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  • Writer's pictureJRS Romania

How would Fr Pedro Arrupe respond to the scars left behind in Ukraine and in Russia?

Father Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) served as the 28th Superior General of the Jesuits and he established the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), focusing its function on social justice and priority concern to the vulnerable - in 1980 to respond to the plight of Vietnamese boat people fleeing their war-torn homeland. For more than 40 years since then, JRS has been providing assistance to refugees in conflict zones around the world, not only shelter and food, but also in the form of education for the social integration of the refugees.

In mid-June, I visited the Bucharest branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service which has been continuing its humanitarian aid immediately since after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. There, I had the opportunity to engage with Ukrainian refugees. Five months have passed since the outbreak of the invasion. Although the number of refugees has decreased, they still continue to cross the border into Moldova, Romania, and Poland every day, fleeing the flames of war in Ukraine.

There are several characteristics of Ukrainian refugees that I noted during my stay in Romania.

The first is that most of the refugees are either women, women with children, or the elderly. This is due to the ban on men between the ages of 18 and 60, which took effect a few days after the Kyiv air raid began.

Secondly, it is its spontaneous eccentricity. Compared to the long time-traveled refugees coming from Afghanistan or somewhere far from Europe, making their way on foot to their destination such as Frankfurt, Wien or so, Ukrainian refugees are rather the type that crossed the border yesterday fleeing the war and are today at the JRS Bucharest without having a clear destination in mind. The sense of urgency and dismay conveyed by them sitting in the waiting area of the aid desk or on benches in the garden, waiting their turns to register, is a reflex to the abnormality they have just experienced.

And thirdly, it is that many Ukrainian refugees share neither the settled nor migratory characteristics common to economic refugees, but rather those of the returnees. Some of those who fled to other countries through relatives or contacts, have returned to their Ukrainian homeland. Such returnees were frequently seen in the town of Siret on the Romanian side of the border. The situation at the border, where evacuees and returnees cross their ways, shows the uniqueness of the Ukrainian refugee population.

During my stay, a Ukrainian woman who was working as an interpreter at JRS Bucharest returned home when the Russian bombing had stopped in her hometown. After all, she returned to her husband with her children. The grandmother of a Ukrainian friend of mine in Portugal also came to Coimbra after the invasion, but returned to her hometown when she heard that the Russian troops had retreated from there. Her evacuation period lasted only a little over a month.

However, the characteristics of the returnee type would apply to those who crossed the border legally. In Iasi, a town on the border with Moldova, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with two Ukrainian men. They would not tell me the story of their journey. Their arms were full of wisps and scratches, so I assumed that they had wandered through the bushes somewhere. I wondered if they would be able to return to their home countries after the war ended.

War leaves a wide variety of scars. Spending time with the Ukrainian refugees, I couldn't help but note some of them. The cheerful women who were eager to learn origami with their children, and also young boys who willingly helped me with setting up the little slide and the swing, all crossed the border with a burden in their hearts.

That burden is a sense of guilt as a refugee towards the fellow countrymen who remained in the country, the guilt of being a survivor towards the war victims in their homeland about which the news narrates every day. Will they ever be able to lift this burden? What we do know is that this is the kind of burden that will continue to multiply as long as the war lasts, and the kind that will remain after the war is over.

Another scar that I saw is the following. A Ukrainian NGO worker working in Chisinau, Moldova, has a Russian father and a Moldovan mother. She and her sisters were born and raised in Kyiv and speak Ukrainian. They speak Russian in the family. After the outbreak of the invasion, the dialogue with their relatives living on the Russian side had been lost. "If the Ukrainians hadn't started the war, this whole thing wouldn't have happened"; her father was told so by his relatives.

Currently, the Russian media surveillance authorities demand to cancel the media license of the print and website of Новая газета, Novaya Gazeta, one of the last remaining independent news outlets in Russia. The diversity of information networks and sources continue to be lost in Russia. Along with that, cross-border dialogue among family members, relatives, and acquaintances in that part of the world is being lost. It is likely to leave a scar that will be deeply engraved.

Father Arrupe, who founded the Jesuit Refugee Service, was one of the eight Jesuits in the hypocenter zone of the Hiroshima atomic bombing on the 6th of August, 1945. With his medical knowledge and skills, he began helping the wounded promptly after the bombing. How did Father Arrupe see the scars left in Hiroshima afterwards? If Father Arrupe, who had built cordial ecumenical relations and his special contacts with prelates of the Russian Orthodox Church, was still alive, what kind of activities would he have engaged himself in to face the scars left behind in Ukraine and in Russia?

Blitz is a student at the Institute of Philosophical Studies, University of Coimbra and has twice volunteered at JRS Romania to support Ukrainian refugees.

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