‘We are not going anywhere’: Knights of Columbus vow to keep up aid to Ukraine

‘We are not going anywhere’: Knights of Columbus vow to keep up aid to Ukraine

A Ukrainian woman carries away a Knights of Columbus care package during a charity distribution event in Lviv, Ukraine, in December 2022. TAMINO PETELINŠEK, COURTESY OF THE KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS

By Peter Pinedo

Catholic News Agency

February 22, 2024

Two years since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the Knights of Columbus are vowing to continue their efforts to deliver material and spiritual aid to suffering and displaced Ukrainians.

So far, the Knights have raised a record $22 million and delivered 7.7 million pounds of supplies to victims of the ongoing war.

Szymon Czyszek, one of the Knights of Columbus’ head relief organizers in Eastern Europe, spoke with CNA to give an update on the Knights’ relief efforts as the Russia-Ukraine war hits its two-year mark. He said that though many across the world have started to become desensitized to the war, innocent Ukrainian civilians continue to suffer under constant bombardment and lack of basic resources.

The Knights of Columbus first announced their plans to help Ukraine just days after the invasion began. With thousands of members of the Knights of Columbus and their families directly in harm’s way, Czyszek said that the Knights felt they had no choice but to help. Now, he said, the need is as great as ever. With many Ukrainian men being killed in the conflict — casualty estimates range from the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands — Czyszek said the country’s many widows and orphans are the most vulnerable.

“The founding mission of the Knights of Columbus was to care for the vulnerable,” Czyszek explained. “Especially to care for the widows and orphans.”

“So, we may be far away from New Haven [Connecticut], but we are very close to Father [Michael] McGivney in the work that we are doing,” he continued. “With every care package that we bring, every piece of clothing or medicine, we really want to show people suffering, people of Ukraine, that God has not abandoned them, that God is still present, and that we can be like hands of mercy of Our Lord.”

Waking up to air raid alarms, missiles

Czyszek said Ukrainian men, women, and children in all parts of the country wake up each morning to the “constant” threat of bombings and the reality that “today could be the last day of their life.”

The sound of air raid alarms is also a regular occurrence, Czyszek said.

According to Czyszek, at this point of the war, 70% of all Ukrainians have experienced the loss or serious injury of a family member or close friend.

“There’s this sense that people are surrounded by this fear and the sense of death,” he explained.

Not even pregnant and new mothers are safe from the violence, he noted, pointing to a bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital in Dnipro in December 2023 that killed six.

“While we try to promote pro-life and defense of life, we see hospitals where women want to take care of and welcome their children, these hospitals are being bombed. That’s the reality that you are facing,” he said.

Father John Kalisch, director of chaplains and spiritual development at the Knights of Columbus, blesses a charity convoy in Lancut, Poland, in April 2022. Looking on is Supreme Knight Patrick E. Kelly, center. TAMINO PETELINŠEK, COURTESY OF THE KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS

Helping ‘the suffering body of Christ’

So far, Czyszek said that the Knights of Columbus have been able to help 1.6 million war victims throughout the country with food, medicine, help with shelter, and other necessities.

Their primary focus has been to help women and children as well as disabled and elderly people. To the Knights of Columbus, Czyszek said, war victims are the “suffering body of Christ.”

In the face of continued attacks, Czyszek said that the most vulnerable, such as the disabled, are often abandoned and forgotten. He described one situation in Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv in which many disabled civilians had been left in an apartment building without electricity. Unable to escape because of the lack of working elevators, the people had to wait until Knights of Columbus volunteers found them and helped them out of the building.

“Many of them, unfortunately, were just abandoned. Nobody was taking care of them. But our people were there to help them, bring them wheelchairs, mobility, and really just a sense of hope and a reminder that every person has dignity,” he said.

Although material aid is important, Czyszek said that the Knights, with the help of health care professionals, priests, and religious, are also helping Ukrainian soldiers and war victims with “deep spiritual wounds” get psychological and spiritual aid.

Prayer is central to the Knights’ relief efforts in Ukraine. In addition to their many other programs, the Knights of Columbus are building and equipping chapels for wounded victims and refugees and regularly organizing Masses and rosary events in Ukraine.

According to Czyszek, Ukrainian churches have also been a target of Russian attacks in efforts to erase the country’s cultural and religious heritage. These attacks, Czyszek said, are particularly concerning to the Knights of Columbus.

Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Vitaliy Kryvytskyi of Kyiv–Zhytomyr shares these concerns. He told CNA in October 2023 that the Church in Ukraine is facing extermination.

“We don’t have to guess what’s at stake, we’ve all lived [through] the times of the Soviet Union,” Kryvytskyi said. “What will happen, if the Russian Federation enters our territories and continues entering our territories, is going to be practically the same thing that was before, during the Soviet Union.”

Czyszek said that “over 100 churches have already been destroyed in Ukraine.”

He explained that in Ukraine “churches are not just like pieces of art, but these are the places where people’s identity is formed, and that’s the place that also creates this center of community.”

In response to these attacks, Czyszek said, the Knights of Columbus are partnering with other groups to take scans of Ukrainian churches in harm’s way to preserve and rebuild them after the war.

‘We are not going anywhere’

Despite the risks involved in going into an active war zone, Czyszek said that Knights of Columbus volunteers are resolved to help for as long as the suffering continues. The driving force behind their action, he explained, is that they “see in every person in need, Christ.”

“We pray that one day soon a peace, a just peace, will be restored to Ukraine,” he said. “But until that day, we’ll remain united with our brothers in Ukraine, united in prayer, in charity, and determination.”

“As Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly said,” he continued, “‘The Knights of Columbus are there, and we are not going anywhere.’”

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