A woman and her two children walk toward the Slovak-Ukrainian border A woman and her two children walk toward the Slovak-Ukrainian border  (AFP or licensors)

Depaul charity in Ukraine: ‘We sometime find people starving to death’

Following the spirit of its patron, St. Vincent de Paul, Depaul International is working to help the poorest of the poor in Ukraine, even as volunteers witness the great suffering caused by Russia’s ongoing invasion of its neighbor.

By Zuzana Klimanová

Since the outbreak of the war on 24 February, over a thousand tons of food, medicine, and other humanitarian aid have been sent to Ukraine from Depaul Slovakia, according to the nonprofit organization's director, Jozef Kákoš.

He recently attended a meeting in Rome, along with the chairman of the Board of Directors of Depaul Ukraine, Vincentian Fr. Vitaliy Novak CM, to plan the charity’s humanitarian aid for Ukraine until 2025. They expressed their gratitude to all donors with Jesus' words from the Gospel, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Mt 25:40).

Kharkiv, Kyiv, Odessa, Transcarpathia

The Depaul charity distributes food, medicine or other aid in the most isolated areas of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Odessa, and other cities to elderly people who have been abandoned, as well as to the disabled and people holed up in basements and bunkers.

"Sometimes we find people starving to death," says Father Vitaliy, a native of Transcarpathia in Ukraine.

As he explains to Vatican News on the sidelines of the Depaul meeting, the organization began delivering humanitarian aid as soon as the Russian attacks began in late February:

"When massive numbers of Ukrainians moved from the east to the western part of the country, we of Depaul began moving to the east with our first aid truck,” he said. “We received our first shipment of food and medicine from Slovakia, and brought it first to Kyiv and then began distributing it in Kharkiv, Odessa and also in Ukrainian Transcarpathia, because suddenly there were many refugees, about 500,000."

Deepening faith in a crisis

In the interview, Father Vitaliy talked about how the war united the people of Ukraine and strengthened the national identity, as well as how the Orthodox and Catholics became closer.

"I have spent most of the war in Kharkiv, and there the Orthodox bishop lived with our Catholic bishop in the same house, because his home was in a dangerous place. (...) In this war, I do not see divisions among us. We have an Orthodox priest who regularly comes to visit, and another from the Moscow Patriarchate, and they ask for some of the aid that comes from Slovakia, and we are happy to share. People who are believers have become even more so.”

Fr. Vitaliy added that his congregation runs a church in Saltivka, which is the most devastated part of Kharkiv.

“Our parishioners have almost all left. Almost no one has stayed there. Right now, we have 20-30 people, which varies depending on how they bomb Kharkiv. And they all come to Mass. They say, ‘Father Vitaliy, we don't know how to pray like you Catholics, but we want to pray.’ And they pray with us.”

The Ukrainian priest says he is doing all he can to help people ride out the pain of war.

“I say Mass and during Mass there is catechesis. I explain to [our Orthodox brothers and sisters] when we stand up, when we sit down, what we have to sing, and first we have a rehearsal... But they all come. And it's not like I call them. We celebrate Mass at least on Sundays and major holidays. They are there together with us. And they want to be with God. Sometimes a grandmother will say, 'Father, have you noticed? At least they don't shoot when we pray!'"

Food for the hungry, clothes for the naked

The head of Depaul Ukraine also spoke about the impact the generosity of donor around the world has made on him and the people who receive the aid.

He finds a parallel with Jesus’ words in the Gospel.

"I was hungry and you gave me food. These are the words of Jesus that find the greatest application in our lives today. Millions of people go hungry. And today, Slovakia - and other countries – have risen up to give me something to eat. They offer me, a Ukrainian, their help, since I now have no resources and no way to get it.”

Fr. Vitaliy added, “I was sick and you visited me; I was naked and you clothed me. We are doing the same thing now and continue in this spirit. I see that (...) someone is killing us, but someone else is standing and helping us and wants to reduce as much as possible the consequences and suffering of this brutal and bloody war.”

He lamented the many people who are killed or wounded each day in Ukraine, and the psychological trauma so many women and children endure.

The Vincentian Father said the Depaul Slovakia is working to create a trauma response team, “to make sure that those in need have a safe place where they can spend at least the next winter.”

(L-R) Jozef Kákoš, Zuzana Klimanová, Fr. Vitaliy Novak
(L-R) Jozef Kákoš, Zuzana Klimanová, Fr. Vitaliy Novak

The more we help, the more we gain

The Director of Depaul Slovakia, Jozef Kákoš, thanked the many donors who have offered material, financial, or spiritual assistance to the people of Ukraine.

"If we help—even as a nation—we actually gain a lot, because it also makes us stronger and better," he told Vatican News.

The representative of Depaul Ukraine, Father Vitaliy Novak, also offered words of gratitude.

"Each day I remember every benefactor in my Mass intentions,” he said. “Whatever you did for one of my little ones, you did for me, said the Lord Jesus. (...) I want to express our gratitude, but not only for this help, but also for how many refugees, women and children [Slovakia] has taken in. (...) In Slovakia I see how our people are welcomed. We are grateful for that as well. And we believe that one day they will all be able to return home, after the end of the war."

09 July 2022, 08:01