Listen to this story:
ROME – Tetiana Stawnychy is the daughter of political refugees who fled Ukraine as teenagers in 1944 to escape Soviet communism during the second world war. Now, she is on the frontlines helping thousands of other Ukrainian families who are trying to escape after Russia’s invasion two weeks ago.
“This is the only place I want to be right now,” Stawnychy said, speaking to Crux. “I can’t say there isn’t fear, there’s fear and there’s tension, and your emotions go up and down, but there’s nowhere else I’d want to be right now.”
Born in Maryland near Washington, D.C., Stawnychy was well aware of her roots, and grew up speaking Ukrainian. She moved back to her ancestral nation in 2001 and stayed until 2016, obtaining a business degree.
She returned to Kyiv last August and is serving as president of the Caritas Ukraine, which is at the forefront of efforts to support and care for the nearly 1.7 million Ukrainians who are attempting to flee across international borders in the wake of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
Those fleeing have largely crossed into Poland, with others also flowing into neighboring Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. More than 400 civilians have died since fighting began, including many children, and that number has increased significantly over the past few days.
Stawnychy said she has been amazed at the determination and resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of adversity.
“In some weird way, I feel like finally the world is seeing what I’ve seen for the last 20 years,” she said. “This is what I saw here; I saw this something…some gem that was hidden under all of the problems that exist in a post-Soviet, post-communist country. There was something like solid gold underneath.”
It is this spirit that has inspired many Ukrainians to not only join the fight against Russia, but to get involved in responding to concrete needs on the ground as the situation worsens.
The situation “is changing really rapidly,” Stawnychy said, noting that there has been a significant increase “in civilian casualties and the shelling. People are dying.”
Of the roughly 50 employees of the national Caritas Ukraine, around 45 have stayed in Ukraine, although many have had to relocate. Of those who have left, within Caritas and beyond, it is mostly mothers with children.
After the initial frenzy to escape Ukraine when Russia invaded, there is now a second wave of people heading to the borders who Stawnychy said are more vulnerable.
“The people who are fleeing now, it’s a little bit different. The first ones, they were still in need because they were fleeing, but they could figure out a lot of things on their own.”
“The second wave is a little more vulnerable and I think it’s going to keep getting worse because it’s people fleeing from already horrible situations,” she said, noting that a six-hour car ride to Kyiv or to an international border now takes around 30 hours, and there is difficulty finding gas.
People on the road also have to find places to sleep, “because It’s martial law, you can’t be out after a certain hour, you have to be in somewhere.”
Stawnychy, who met with regional Caritas directors Monday, said many have pointed to the impact of the crisis on the elderly, who can often be seen shaking and are in great need of psycho-social support.
Many have experienced “some form of trauma. The whole country is traumatized because you don’t know where they’re going to bomb next,” she said.
Cities and towns in western Ukraine are currently at saturation levels in terms of incoming refugees, who are either being hosted in people’s homes or who are staying in schools or other makeshift centers as they make their way to the border.
Several countries have stepped in to accept Ukrainian refugees, including Italy, which Stawnychy said has offered to accept sick children or children with medical problems who are in need of care but who no longer have access to it in Ukraine.
Going forward, in addition to providing basic supplies such as food, water, medicines, and a place to sleep, Stawnychy said one of the biggest needs in the next phase of the conflict will be the psycho-social support, “because these are people who were stuck somehow in bomb shelters while the fighting is going on around.”
“I think that need is going to be growing, because it’s getting worse. That’s going to be a big part of the recovery and the healing too,” she said.
Local governments are coordinating efforts to get concrete assistance to those who need it on the ground, “but Caritas is out there, we’re in all the cities, and we’re doing our piece.”
Caritas is also present at Ukraine’s borders, offering much-needed food and shelter to those waiting in long lines in the cold to cross over. Several makeshift tents have been set up, and facilities where fleeing refugees can sleep are full.
Stawnychy described the current conflict as “a people’s war,” where everyone is pitching in. “It’s not perfect, when you have a bunch of people who get together; I don’t want to paint a rose-colored-glasses picture…but I can’t tell you how inspired I am,” she said.
Many times, when Caritas posts something they need to social media, the item is often immediately picked up and sent to them or dropped off. Families who are fleeing will also drop things off along their way.
Stawnychy said Caritas had been working on a contingency plan in case Russia attacked in the weeks prior to the invasion and were just polishing plans when Russian troops crossed into Ukraine Feb. 24.
Given this preparation, “it was easy to focus and start something right away,” and to respond effectively in the moment, she said.
Looking to the future, “that’s what we’re trying to do now, we’re trying to think through different scenarios and trying to think through how we can be prepared,” she said, noting that most of Caritas’s planning is focused on meeting the needs of the internally displaced.
“There’s that first initial response of meeting peoples’ immediate physical needs and a light calming down just by offering that kind of kindness or physical care, but then it goes deeper,” she said, because if people want to resettle somewhere, they need help finding a place to stay, finding work, and integrating into their new environment.
Stawnychy recalled a conversation with the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, shortly before the invasion, in which he praised Caritas’s work, saying he has learned a lot from them “because Caritas in its action carries a deep truth, it’s a restorative truth…of love and the dignity of the human being.”
“It’s the truth of the incarnation, the truth of the encounter, of love, of this sacrificial love for the other. That’s the restorative and redemptive piece,” Stawnychy said, adding, “I really see it in our centers that are working. It’s that – it’s something that’s restorative, something that gives life.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen