Letters from Ukraine
Our days start early to make the most of the daylight during these winter months. We brief with Tunde at 8am and then we go to work until we break for a delicious homemade lunch at around 12:30pm where all the people working gather, sit and laugh together. Then back to work for the afternoon until it gets dark. This experience of sharing bread together gives a wonderful sense of community. Given it is winter we lose daylight around 5pm. At the end of the workday, we are dropped off at the house belonging to the Order where the volunteers are housed. We are greeted warmly by Minzi, the dog that was sold with the house. Many people closed their homes up and just left. There are many vacant homes up & down the street. The population of this village has halved since the war began.
When we get home, we hope the electricity is on. Most of the time it is not. So, we light candles, eat salami, cheese & bread with a beer. We wait to see if the power comes on. There is a generator that will allow the lights to work. However, we have not had much luck with it operating. Nick & another volunteer – Theo, from England, oversaw turning the generator on & did well the first night. After that there were problems, and it would not start so we were without power & the generator. That meant choosing a cold shower that night or risk waiting until the morning. If power had come on early enough, we could look forward to hot water. Too often the boiler did not have time to heat up, so it was a cold shower anyway - I am told that is good for you. I came to hope only for making a coffee in the morning & would be content enough with that to start my day. We have been lucky with the weather, very cold but no snow. The clothes we packed have served us well - thanks be to God.
A day may consist of receiving & organizing boxes of goods in the massive warehouse that receives donations from all over Europe. A truck may come in from an outlying village that we load with supplies for distribution. We have also started driving to pick up supplies in Romania and bringing them into Ukraine. Nick and I made two trips today. Getting through the Romanian border is quite easy but getting supplies into the Ukraine is challenging due to the required processes in place.
The work the Order does is impressive and is done quietly & without fanfare. However, it makes such a difference to the people all over the Ukraine. We even include dog & cat food so people can feed their animals.
Before we know it we will be home. This has been a humbling and a life changing experience. People work so very hard, and this war is quite devastating with no end in sight. Although the village where we are staying is not war torn, we still feel the residual effects of the war. There is a breakdown of broken supply chains, electrical power, heat and water disruptions happening more often than not. The numbers of displaced people are staggering. I was told that soldiers will walk the streets and go door to door looking for men to recruit. The work of the Order is vital, not only do we support the distribution of supplies, we help with the morale. At the main office, there are school classes for the Roma children and therapy sessions for children with special needs. Two groups that would fall through the cracks if it wasn't for the work of the Order.
Theo our new friend and fellow volunteer from England, works for the Order of Malta (OOM) at the United Nations and will be drafting an article about the Order’s work in the Ukraine. It is said the Order is doing more in the Ukraine than the Red Cross.
Our hosts Janos and Tunde have been so gracious and welcoming. Before the war started the team here consisted of 12 workers. When the war began 10 workers left the country leaving a team of two. It seems most people with money or family in surrounding countries, have left. However, there is now a skeleton staff that make everything work. The Order’s base here in this region is very dependent on volunteers. It is unusual that volunteers stay for two weeks. Most volunteers come from OOM associations in surrounding countries, and they provide essential support for a few days as they take time off from their lives. The core workers usually work 6 days a week & are the heroes of this effort
We are now in our second week, and I am delighted to say that a group of young volunteers from surrounding countries have arrived to help. They are terrific, smart, capable young people taking time out of their work lives to give their support. Rasmus is from Denmark, Csongor, Aletta, Daniel from Hungary quickly became friends to me and Nick. There were others, too, from Budapest Malteser group and together they formed the much-needed cavalry, making light work of all the loading and unloading. They all brought a renewed energy and were great fun to be around.
Yesterday 3 vans set off. Nick & I were driving one van. We left in convoy at 2 am to drive through the mountains heading east to Vinnytsia to give donations. Vinnytsia is about 160 mi southwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. It was a good 8-hour drive where we saw beautiful villages & towns. As the sun rose, the sky remained grey, but we were struck by the beauty of the land, the rich soil of the farms along the way, multi-coloured fields as far as the eye could see. We arrived at Vinnytsia and everyone was waiting for us at the community centre that was a big hall, music rooms & a gym where children could play and have fun. As usual, we formed a chain of people & unloaded mattresses, beds, food, pampers & supplies. The supplies bring a dignity to a proud people that just want to be able to get on and live their lives, raise their children and contribute to their community, their country.
Just as we were leaving the community centre an air raid siren went off. No one was frightened by the sound, just on alert. There is a tolerance and a weary resignation that this is part of their new normal. At such times however, children in school will go into a basement shelter. A warming siren can go off a number of times a day. A Russian attack in July 2022 killed 28 people including 3 children in this town. Despite the risk people continue about their business - what else can they do.
We met such lovely people yesterday. I admired their bravery and determination to succeed. However, I also realize the situation in Ukraine is quite complicated. While we are here only to help a people in need, one cannot help feel perplexed at the brutal attack on the country, and feel an awe at how the people are determined to fight and retain their independence. I met some children who had been displaced from Kyiv after the city had been heavily attacked. Their homes had been destroyed and they became part of the many who were displaced. They were now living in accommodation in Vinnytsia and lined up to say hallo to us as we pulled into the driveway. They were so precious & beautiful but still in shock from the experience of their lives being turned upside down. I could see the stress on their faces. Quiet, watchful, cautious. I played with them to make them laugh and maybe distract them for a little while. The elderly and the children are the hardest hit by the war. It is difficult for the children to understand. We work to give them hope and a little solace.
After a long day we began our drive home. As we came to the Carpathian Mountains that we needed to cross to get home, it began to snow. The landscape and the fir trees lining the road looked gorgeous. However, as the night was descending it was quite dangerous on the mountain road. On two different sections of the road, cars had crashed. Nick did a great job getting us home safely. In the house tradition of solidarity, the others wanted to stay up to eat & drink. After a 22-hour workday, we were cross-eyed with exhaustion and apologized that we needed to go to bed.
While our time here is ending, I do know these days, these people, our fellow volunteers and this place will stay in our hearts forever. It has been a privilege to have had this time. May God bless the people of the Ukraine and bring the war to an end swiftly.
If you are interested in supporting the Order of Malta's project in Beregovo as a volunteer, click here.
Slavic arrived with his wife Erica to collect Christmas presents for children made by children along with loading the van with supplies to take back to their village.
Tünde does the work of 5 people and is the right hand of Janos who runs the base. Here Tünde is cooking lunch and still taking work calls.
We always looked forward to lunch - soup followed by a main course and sometimes desert and a generous helping of fellowship.
Unloading a truck, while people waited patiently for the much needed supplies - Daniel & Tibbi clowning as they waited to be handed the boxes. Everyone pitched in and the arrival of Daniel & crew from Hungary along with Rasmus from Denmark was a great help to the effective distribution of supplies.
The local Roma children are able to attend class at the OOM center. They are keen for the education and each child had dreams as to what they wanted to do when they grew up.
Little Anna & her sister Veronica were two children who had lost their home when Kyiv was bombed. They were among many families that now live in temporary accommodation in Vinnytsia. Often the fathers have been recruited to fight and the families are very grateful for the support the OOM can provide.
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