Ukrainian refugees: ‘Wherever you go, look for Caritas’

As Caritas Lithuania continues to offer long-term aid to Ukrainian refugees, Ernesta Karnilaitė says Catholic priests in Ukraine are telling people to look to Caritas for assistance, no matter to which country they flee.

By Devin Watkins & Svitlana Dukhovych

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Lithuania has been welcoming refugees from its neighbor, so far accommodating 55,000 people, though some have begun to return home.

Caritas Lithuania has sought to meet their needs, offering food aid, clothing, and help finding shelter.

Ernesta Karnilaitė, Communications Director at Caritas Vilnius, in the Lithuanian capital, spoke to Vatican News’ Svitlana Dukhovych about her organization’s work with Ukrainian refugees.

Assistance for trauma-affected individuals

She said help is offered to meet immediate needs—such as clothes, shoes, sheets, or towels—since many people arrive with very few material goods.

Caritas also offers more advanced help, in the form of specialist care for emotional or psychological wounds.

“Caritas,” said Ms. Karnilaitė, “gives help with material goods, then we offer emotional help for those who have endured traumatic experiences, perhaps from human trafficking or deep traumas.”

The Church’s local humanitarian aid agency even has a place where children can spend their free time and play with other kids or interact with Caritas volunteers.

Ernesta Karnilaitė at Vatican Radio's headquarters in Rome

Ernesta Karnilaitė at Vatican Radio’s headquarters in Rome

Linking up, one family at a time

Ms. Karnilaitė said Caritas’ assistance radiates out from their central hub in Vilnius and reaches 10 parishes in the Archdiocese.

Parish families can sign up for the “Family Friendship Program”, which links up Ukrainian and Lithuanian families for a moment of relaxation to enjoy together.

“They have a simple time for friendship, with free time and leisure activities,” she said. “Lithuanian families also give a lot of advice regarding social questions, like how to visit the hospital or where to find a dentist.”

Since Lithuania endured decades of Soviet occupation before 1991, many people feel a sort of kinship with Ukrainians, according to Ms. Karnilaitė.

“Our relatives in an older generation don’t need to experience the war directly, because they have a precise feeling of what is going on in Ukraine. Lithuanians are welcoming Ukrainians with an open heart and offering all the support they need. It’s uniting us.”

Great trust in Caritas

The Communications Director of Caritas Vilnius recounted a story she has heard from several Ukrainian refugees, saying many Catholic priests in Ukraine told people: “It doesn’t matter what country you are in, just look for Caritas.”

Ms. Karnilaitė said that endorsement shows “how much people trust Caritas”, adding that the aid agency acts like “a star of dawn” pointing people to the Church’s concrete care.

She said around 150-250 people visit the Caritas Vilnius center each day to receive handouts, especially clothing.

Prayer: our most powerful weapon

On a more personal note, Ms. Karnilaitė described how the experience of helping refugees has changed her life.

“I’m a young person,” she said. “I haven’t seen a lot of difficulties in life. So, the experience of seeing Ukrainians is very touching because we instantly feel like we are brothers and sisters.”

She noted that it has been a shocking experience that has shaken her personal prayer life.

But in difficult moments, Ms. Karnilaitė said she recalls the words of Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius: “Take the most powerful weapon in your arsenal and use it frequently: prayer.”