the houses. Everyone was waiting to see what would happen. That's when we realised that they had real experience of war and bombing.”

Solidarity between displaced persons

It is no longer so urgent to find accommodation for the displaced. Most of them have either left the country to go abroad, or have found accommodation elsewhere in the country. Only the poorest or those isolated and without support remain in temporary centres or monasteries. Their priority was to find a job so as not to have to depend on meagre public assistance or charity.

Ihor, an ultrasound technician, was quickly hired by the Cheptitsky Catholic Hospital in Lviv. He comes from Marioupol and managed to escape from the city, besieged for weeks by the Russian army in March 2022. When he sees a Ukrainian from the East like himself, he does not charge for the consultation.

“I meet so many people here who come not just from Marioupol but from all over the East," he explains. “And every day I meet them here at the Cheptitsky hospital. For me, it's very important to help them, because we're in the same boat. They face the same problems that I and my family do".

It's his way of contributing to the collective effort and supporting his compatriots uprooted by the war.

While each displaced person's story is unique, their wish is virtually identical: to return home once the Russian army has left their country.

Ihor, a displaced person from Marioupol, at the Cheptitsky hospital in Lviv
Ihor, a displaced person from Marioupol, at the Cheptitsky hospital in Lviv

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19 December 2023, 12:32