By LISA EISENHAUER
Catholic relief groups and other organizations providing humanitarian support to Ukrainians who are fleeing or sheltering in place amid the invasion by Russian forces say the need for assistance is great.
Refugees from Ukraine pick up supplies just across the border in Palanca, Moldova. Groups within the Caritas International confederation are helping stock and staff sites inside Ukraine and in bordering nations that provide shelter and necessities for people displaced by the Russian invasion. CHA says best practice in this international crises is to donate money to relief agencies rather than send goods.
JCaritas International/Marijn Fidder
The effort to meet that need is hampered by the closure of major highways as military forces position themselves and by active combat including rocket and missile strikes in urban centers and residential neighborhoods. Relief organizations also face challenges
accessing cash inside Ukraine as other nations respond to Russia's aggression by closing off financial networks.
"The situation, as we all know, is very volatile," Moira Monacelli, director of the Vatican-based aid group Caritas International said March 4. "It's changing day by day, hour by hour." Caritas is a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations operating in Ukraine and over 200 countries and territories worldwide.
Monacelli was among representatives from several international humanitarian aid groups and U.S. Catholic health systems who discussed their efforts to bring in food and medical and other emergency supplies and assist Ukrainians hunkering down in place
and those seeking refuge in other nations. They spoke during a networking Zoom call on March 4 that was organized by CHA.
Bruce Compton, CHA's senior director of global health, moderated the call. He said it was prompted by queries from CHA members about how to help a population under siege. "I know this is an extremely emotional time for all of us as we consider what is
happening in Ukraine," Compton said.
The organizations represented on the call shared links to websites giving details on their respective aid efforts in the region and where donations are accepted. Those links can be found at chausa.org/global-health/Ukraine. The aid groups that took part
in the call included:
On March 11, a week after the call, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported 549 civilians had been killed in the conflict — although media estimates were much higher as Catholic Health World went to press in mid-March. According
to the USAID report, 12 million people were in need of humanitarian aid inside Ukraine and 2.5 million people were fleeing to neighboring countries. The United States is working with other governments and the United Nations to mount a global effort
to provide food, shelter and security to Ukrainians in areas under siege and refugees who have fled to Poland and other border nations.
A woman and her daughter cross the border from Ukraine into Moldova after waiting for hours on March 1. By March 11, the U.S. Agency for International Development estimated that 2.5 million Ukrainians had fled to other nations in search of safety
as the Russian assault on their homeland escalated.
JCaritas International/Marijn Fidder
Presenters on the CHA Zoom call discussed the importance of working through established and trusted partners to meet the critical food, shelter, fuel and transportation needs of Ukrainians in conflict zones and those fleeing to the relative safety of
Monacelli said the two member organizations within the Caritas confederation that are providing direct assistance in Ukraine have infrastructure in place in 65 locations in Ukraine and in neighboring countries, including Moldova, Poland, Romania, Hungary
and Slovakia, all of which have opened their borders to refugees.
Monacelli said Caritas is providing shelter, transportation and psychosocial support to the traumatized victims of the invasion both inside Ukraine and in border nations.
Aid in various forms
Kevin Kostic, director of donor relations for Catholic Relief Services, said his organization is partnering with Caritas and other groups in its relief efforts. He shared photos from Ukraine taken since the Russian
invasion began Feb. 24. One image showed elderly men and women sheltering in the cold cellar of a cathedral about 90 miles west of the capital city of Kyiv as bombs exploded outside.
"What we're hearing from Caritas Ukraine in particular is that older and sick people are really overwhelmed and often completely on their own," Kostic said on the call.
In the days following the CHA call, The Associated Press reported that Russia had widened
its offensive. Its military had advanced on cities in eastern and southern Ukraine and continued to launch airstrikes on Kyiv and other urban centers. As the toll of dead and wounded climbed, the fighting left many homes and apartment buildings damaged
or destroyed and civilians cut off from food, medicine and heat.
The work of Catholic Relief Services includes coordinating aid distribution with leaders of relief efforts in Ukraine and recruiting and mobilizing volunteers to help with humanitarian efforts and transporting children out of violent areas, he said.
Like representatives of other groups participating in the 90-minute CHA meeting, Kostic said the immediate need is for cash to fund efforts already underway.
'Doing is donating'
On the call just eight days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, multiple CHA member health systems indicated they already were providing cash support for humanitarian aid efforts.
Susan Huber is president of Ascension Global Mission, which oversees international aid efforts by the Ascension health system. She said Ascension
is encouraging its associates and its suppliers who want to do something to help Ukrainians to stick with cash donations to established aid groups for now.
"Doing is donating because the people on the ground are the people who know what's needed, what they can get and how to access it," Huber said.
In time, she said, Ascension will work with its partner MedSurplus Alliance to send medical supplies that are specifically requested by the government or medical organizations in Ukraine. She said the health system bases its policies for aid donations
on the best practices outlined by groups such as CHA and MedSurplus Alliance. One of those practices, she
noted, is not to send unrequested donations of equipment and supplies.
Representatives from two systems — Bon Secours Mercy Health and Providence St. Joseph Health — shared on the call that they had made money commitments to Catholic Relief Services to support its Ukraine relief efforts. Bon Secours Mercy Health
made an immediate pledge of $100,000.
St. Joseph Community Partnership Fund, a grant-making affiliate of Providence St. Joseph Health, is matching up to $100,000 in donations from the health system's staffers. That system also plans to work with its partner
Medical Teams International to send medical aid for the Ukrainian relief effort once humanitarian corridors have been secured.
"The first thing we want to do is listen to our partners and don't expect that we have the answers," said Justin Magouirk Crowe, Providence's senior vice president for community partnerships. "We're going to have a bigger impact if we listen first and
In mid-March, CHA connected Bon Secours Mercy Health to a Polish nonprofit that used a financial donation from the health system to purchase needed medical equipment and supplies. CHA's Compton said the items arrived two business days after the donation.
In her closing remarks, Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, president and chief executive officer of CHA, commended the Catholic health ministry for its continued commitment to global health and eagerness to aid the besieged people of Ukraine.
"As we plan our response, we must resist our desire to react," she said. "We must be intentional and thoughtful in providing coordinated care in order to avoid the pitfalls that all too often are wasteful and have the potential to cause more harm for
those on the ground."
CHA's guidelines and resources for ethical disaster response can be found