Ukraine: The Humanitarian Priest and the Weight of History

Father Vasyl coordinates humanitarian aid delivered to and distributed by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Photo: IOM Ukraine/Varvara Zhluktenko

Ukraine – More than 2.7 million Ukrainians have already returned home following internal displacement within their war-ravaged country or from abroad. They have come back, broke, to find their homes destroyed or looted.

A 1,000-year-old monastery serves as an unlikely makeshift warehouse for essential humanitarian aid for these returnees and thousands of other vulnerable people. The aid has been provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and now Father Vasyl, an Orthodox priest, is getting it ready for delivery to those that need it most.

Thousands of blankets, towels, solar lamps, and hundreds of mattresses, plastic containers and jerry cans will soon be on their way to the Poltava, Dnipropetrovsk, Chernihiv and Sumy regions.

“God willing, the first car to collect this aid and bring it to people will arrive today,” says Father Vasyl.

He tells me more about the Church’s role in joint humanitarian efforts. “We actively work with our parishes abroad, with other churches in Greece, Spain and other countries. Ukrainian diaspora in the US and Canada has been providing huge support. We needed to evacuate ill children, and our partners, friends and parishioners immediately mobilized and helped us purchase the ambulances.”

Father Vasyl is both priest and humanitarian worker, but as a priest, he’s not so keen to talk about long-term needs. “We believe and we pray for the war to stop,” he says.

As a humanitarian worker, he elaborates: “Each day of the war requires something different. A few weeks ago, there was a need for ambulances, now there are other needs, mainly for food and hygiene items. Also, as there is an escalation, medicines lack in occupied cities and villages. Volunteers take responsibility and risk, collect medicines and go there as people are in a big need.”

Jerry cans and plastic containers will serve the needs of returnees and displaced persons in northern and eastern regions of Ukraine. Photo: IOM Ukraine/Varvara Zhluktenko

We are speaking on a sunny supper day, as sunlight sparkles of the golden baroque domes, one of Christianity’s most sacred places. I ask Father Vasyl about the fate of church buildings in the war-torn areas.

“The war does not choose whether it is a church, a house, or a historical monument. The war destroys everything,” he says. “Priests were held hostage and tortured, churches were damaged. There are historical churches, for example in Chernihiv, which have a long history, which survived many wars and are now damaged. This once again proves that this is about the extermination of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people."

As centuries ago, a monastery in Kyiv became an aid centre amidst the war. Photo: IOM Ukraine/Varvara Zhluktenko

He looks at his church, and for a moment I feel the weight of history.

“We can survive this only by being united. We can overcome this only by helping each other,” says Father Vasyl.

Since the start of the war on 24 February 2022, IOM Ukraine has refocused its projects, providing humanitarian assistance to displaced people and war-affected communities, directly and through a network of several dozen long-standing and new partners.

Text and photos by Varvara Zhluktenko, IOM Ukraine