I ‘saw the war in the eyes of the refugees’

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Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ, Acting Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, visited Hungary March 8-11 to bring the Pope’s closeness to Ukrainian refugees and those who welcome them. Here he offers a reflection on his return, as he leaves for a similar mission in Slovakia on March 16.

March 16, 2022

Cardinal Czerny during his visit to Hungary


By Cardinal Michael Czerny
I have seen the war, but not directly, because the region I have been in so far has been spared conflict: I have seen it in the eyes of the women and men I have met: uprooted, lost people, carrying everything they left behind in a backpack or shopping bag. They breathe and walk, but we can say that they have “lost their lives”, or rather, the war has taken them away, and they have not yet begun to build a new one. This is why foreign immigrants seem to be doing better: there were many of them in Ukraine, around 75,000 students, from Africa, Asia and Latin America. They too are fleeing with the Ukrainian population, they too have only a backpack or a suitcase, but they have not “lost their lives”, even if some have had to face episodes of racism during their journey.

The majority of refugees are women and children, and for them there is the added threat of trafficking. They come from a history – that of the Soviet world – in which they learned to distrust everything that is public or state; they therefore stay away from the buses organized by the government and this plays into the hands of the traffickers, who approach and offer a ride in a private car.

But I didn’t see only that, on the contrary, I saw something more: many people involved in the restoration of peace, approaching the refugees, even while the soldiers are engaged in the war, often from afar, staring at a computer screen, as a technology war is underway. It is a veritable army of peace that has mobilized for initiatives of welcome and solidarity, at several levels. There is the solidarity of the States which, in a few days, have set up infrastructures and streamlined the procedures allowing the legal entry of refugees, providing buses or allowing free trains; there is also that of the civil servants who carry out the operations. Then there is the solidarity organized by the NGOs, the Churches and the religious communities: all were present in the territory I visited – Catholics of the Latin and Eastern rites, Orthodox, Protestants and Jews – capable of collaborating in a spirit of practical ecumenism.

What struck me the most was the spontaneous solidarity of ordinary people. Hungarians, of course, but also many people I met, from Italy, Belgium, Spain…: they left what they were doing and left, traveling thousands of kilometers, at their own expense, to reach the Ukrainian border, to unload the aid they had brought and to embark the people they would welcome home.

I saw a Europe able to put aside closures and fears, able to open doors and borders, instead of building walls and fences. I have seen Europeans able to behave like the Good Samaritan again, loading into cars and buses – no longer on horseback or on donkeys – foreigners found “half dead” along the roads leading to the border. I pray that once this crisis is over, Europe and Europeans do not back down, but remain open and welcoming!

In short, I saw Fratelli tutti in action, in people’s hands and faces, in their actions and words. I think that as a Church we have a great task here: as the Holy See and its diplomacy continue to seek ways to end the conflict, also offering themselves as mediators, on another level, we must commit to supporting and strengthening this solidarity effort.

It will be necessary because the crisis could be prolonged, but above all because once peace returns, the same solidarity, perhaps even greater, will be necessary to accompany people in their return home, so that they can regain the life they now seem to have lost, overcome the grief, wounds and suffering that the war will leave on the territory of Ukraine, and build a peaceful future for their country.

The commitment of the men and women of Ukraine has already begun. When I returned to Rome, they told me about something that had happened in Medyka, a Polish border town. Some traffickers tried to convince the women on the run to board two buses that would take them to Denmark, in order to prostitute them. Other Ukrainian women, already settled in Poland, asked to verify the identity of these traffickers, who quickly disappeared. Today, Ukrainian women are organizing to prevent such events from happening again. We can only imagine what they will accomplish once they can return home, with the same spirit and determination. To give Ukraine a future, it is essential that the guns be silenced, but that is not enough: the refugees must be able to return home, go back to work, go back to school… A country cannot not live without its citizens!

Last week I set out on “a journey of prayer, prophecy and denunciation”. So that was it. But on my return, I can say that it was also a journey of testimony, love and hope. With this spirit, I am now leaving for Slovakia.Vatican News

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