“We want to be friends for Ukrainian refugees who are trying to figure out how to live in a new country…we try to support them, listen to everyone, and help them in every way,” said Olena Zinkevych, the head of JRS Romania’s Ukrainian Team during the JRS Welcome and Protect Speaker’s Tour.
Ms. Zinkevych and her colleague, Diana Haidemak, a legal counselor for JRS Romania, spent two weeks in February traveling the United States to talk about JRS Romania’s response to the thousands of refugees from Ukraine who have fled to the country since the war started.
From Washington, DC to Seattle, the Welcome and Protect Speakers tour visited elementary schools, high schools, universities, and parishes to help inform people about the current circumstances Ukrainian refugees are facing.
Friday, February 24th, 2023, marks one year since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since this day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 5.9 million Ukrainians are internally displaced within Ukraine and 8 million have fled the country.
While talking with parishioners at St. Joseph’s Church in Seattle, Ms. Haidemak told the story of the first Ukrainian person who came to the JRS Romania office. The JRS staff members had gathered on February 24th to celebrate their patron saint. That evening, they prayed as a community that JRS Romania might be able to accompany all those forced to flee Ukraine with compassion. Two days later, the first Ukrainian refugee arrived.
JRS Romania quickly adapted to meet the emergent needs of Ukrainian refugees, meeting them at the Romanian border with food, water, and means to find shelter.
“Many people thought the war would only last a couple of weeks, then they would be able to return to Ukraine,” Ms. Haidemak said.
But, as the war continues, millions of Ukrainians have not been able to return home.
Ms. Zinkevych shared her own story of fleeing Ukraine. She arrived in Romania with her parents and stayed in a hotel that JRS Romania had rented for a couple of weeks for people needing immediate shelter. There, Ms. Zinkevych volunteered as a translator for her fellow Ukrainians. It was also during this time that she and Ms. Heidemak met.
As more Ukrainian refugees have arrived, JRS Romania has worked to provide various programs from education to livelihoods, from housing to mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), on top of the support they already provided thousands of refugees from other countries, mainly Afghanistan, Syria, and Bangladesh.
During the tour, Ms. Haidemak shared the story of a teacher from Ukraine who asked a Romanian school if she could use one of their classrooms to teach Ukrainian students when Romanian students were not in class. The school responded by giving this teacher access to four classrooms so that many more Ukrainian refugees could continue their education even during this uncertain time. This model of education has since expanded to support hundreds of Ukrainian students in their studies.
For several audience members, listening to these stories of hope and resilience has inspired them to get involved with JRS’s efforts to advocate for, accompany, and serve those forced to flee their homes.
At the university level, the speakers tour provided students the opportunity to ask questions and learn what they can do to help.
“Hosting the JRS Speakers was helpful because they provided insight into the Ukrainian crisis and JRS’s response to those most affected, especially children,” said Abigail Berhane, the Student Campus Minister for Social Justice at Seattle University.
The Prefect of Mission at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, Dr. Geoff Miller, said in an article published to the school’s website that Ms. Haidemak and Ms. Zinkevych provided students an opportunity to see where their own school’s Jesuit identity connects with JRS’s mission, and it inspired them to do more.
While traveling throughout the US, Ms. Zinkevych and Ms. Haidemak also met with representatives from Maryland and Pennsylvania to advocate for legislation that supports Ukrainian refugees.
One way the JRS/USA community can support the work of JRS Romania and JRS offices around the globe is by engaging in this advocacy too.
Tuesday, March 28th, 2023 is JRS/USA’s annual Advocacy Day and provides the greater JRS community a chance to meet directly with policymakers and urge them to support those who have been forced to flee their home. Ahead of this day, JRS/USA will host a webinar to discuss pertinent talking points and participants will have the chance to talk with the people from their same area who will be advocating together. To register for this event, click here.
As the war between Russia and Ukraine enters its second year, it is imperative that we continue to accompany and advocate for Ukrainian refugees. Click here to learn more about how you can support JRS’s efforts.