As Ukrainians Flee, Let Us Not Become Disinterested Bystanders

In response to the displacement of millions of Ukrainians, clergy members and lay Catholics “have been extremely engaged to provide shelter, food, care and security” to those in need, says ICMC Secretary General Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo in this blog post. Let us not become passive bystanders of their suffering or the suffering of so many others worldwide!

As Ukrainians Flee, Let Us Not Become Disinterested Bystanders 1
Ukrainian refugees at the Korczowa Refugee Reception Center in Poland, March 5, 2022. ©US Department of State, via Flickr

I suspect that many of you, as I, are spending a great deal of time watching and listening to the tragic impact of war and violence being suffered by our sisters and brothers in Ukraine. Officials of United Nations agencies have placed this situation in their highest “emergency” category – level 3. They offer the following estimates of persons affected:

  • Over 1.7 million refugees from Ukraine estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries since 24 February and rising
  • 2.9 million people identified as in need of assistance in Ukraine before the recent events 

I write today from Rome, where I am working at the ICMC office at Palazzo San Calisto, Vatican City, and have been engaged in many meetings with Vatican officials and leaders of Catholic-inspired organizations. We have been exchanging information about the responses of the Catholic Church in Ukraine and in surrounding countries and are trying to better assess the material, emotional, spiritual, protection, and security needs of the affected people. We also have shared the actions taken by our respective organizations and projecting further response should peace not be restored in the short-term future. We are preparing a collaborative strategic plan – to be sure that gaps in services will be addressed and that we can be able to avoid duplication of services, since the needs already are so great and may worsen if it is not possible to arrive at a peaceful solution to the crisis.

In listening  to the emergency responses already undertaken, we learned that the Catholic bishops, the religious orders of Sisters, Priests, and Brothers, the Catholic-inspired organizations, and especially the local parishioners have been extremely engaged to provide shelter, food, care and security to those who have been forced to flee their homes, their local communities, and, in many cases, even have been forced across the borders to neighboring or far-away countries. One agency said that the local bishop was their “best volunteer” since he was engaged in providing food and shelter and comfort to those who had been displaced. We heard of mothers giving birth in subway shelters and priests celebrating the Mass and other sacraments in those same “safe spaces”. In Hungary, we learned that groups of local volunteers have offered their services to the Catholic Charities agencies; in Moldova, families are offering rooms in their homes to Ukrainian families as they cross the border in search of safety.  Poland is hosting the largest number of the Ukrainian refugees, estimated to be at least one million.

This number of displaced persons in Ukraine and refugees from Ukraine is the largest seen in Europe since the Second World War. On Sunday, March 5, 2022, Pope Francis made the following passionate plea:

Rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. It is not merely a military operation, but a war, which sows death, destruction, and misery. The number of victims is increasing, as are the people fleeing, especially mothers and children. The need for humanitarian assistance in that troubled country is growing dramatically by the hour.

I make a heartfelt appeal for humanitarian corridors to be genuinely secured, and for aid to be guaranteed and access facilitated to the besieged areas, in order to offer vital relief to our brothers and sisters oppressed by bombs and fear.

I thank all those who are taking in refugees. Above all, I implore that the armed attacks cease and that negotiation – and common sense – prevail. And that international law be respected once again!

….  “War is madness! Stop, please! Look at this cruelty!

Pope Francis, Angelus, 5 March 2022

These sad events made me recall ICMC’s roots when we were founded by Pope Pius XII as a network of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences responding to the needs of migrants and refugees throughout the world. I also had in mind ICMC’s immediate direct action in resettling of millions of European refugees to North and South America, Australia, and other regions, during the 1950s. Thus, I knew that ICMC could not be absent from solidarity with our Ukrainian sisters and brothers at this time, just as we assisted so many Ukrainians after World War II and when they sought freedom and protection during their domination by the Soviet Union. 

On February 26, 2022, ICMC launched a fund-raising appeal among its private

donors. We are indeed grateful for the generous responses we have received and encourage others to support us by visiting our special webpage.

ICMC also is engaged in global advocacy to encourage the establishment of humanitarian corridors with the establishment of cease-fire zones so that civilian populations could escape to safety, and the establishment of Temporary Protection Directives so that refugees are admitted to countries where they are seeking protection (both the European Union and the USA have promulgated such policies). We also are prepared to deploy legal and social protection experts to UN, governmental, and other agencies engaged in large-scale emergency responses. Finally, we stand ready to assist with permanent resettlement for the most vulnerable refugees who cannot return home or be integrated into their present host countries.

In a Vatican News interview with me on March 1, 2022, I also recalled another urgent action that we all could take:

Question: If you were to give people suggestions, what they can do to help, what would you say?

Vitillo Response: First of all, to pray. We need divine intervention to bring about peace in this situation, as in many of the long-term conflicts throughout the world.

But I also pointed out during this interview that, just as we need to pray with trust and confidence in God’s almighty power, we also need to take action with trust in our ability and responsibility for our “neighbors”, our sisters and brothers in Ukraine, and in so many situations of violence, war, persecution and conflict throughout the world. ICMC and other Catholic-inspired organizations are active in so many of these places – please join us in prayer and action so that the God-given dignity of every human person will be respected and promoted.

Before closing, I will return to my opening sentence – about constantly following the media coverage of the Ukraine emergency – in many ways, it is positive to feel so deeply about this situation – but let us be lulled into becoming disinterested bystanders, or into seeing Ukraine as a distant, abstract situation. In this regard, I would like to share an experience of a journalist who once approached Saint “Mother” Teresa of Calcutta and requested that she make a general statement about “hunger” and “war” in the world – here is what she replied:

Pay attention, young man, to the way you use some words … Do not refer so lightly to words such as war, hunger, misery, and poverty. Remember always that those are simply abstract ideas and concepts. These are helpful expressions, but they never can sufficiently explain the suffering of real men and women. We Christians are called love and defend the person and dignity of God’s children, who are in the flesh and blood. I, in the many years of life that the Lord has given me, never saw on the streets of Calcutta, or when travelling around the world, wars, hunger, misery, or poverty. I saw and touched people killed by war, poor children, old and hungry people, and very sick people on the street …

Saint “Mother” Teresa of Calcutta

Let us, the ICMC leaders, the staff, volunteers, all people of faith and of good will, not see “Ukraine” as an abstract topic for media watching, but which calls us to active charity, promotion of justice, solidarity, and deep caring for those suffering and traumatized by this crisis and by so many others in all parts of the world!

Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo *

* Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo is Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission.


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