Caritas CR using its extensive network to provide aid to people in and outside war-ravaged Ukraine

Caritas is a Catholic non-profit organization operating at the grassroots level in 160 countries around the world, aimed at helping the poor, vulnerable, and excluded, regardless of race or religion. In the Czech Republic, Caritas is the oldest non-profit organization working at the national level, and also the biggest non-state provider of social and health services. I caught up with Caritas Czech Republic’s Head of Humanitarian Aid and Development Cooperation, Jiří Škvor, to find out how they are helping with the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

“Caritas Czech Republic is very active in the Ukraine response – it is part of the global Caritas community, so we have contributed to the joint response, which is done mainly by Caritas Ukraine, so we’ve got very strong ties with Caritas Ukraine, and we are also bilaterally cooperating with them. And besides that, we are in close contact with many dioceses in Caritas organisations throughout Ukraine, and currently we are responding to their particular requests for material aid, and we are sending trucks with that material aid to them.”

What are the refugees most in need of at this moment?

“We’ve got two types of that response. One is on the border, which is done by Caritas Poland and Caritas Slovakia and other organisations, and then there is the main one, which is within Ukraine. Within Ukraine there are many internally displaced people who moved towards the border but didn’t cross it, so we are responding there also. We are sending my most experienced colleague from Prague to Lviv, he will go there this week. And last week we were in Slovakia and Poland and Hungary to assess the situation on the border, so we are responding to both parts of the crisis.”

Have you travelled yourself to the border?

Photo: Martin Pařízek,  Czech Radio

“Yes, I was there with one of my colleagues, and it was extremely interesting and important to be there in person, because it’s clear that the picture which is delivered by the media is a bit more catastrophic than what is the reality on the border, at least currently. The most complicated moment was a couple of days after the war started, but now it’s fully under control, it’s well-organised by national and local authorities. Many international and local NGOs are active on all the border crossings, and also the system of reception centres is very well-organised. So from my perspective, of course it’s possible to do some fine-tuning, and to improve communication especially with volunteers, who are not always very well-informed about the larger picture, but in general it’s fine.”

It’s quite amazing that they were able to respond so quickly – did they already have something in place for such an eventuality?

“I think it was based on the proactive approach of mainly local people. For example, those border crossings in Slovakia have been served by local priests and local Caritas organisations and some local people who understood the situation and were able to mobilise things they had around them – cars and food and so on – and they came to the border and they started that coordinated help.”

And is Caritas doing anything for Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic specifically?

Jiří Škvor | Photo: Caritas CR

“Yes, Caritas Czech Republic is a huge organization consisting of more than 300 Caritas organisations spread all over the country, and all those organisations are very active in this response. They are in close contact with the government and also with the regional centres. And the coordinators of those regional centres rely a lot on the Caritas network, because Caritas Czech Republic is the biggest provider of health and social services in the country. So it’s an important counterpart of the government.”

Do you also provide accommodation for the refugees here?

“Yes, but it’s clear that those institutions are relatively full nowadays, but there are other options, and all those Caritas organisations are always active in searching for other opportunities if their own institution is full, they get in contact with the local or regional government, for example.”

And what kinds of institutions are we talking about – church premises?

Photo: Caritas CR

“Those institutions are mostly social institutions for the elderly and so on. And those alternative options are mainly provided by villages and towns, but it always requires somebody who is proactive and asks for that specific place. From my perspective, one of the most important things is that proactivity of people who understand the situation and who are able to be the first to ask or initiate something.”

How much money has Caritas raised so far for the Ukraine crisis?

“We have collected almost 100 million crowns so far.”

And when you visited the border, did you speak to any of the refugees yourself?

“Yes. It’s clear that those people are extremely brave – they are smiling and they are relatively easy to access and so on. But when you spend a couple of minutes with them and ask some questions and open a dialogue, it’s clear that the most difficult part of their lives is yet to come.”

Were there any stories that particularly touched you?

Photo: Caritas CR

“We met two elderly people – a very old couple – we met them on the Polish border and they were waiting for somebody to collect them and take them to their family who are living in Germany, but there was no response from the driver so they were extremely afraid about what is to come. It’s clear that especially for old people, it’s difficult to even imagine what they are currently facing.”

What would you suggest to people who want to help at this point – what’s the best thing that you can do if you’re just an ordinary person that wants to help somehow?

“We always prefer financial support because it gives us an opportunity to respond quickly, and also to provide refugees with something that is completely relevant to the current moment, because those needs are changing every minute, and if we are getting some material help, it’s fine, but those needs can change from Monday until Friday, and then it is difficult to handle it.”

Does it ever happen that people donate material goods like clothes and then you have nowhere to give them?

Photo: Caritas CR

“In fact we don’t accept this kind of help. The only possible way is when a company decides to send their own goods, mostly new goods like bedsheets or something like that, so we are able to utilize it, but it has to be on mutual agreement between us and the company. So the company contacts us and asks ‘can you accept this kind of help, or is it meaningful?’ and we can say yes or no, and mostly we are talking about full trucks of goods, so if that company would decide to send us two boxes of something, the logistics is extremely complicated and it doesn’t make sense.”

So it doesn’t happen that people just leave bin bags of things here?

“I think they would do it, but I don’t know an organization who is accepting this kind of help. This is what we are repeating every time – the logistics and price of delivering such a thing to those in need, it is extremely difficult and pricey and it doesn’t make sense.”

It must be really hard, first of all to figure out what’s needed and then to organize all the logistics – how is that done?

Photo: Caritas CR

“Luckily my team is extremely brave and extremely experienced, and they were able to handle also an agenda which is out of their scope in general, and they are able to learn. Also, the logistics are demanding but not that complicated, once you understand what is going on, you can handle it. Also we have many experienced volunteers who can bring their own know-how to the organization for free. We’ve got one professional logistician for example in the team who is doing her job for free.”

Do you have any predictions about what will happen with the crisis?

“Personally I believe that there is still an opportunity to open a dialogue between Ukraine and Russia and that the war will be over in a couple of days – this is my hope.”

Author: Anna Fodor
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