Listen to this story:
ROME – With the war in Ukraine approaching the three-month mark, aid workers leading the humanitarian response in the country have said the impact of the conflict is being felt globally, and the recovery process is only beginning.
Speaking to journalists during a May 16 panel, Tetiana Stawnychy, president of Greek-Catholic Caritas Ukraine, said that according to official estimates, some 14 million people, or roughly 30 percent of the population, have been displaced since Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, but the real numbers are likely much higher.
This is “an astounding number,” she said, insisting that the ability to adequately respond to the rising needs “is in the people, it’s in love, and it’s in solidarity.”
“That solidarity, you see it in Ukraine, you see it in the people we encounter every day,” whether it be Caritas staff and volunteers, or the displaced themselves who are stepping up, she said, saying the humanitarian efforts “restore dignity” in a time of destruction.
In terms of the massive humanitarian crisis that’s been provoked by the war, “we’re only in the beginning of the response,” Stawnychy said, noting that this goes for people inside of Ukraine, but also those who have fled to other countries, many of whom are already beginning to settle down into their new situations.
“This is going to be a long haul, a long road, and we hope for the accompaniment to continue,” she said.
Stawnychy is in Rome, along with Father Vyacheslav Grynevych, secretary general of the Roman Catholic branch of Caritas operating in Ukraine, Caritas-Spes, for top-level meetings with partners and Vatican officials about relief efforts in the war and projects they are leading on the ground.
Stawnychy and Grynevych met with Pope Francis at his residence in the Vatican’s Santa Marta guesthouse Sunday, and they met with the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Monday.
Gallagher is set to visit Ukraine May 18-22, where he is expected to meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
At Monday’s press conference, Aloysius John, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, noted that since the Ukraine war began, millions have fled, including roughly 1.8 million children, and around 4,000 people have died, according to official estimates, 250 of whom are children.
The situation turned into “a nightmare overnight,” John said, noting that vast damage has also been done to the country’s infrastructure, with more than 116 churches destroyed as well as countless buildings, residential homes, highways, and agriculture.
Currently, reconstruction costs amount to an estimated $600 million, but the psychological trauma of the war will be much harder to heal, he said, noting that Caritas is also providing increased psycho-social support to those fleeing Ukraine.
John said the impact of the war is not being felt just in Ukraine or neighboring countries, but is rippling throughout the world, with bread costs skyrocketing in the Middle East and Africa.
As in any conflict, the poorest “will pay the highest price,” he said, noting that given the increased food costs, many families are now struggling to make ends meet, and global markets have been destabilized.
The risk of riots “is increasing” in many places, John said, and lamented the fact that there is now increased investment in military spending for the future, drawing on funds that could be spent on international aid or areas of development such as education.
Among the top areas of concern for Ukrainians, Grynevych said, is education, as many children did not have access to regular schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the war has exacerbated this gap.
There is also concern for the family structure itself, Grynevych said, noting that many women and children fled while their husbands and fathers stayed to fight.
“What will happen when families come back to normal life?” he asked. “When the fathers come back, it won’t be the same father. It will be a father who knows the war, who knows death. There will be another problem,” he said, saying Caritas is trying to get ahead of this problem through various projects and activities.
Silvia Sinibaldi, International Cooperation and Humanitarian Director of Caritas Europa, outlined several Caritas projects in Ukraine and neighboring countries, noting that in Poland alone, where most Ukrainian refugees have fled, some 1.5 million meals have been delivered to more than 500,000 people since the war began.
Food, shelter, hygiene products, medicines, and psychological support are all services that Caritas provides, she said, saying Caritas is currently trying to expand the ability and access to a “cross-border supply chain” for sharing humanitarian relief.
Sinibaldi praised the European Union for enacting its Temporary Protection Directive, which is a measure providing immediate and temporary protection to displaced persons from non-EU countries, offering them residence rights and access to the labor market and housing, as well as social assistance and medical care.
To respond to the needs on the ground, Caritas has been hiring new staff to assist with the increased workload, with Caritas Ukraine expecting to double or triple its staff, while Caritas Spes has already increased its staff by five times, according to Grynevych.
Both Grynevych and Stawnychy voiced gratitude to the pope for meeting with them and listening to them explain the latest efforts being made.
Grynevych said they spent about a half hour with the pope, who, he said, actively listened to their experiences and shared his own experience meeting Ukrainian refugees.
In terms of a papal visit to Ukraine, Grynevych said, “it’s not easy to visit Ukraine at this moment,” and the current situation makes it difficult “to work for peace.”
However, “we can see that the Holy See diplomacy and also Pope Francis shows a lot of signs of support” through prayers, and through his decision to send two of his top cardinal advisors – Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski and Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny – to Ukraine to support refugees, said Grynevych.
Going back to Ukraine, Stawnychy said she wants to make the support they received, as well as the “warmth and caring” shown to Ukraine felt on the ground. “My goal is to go back and make sure that message is heard very loudly and clearly in Ukraine,” she said.
Grynevych said he will bring back “the words of hope” that were given to them, as well as the assurance “that we are not alone.”
“When you see the eyes of the Holy Father and can share with him the amazing work that people in our organization are doing from morning to night, and the pope blessed this, this is what I want. It gives us hope, that we are not alone. I think it is the most powerful message that I will bring with myself to Ukraine,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen