Religious sisters play key role in helping Ukrainian refugees

ROME – Friday marks the 100th day since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Almost seven million people have had to flee the country since then, most of them women and children. 

Neighboring Poland has received at least four million of those displaced people, and for at least 21,000 of them, the journey would have been insurmountable were it not for a network of 1,000 homes and monasteries run by religious sisters.

“People are still arriving: On Saturday, when I was going to Warsaw by train, I saw many Ukrainians arriving from Budapest, Hungary, especially women and children,” said Sister Dolores Zok of the Mission Congregation Servants of the Holy Spirit. “In other European countries they can stay for only three months, while in Poland they can stay for 18 months now. Some of them are also trying to reach Canada, Germany, or the United States.”

Zok is the president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Religious Orders in Poland, and she told Crux by telephone that though the religious have been able to keep 550 of their homes fully available to some 21,000 displaced Ukrainians – who depend on them for meals, lodging, and other basic needs – future financing for paying gas bills, for instance, is something that keeps her up at night.

What follows are excerpts of Zok’s conversation with Crux.

Crux: Two weeks into the war, religious sisters in Poland opened the doors to their monasteries, convents, and homes for Ukrainians fleeing the war. Can you give us an update on this situation?

Zok: When the war began, we were very much surprised and shocked with the whole situation. As many Ukrainians began to arrive in Poland, we decided to open our doors. Some 850 religious homes welcomed refugees in Poland, and 95 more in Ukraine, where Polish sisters are working.

Especially at the border, in Przemyśl, Rzeszów, Lublin, people kept coming in all the time, just to rest and continue their journey. Similarly, they would knock on the doors of numerous convents throughout Poland. I can share the experience of the community Mission Congregation of Servants of the Holy Spirit, which is a very international congregation. We received about 50 Ukrainian refugees, and they are still living with us. We renovated one of the houses on our property because it is a big place, and we also share rooms in the convent where we live. We provide food for our guests.

Some of the Ukrainian women go to work, others not, and children go to school, so we teach them the Polish language so they can manage at school.

People are still arriving: On Saturday, when I was going to Warsaw by train, I saw many Ukrainians arriving from Budapest, Hungary, especially women and children. In other European countries they can stay for only three months, while in Poland, they can stay for 18 months now. Some of them are also trying to reach Canada, Germany, or the United States.

Do you know how many of those fleeing the war in Ukraine have gone through this network of religious homes in Poland?

The statistic I have is that religious sisters are helping, now, some 21,000 people who are still in their homes, with 550 convents that are completely open for those displaced, as well as many other religious places.

Some of those who came stayed with us for a few days, some 10 [days], others five, then moved on to a different place, if they got a job, and others still went abroad.

Is it true that one convent is hosting over 1,000 Ukrainians?

Yes, but those convents are at the border. And people don’t stay for long, just a few days: sleep, eat, get some much-needed things, and then move on to different cities.

How are you feeding these people, and how will you, for instance, pay the light and gas bills?

I am living in Racibórz, and many Polish people, especially at the beginning of the war, who couldn’t welcome those arriving into their homes, came to us and brought material aid: food, clothes, medicine. Now it is seldom that they come, so we are covering the expenses. But we are also getting help from Caritas Poland, the Hilton Foundation through the Union of Superior Generals in Rome, along with many other foundations in the United States and other countries. And as I said, we are an international congregation, so we get help from our sisters, too.

Religious communities can also apply for some help from the state, as do other people who receive refugees in their homes. In the case of my Congregation, convents from all over the world are asking us what they can do to help us.

Were you surprised by the generosity of the Polish people when the conflict began?

I was really surprised; it was very touching for me to see this. I am from an area that used to be a part of Germany before World War II. People there are of German descent, and during that war the Russians made us suffer a lot, so many among the older people remember their own stories of suffering. It was very moving to see how many Polish people went to the border to welcome the Ukrainians arriving.

Many of the families accepted Ukrainians into their homes, and many have very good experiences, but for some it is difficult to keep them for months.

However, I do hope the situation will soon stabilize and the people will go to their homes, getting proper help from the government.

I also want to point out that many people are going back to Ukraine, so the number is, on the one hand, going down, but we also have those arriving from other European countries, where they cannot stay.

Would you say most of the Ukrainians you’ve met want to go back?

My experience is that yes, they do; they want to go back by all means. I have a great respect for these people, whom we don’t describe as refugees, but as our brothers and sisters, people who are very similar to us and who have a strong love for their country. In the meantime, they are trying to look for a job, to secure a future for their children, while their hearts are in Ukraine; they are constantly looking for news on what is going on there.

Since the war began, is there any particular thing that has been keeping you up at night or that gives you particular concern?

We still have financial help, but we do worry about how it will be in the future, as the electricity bills are getting high. But I’m more worried about the families: Many are separated, with men left behind, in the war. And I am very worried about the psychological suffering of these people, many are becoming overcome with sadness, and forgiveness might be hard for them. Before the war, many Ukrainians and Russians were friends, but I fear that the process of forgiveness will take time, maybe generations. 

Anything else you would like to add?

I am admiring all the effort people in the United States make to help the victims of the war. You are very interested in the lives of the Ukrainian people. We get concrete help, supplies and funds as well as valuable suggestions how to deal with the crisis better.

The U.S. government is helping us really in different ways and are making concrete suggestions. But I believe other countries also could do much more.

I pray for the war to end soon and those of us who have the Ukrainian people in our hearts hope that we will be ready to help them rebuild their country, when the war is over. They will need our support, at a psychological level, material one, but also spiritual one. We all need a Christian message of hope.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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