WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED
By Helen Forde, Chief Executive Officer, Jesuit Mission Australia.
It bubbles below the surface. It doesn’t take much to rise and overwhelm.
The pain and grief of war in this present day is beyond comprehension. Many Ukrainian refugees believed the war would last just days or a few weeks and they would soon be able to return home. But almost 18 months on, there is no end in sight to the devastation that confronts Ukraine.
On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the invasion, more than eight million people have fled their homeland in search of safe surroundings, while an additional eight million people have become displaced within their own country. It’s the most devastating event in Europe since World War II.
An estimated 3.5 million Ukrainians have passed through Romania. But only 100,000 Ukrainian refugees – mostly women, children, the elderly and people living with disabilities – remain in Romania today. Their trauma, caused by their experiences in escaping the war, is now deeply etched in their psyche. They remain separated from husbands, fathers, brothers and other male family members. They long to be reunited with their loved ones and they yearn to return to their home when peace is finally restored. When that will transpire, nobody knows.
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Romania, as part of the JRS Europe and Xavier Network humanitarian response, has assisted 10,000 Ukrainians with accommodation, cash, vouchers for food, psycho-social support, counselling, classes, medicine and activities that build skills, resilience and friendship. JRS Romania has offered more than 40,000 services to the Ukrainian community since the war started.
One of those is Tamara, a 66-year-old Ukrainian woman who describes the experience as a “horrible fairy tale”. She escaped Ukraine with several family members – all of whom have since returned to Ukraine. Tamara remains alone in Bucharest now while her three adult children are in Ukraine. One of her sons is in the army, which causes her much anxiety and pain. Yet Tamara affirms they are presently all safe and well.
But her children believe Romania is a necessary safe haven for their mother at present. They are anxious about the prospect of their mother returning to Ukraine and living in her 16th floor Kyiv apartment, where there is only one hour of electricity each day. Should she return, she will have to cope with no hot water, no lifts, no heating – circumstances that were simply unimaginable before the war began.
Tamara constantly wrestles with the thought of returning to Ukraine. The heartbreaking sadness of life without her family is witnessed in her face and demeanour. However, her disposition lifts when she raises her love of kangaroos. “Is it true that there are five kangaroos for every person in Australia?” she asks curiously.
I laugh, not really knowing the answer. Postscript: I educated myself – there are around two kangaroos per person in Australia.
Tamara has a temporary protection permit. She receives support from the government (through the European Commission) which offers her financial assistance for rental accommodation, while JRS Romania provides much-needed counselling and socialisation through a range of activities like art therapy, meditation and stretch classes.
“Life is harder for older people here,” says Tamara. A nanny in her working life, she now assists two Ukrainian families in Bucharest but this also helps her pass the days and feel connected in a relationship. Tamara is thankful to the Romanian community who have opened their arms and welcomed people like her to their country.
“They (JRS Romania) help me with everything and provide protection and friendship,” she says, smiling.
JRS Romania has set up a Viber group for older Ukrainians living in Bucharest. This group builds relationships, creates community spirit and promotes connectedness. Tamara touches her heart when referring to the Jesuit Mission supporters who have supported JRS Romania.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she gently concludes.
Jesuit Mission supporters have generously donated more than $1 million for the Ukraine crisis. We remain deeply grateful for the outpouring of love, compassion and solidarity of our Australian family of supporters and friends.