Cardinal Czerny listens to the pain of Ukrainian women fleeing war
By Salvatore Cernuzio
Cardinal Michael Czerny, interim Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, was back in Rome on Friday, after spending several days in Ukraine and Hungary, bringing the closeness of Pope Francis to the refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.
On Thursday, he visited the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) centre at Nyugati railway station in the Hungarian capital Budapest. He also visited the Order of Malta's centre, where he listened to the dramatic stories of Natalia, Tamara and others.
Marina and Nadja took a taxi to the Moldovan border to escape the bombs on Kharkiv. Natalia used a restaurant table as a bed. In her haste to escape, Tamara forgot her mobile phone at home and had no contact with her children for weeks. Eighteen-year-olds Dana and Danjra traveled alone for fifteen hours by car to reach safety.
In the hall of a facility on the outskirts of Budapest, the pain of these women fleeing the war was palpable. Six Ukrainian refugees, all women, now safe thanks to the help they received from the Order of Malta's teams, are waiting for a new destination.
On the third and last day of his mission in Hungary, Cardinal Czerny met these women on Thursday afternoon at a sports centre now converted into a reception centre. Aided by an interpreter, he stopped to listen to their stories, asked questions, and looked at the images of bunkers, makeshift shelters, babies and elderly parents on their mobile phones.
Natalia and her parents, who are originally from the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, held by Russia-backed separatists, have had no respite since 2014. Natalia, who fled Donetsk in 2015, is again amidst fear and destruction. Since 5 March, she has been travelling with another 29-year-old woman: one heading to Germany, the other to France.
When the Cardinal arrives, she is the only one who is glued to her smartphone. Listening to the stories of her compatriots, she gets up and tells Cardinal Czerny about the stages of her journey with the help of her mobile phone.
Natalia moved out of the basement of her building, with her neighbour's daughter, just a few months old, sleeping under the water pipes, to gyms in sleeping bags, and finally to the restaurant of an abandoned hotel. The photo of the parents appears in the gallery, and Natalia bursts into tears. “They have no food, no medicine; they will die even without bombs.”
Marina’s tears for her parents
The Cardinal puts a hand on the shoulder of Marina, a 62-year-old former employee of a space shuttle firm. She fled the eastern city of Kharkiv with her daughter, who has a mental disability. They took a taxi to central Ukraine, paying only for the fuel. She now awaits a transfer to Germany.
Even though she did not witness her home crumble under mortar fire, she finds no point in returning home. “We were forced into the basement 31 times. I could no longer stand the constant sound of the siren; it drove me crazy. So I decided to leave.”
Marina does not regret her decision, even though she left behind her husband and her father. Tears of gratitude roll down at the "human warmth" received in Budapest. “I am really grateful," she repeats to the Cardinal, who blesses her and gives her a picture with a prayer by Pope Francis.
Tamara mobile phone
It was the same story with Tamara, a petite woman in her 60s, her face wrinkled and her eyes tired from a 5-day journey.
She laughs saying that in her haste, she left behind her phone. But her laughter soon turns into tears. “For almost a week, I have been wandering around without being able to communicate. My children are in town. We have heard from them thanks to the volunteers; they are safe with the Baptist community in a bunker.”
The women who make up a small part of the 54 refugees currently sheltered by the Order of Malta, which also offers an ambulance service “on four wheels” to the borders, the only charity to do so. They also work, alongside Caritas, at Keleti railway station, east of Budapest.
Cardinal Czerny visited the center on the first day of his trip. After a long stop at the headquarters of the Jesuit Refugee Service on Thursday morning, he wanted to visit the station to Nyugati railway station, where refugees are huddled together in poorly coordinated services.
However, 3 to 4 thousand people get off at Nyugati. Shortly before Cardinal Czerny's arrival there, an email from the border announces a train with 125 people coming from Zahony.
A large number of them at Nyugati are the Roma people. At the Cardinal’s first invitation to approach, they are curious to tell their story.
One of them, Miriana says that in Odessa, her family were merchants or factory workers.They were evacuated in an hour’s time or so. “We want to reach Berlin but there are no means.” In Germany, they know no one but they want to try their luck, "because there are more possibilities".
The Cardinal's last stop on Thursday was the parish of Szent József, in Esztergom, led by 35-year-old priest, Father András Szili, who has been ministering to Spanish-speaking people for 3 years. For weeks, he has been living in the midst of phone calls saying more people are arriving.
They are young Ecuadorian refugees evacuated from Kiev, who are accommodated in the oratory or the cathechism rooms of the parish, awaiting their journey home through the consulate. They stay for a few nights, and share a computer and two bathrooms, with only one shower, between 56 of them. They welcome Cardinal Czerny, accompanied by the Cardinal Peter Ërdo of Budapest.
"I am here because the Pope wants to express his closeness and hope for Ukraine," Cardinal Czerny says. "The Holy Father asks you to pray to contribute to peace."
The Cardinal is moved seeing 2 children approach, offering him biscuits. They narrate their stories followed by handshakes and a group photo. Before leaving, the Pope’s envoy reminds them: "Do not forget the charity you have received. When you return to your country you will be the one to offer it to others.”
On Friday morning, Cardinal Czerny returned to his base in Rome.