Two years into war, Knights of Columbus steadfast in Ukraine on front lines of aid
(OSV News) -- As Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine reaches the two-year mark, the Knights of Columbus remain steadfast in bringing relief to vulnerable Ukrainians living in some of the hardest-hit areas, one of the organization's leaders told OSV News.
"Our members are doing heroic work, and they are willing to risk their lives to bring aid to people in places like Avdiivka and ... other villages that (are) close to the front line," said Szymon Czyszek, director of international growth in Europe for the Knights of Columbus.
The global Catholic fraternal organization established its first council in Ukraine in 2012 and now counts some 10,000 members in Ukraine and neighboring Poland, said Czyszek, who spoke amid another massive Russian attack on Ukrainian cities. Air strikes hit Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, among other places, on Jan. 23, local officials said, killing 10 people and wounding more than 70 as Moscow's war approaches the start of its third year. Video from Ukraine's police showed emergency workers helping residents of apartment buildings as another video showed a body of a 9-year-old girl pulled from under the rubble. Her mother also died in the attack.
Among the first six members of the Knights in Ukraine were Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Roman Catholic Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki of Lviv, said Czyszek, noting that the "beautiful ceremony" during which both were inducted was "a great symbol of the unity (between) both rites, (which) the Knights want to bring together to work to support the church, the people and families."
With the support of more than 67,500 donors, the Knights as a whole have provided Ukraine with close to $22.1 million in aid through the Ukraine Solidarity Fund, which the organization established within hours of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. To date, the Knights have sent over 7.3 million pounds of supplies and goods, more than 250,000 care packages and 400 wheelchairs to Ukraine, helping upward of 1.4 million people.
Czyszek told OSV News the Knights "can be defined as men who courageously respond to the needs of people" -- especially in places like Avdiivka, located about 15 miles north of Russian-occupied Donetsk and site of some of the most intense clashes between Ukraine's defense and invading Russian troops along the estimated 808-mile front line.
Czyszek told OSV News that some Knights have had "bombs explode in front of them" as they travel to ensure aid reaches such areas, where "people are very often forgotten and have nowhere to go."
During the Christmas season, Knights hosted several dinners across Ukraine for families of fallen soldiers, even as Russia unleashed its largest missile barrages since the start of its full-scale invasion in February 2022. At a Dec. 30 gathering in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, women and children braved a missile alert to pray for the men they have lost to the war, and to share a dinner catered by the Knights.
In occupied areas of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region, the Knights -- along with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and Caritas, the official humanitarian arm of the universal Catholic Church -- were banned by Yevgeny Balitsky, the Kremlin-installed head of the area's military-civil administration.
An order signed by Balitysky in December 2002 denounced the Knights as "associated with the intelligence services of the United States and the Vatican."
Czyszek said the order serves as "a confirmation" of the power of the works of the Catholic Church and its ministries -- one that also "tells you something" about those behind the ban.
"It's a sign that people who want to bring (this aid) are driven by Christian love," said Czyszek, adding that "we see again" the "tactics of banning the church."
At the same time, the Knights are taking "appropriate measures to make sure that we do reasonable things," he said. "We are of course very careful about our actions, because we don't want our members to die in the work of doing these (charitable works)."
Russia's invasion, which continues attacks launched in 2014, has been named a genocide in two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights. Ukraine has reported some 123,685 war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine since February 2022.
In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children's rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation and transfer of 19,546 children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.
The effects of Russia's war -- which has intensely targeted civilian housing and infrastructure -- have been devastating, said Czyszek.
"It's just a difficult reality, when you see the pictures, the conditions," he said. "They live in apartment buildings with no windows in the middle of winter."
Through their ministry, the Knights seek to reassure those they serve that the Lord has not abandoned them, he said.
"Many of these people are asking, 'Where's God in this; where's God?'" said Czyszek. "And the work that we are doing is to really show to people that amid the suffering, God is present. So every care package that we deliver or generator or clothing we just want to show people that God has not forgotten them, and they are not alone. And we just want to be instruments of God's mercy."
Along with meeting immediate needs for basic provisions, that mission has expanded to include what Czyszek calls "a new phase," where Knights "try to address the long-term challenges and difficulties" faced by a population wounded at heart by a decade of war.
"His Beatitude (Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) has said that more than 80% of Ukrainians will need some kind of psychological and spiritual assistance, and (assistance in) dealing with trauma," said Czyszek. "And we have already started doing a huge number of things (in this regard). We are doing work with widows and orphans, because I think these women and children, and the families of the fallen soldiers are already paying the highest price for the war."
Among the initiatives in this area are events such as "pilgrimages and dinners," which offer "a time when they can experience solidarity," he said.
"We have stories of women who have said in meetings organized by our local councils that when they receive support, they want to live again," Czyszek said. "This horrible experience of losing a husband or a father or a son -- you can think that your life is over. But with the work that we try to do in different areas, they regain hope for the future."
Czyszek also stressed that "it's very important that this work ... is done in a way that provides a holistic approach and a proper Christian anthropology," adding that the Knights sponsor "a number of psychological workshops for veterans and their spouses" that reflect such an approach.
He said that such a faith-based response embraces "not only Catholics, (but) ... anybody in need," and includes "spiritual support (for) the deep spiritual wounds that people will carry within themselves for years" after the hostilities cease.
Czyszek urged supporters of the Knights to live out Pope Francis' call to global solidarity by "being aware" and not "forgetting about the people of Ukraine."
He also highlighted that the Knights' work is "possible only because of the generosity of so many people.
"And the last thing that we ask people is pray," said Czyszek. "Prayer has this power to transform the hearts and minds of those that we can't convince with the strength of our argument. Prayer is the response that we can offer, wherever we are. This is a spiritual gift that we can offer to people who suffer in Ukraine."
- - - Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.