How religious organizations are helping Ukraine’s orphans escape the Russian onslaught
Ukraine is home to approximately 100,000 orphans. Religious organizations are making efforts to help this vulnerable group to safety
As refugees continue to flee the Russian assault on Ukraine, individuals, organizations and governments are working together to help one of the country’s most vulnerable groups: Ukrainian orphans.
Speaking from a tent in Zosin on the Ukraine-Poland border, Dominika Chylewska, head of communications for Caritas Poland, explained that these efforts involve many risks — to both the orphans themselves and the people bringing them to safety.
“The evacuation is being (conducted) under danger,” Chylewska said of her organization’s effort to provide accommodations and care for 2,000 orphans. “Those who coordinate on the Ukrainian side ... are in danger and in dangerous places. ... It’s a very sensitive thing to do properly because we’re risking people’s lives.”
Ukraine is home to an estimated 100,000 orphans. However, a majority of these children are “social orphans,” meaning that they maintain some ties with their families — for example, they go home to their families on the weekends or their parents come and visit them, experts said.
Additionally, because Ukrainian schools lack accommodations for special needs students, many children with disabilities live in orphanages that function as boarding schools. People with disabilities, including cerebral palsy, are among the 400 people whom Caritas has brought to Poland so far, Chylewska said.
Eventually, Caritas Poland plans to coordinate accommodations and care for 2,000 orphans from Ukraine. The 400 who have been evacuated so far arrived by train to Poland, where they were greeted by local coordinators who accompanied them to different facilities. Caritas worked with S.O.S. Children’s Villages and American Hearts of Poland and with support from the Polish government.
Caritas aims to “support everyone,” Chylewska said, “but especially those who are not able to help themselves. … (It) is crucial for us to look after those who are the most needy.”
As Chylewska spoke to Deseret News by WhatsApp, she described the scene before her in the heated tent on the Polish border that was receiving Ukrainian refugees. Their voices audible in the background, the people arriving from Ukraine “have been walking or have been on train for 48 hours,” said Chylewska. “They are frozen and they really need a space” to recover from the long and arduous journey.
Volunteers “are welcoming, smiling, supporting (refugees) with whatever is needed,” she said. The tent includes toys for children, some space for mothers and children to have privacy, and sleeping bags for people who needed to rest.
Various other groups and organizations have also been working to get Ukrainian orphans to safety. Last week, a group of 100 orphans who were in a foster home run by the Orthodox Jewish movement Chabad crossed the border into Moldova; from there, they continued on to Berlin. Chabad coordinated the effort with the help of Israeli diplomats, and funding for the trip was provided by the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews.
Another group of orphans were flown to Israel, where they were greeted by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Beyond helping orphans evacuate, Chabad is assisting Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing the country, said Motti Seligson, Chabad’s director of media relations.
“Everyday there are going to be about 50 buses (out of Ukraine), that’s in addition to train transit that we’re securing for people.” While a majority of those Chabad is helping are Jewish, Seligson said they are also assisting anyone in need who approaches them.
“You help people,” Seligson said. “Saving a life is like saving an entire world.”
Advocates also pointed out that it’s important not to forget about the orphans who haven’t been evacuated yet.
In the Eastern Ukraine, near the Zaporizhzhia power plant that was captured by Russia, an orphanage ran out of food, according to Rick Morton, vice president of Engagement for Lifeline Children’s Services, an American organization that works with partners in Ukraine to help orphaned children.
Speaking from Birmingham, Alabama, Morton — who has maintained contact with numerous orphanages in Ukraine — said a church elder went and cleaned out what remained in a grocery store, delivering the food to a local orphanage. But Morton is concerned that other facilities around the country might be running out of basic supplies like food and water.
Yuriy and Madison Perekotiy are Christian missionaries who, through Globe International, work in Ukraine with at-risk and orphaned children, particularly the deaf and others with special needs.
Amid the violence, they’ve been concerned that social orphans will be permanently separated from their families. They worry that low-income families will be disproportionately impacted by the war, since they often lack the means to flee.
Moving forward, the groups and people who are serving Ukrainian social orphans need to be prepared to help families reunite, Madison Perekotiy said.
“How many are going to be separated from their family in a different country? How many will be able to go back? No one has answers to that now,” she said.