“Pray for them”: Canadian military chaplain reaches out to refugees fleeing war in Ukraine

Standing in the gray light of a cold spring day recently outside Warsaw Central Station, Lt. Col. Terry Cherwick – with his black and white clerical collar protruding from his combat uniform – seemed like a beacon to the helpless.

One of three Canadian military chaplains sent earlier this month as part of Canada’s mission in Poland to help that country deal with the influx of Ukrainian refugees, the Edmonton-based chaplain fulfills a spiritual duty in deeply personal circumstances.

Cherwick is of Ukrainian descent himself and still has an extended family in the western part of the war-torn country. He said his first encounters with frightened and war-weary refugees in Warsaw – a stream of women, men and children who streamed through the cavernous, modern train station, mourning the dead and destroyed homes they had left behind – had made a deep impression on him.

Ukrainian refugees line up to receive food and medical services at Warsaw train station on March 10, 2022. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

For many deeply religious Ukrainians, something happens when they see a priest’s necklace.

“So many people see this sign and will come and talk to us, ask us to pray for them…to pray for their families,” said Cherwick, a Ukrainian-Greek Catholic priest and 29-year veteran of the military. .

It was humbling, even for a chaplain who spent time with Canadian troops in Kandahar’s killing fields.

In Warsaw, Cherwick bears witness to those struggling to make sense of what happened to them. A man opened his phone to show the priest before and after photos of his now-ruined home.

A message of hope

“There’s nothing left there, and you know, [he was] just asking how he’s going to move forward, how he’s going to move forward,” said Cherwick, who after a few minutes of conversation got the man talking about coming back and rebuilding.

Cherwick said some refugees told him that — with no time to arrange funerals, no time to grieve — they had to leave behind family members killed in Ukraine. They asked him to pray for their loved ones.

But what to say to someone who has lost everything?

“[I’m] I don’t know what you can say,” Cherwick said. Most people don’t come to him for answers, he added. What they want is a reaffirmation of hope. , a promise that “from death can be born life”.

It was a privilege, he said, “to offer them this sign of hope.”

Ukrainian evacuees board a train to Warsaw at Przemysl station near the Polish-Ukrainian border on March 23, 2022, following Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainians and Russians observed Orthodox Easter over the weekend, viewing their war from very different perspectives.

Patriarch Kirill (Cyril), head of the Russian Orthodox Church, supported the war. Over the weekend, he prayed for peace but avoided criticizing Moscow’s self-proclaimed “special military operation”.

Russian troops have been accused of committing atrocities, including the massacre of unarmed civilians in Bucha, outside kyiv, and bombings of hospitals across the country.

In the face of such hypocrisy and horror, people seek blame, Cherwick said. They want to know why such things are allowed to happen.

“Love, Compassion and Mercy”

Cherwick said that although he has not yet faced these questions, his two colleagues have had “in-depth discussions” with some of the refugees they have met.

What helps those grappling with such profound questions, he said, is the kind of “love, compassion and mercy” with which Ukrainian refugees are welcomed in Poland.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Godard, the commander of Canada’s humanitarian mission in Poland, said people here have proven to be “very good neighbours” to Ukrainians.

“It’s very impressive. It’s… very uplifting to see,” Godard said. He said his troops are “doing whatever needs to be done to help make the refugees’ stay a little more comfortable.”

The liberal government authorized the deployment in Poland of 100 to 150 soldiers for a period of up to three months. These soldiers assist the Polish Territorial Defense Force – made up mainly of reservists – in the reception centers for refugees.

Spectators support the Ukrainian team during a friendly charity soccer match between Legia Warszawa and Dynamo Kyiv at the Polish Army Stadium in Warsaw, Poland, April 12, 2022. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

Doctors, chaplains and other troops welcome the displaced upon their arrival in Poland and help them settle and find services. They also assist those wishing to travel to third countries.

Many members of the Polish Territorial Defense Force are voluntary, part-time employees with civilian jobs. Godard said they had worked non-stop in the two months since Russia invaded Ukraine.

More than five million people have fled Ukraine since Russian troops invaded on February 24, according to a statement from the UN refugee agency last week.

The exodus far exceeded the Geneva-based organization’s worst predictions of four million refugees – a grim milestone that was marked in late March.

Polish servicemen assist Ukrainian refugees at the Central Railway Station in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

More than half of all Ukrainian refugees – 2.8 million – have fled to Poland. Some have made Poland their first stop en route to other countries. The country has been generous and friendly. Ukrainians are entitled to national identification numbers that allow them to work and access free health care, school and bonuses for families with children.

Signs of support are everywhere – from TV news anchors wearing blue and gold pins to Warsaw’s public trams bobbing along the street with small Ukrainian flags attached to their antenna masts.

During a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early March, Polish President Andrzej Duda warned that his country was facing “a deep, deep refugee crisis”. He called on Canada to speed up its asylum process and help manage the flow of displaced people.

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski told The Associated Press last week that if fighting escalates in eastern Ukraine and there is a second wave of refugees, his city will no longer be able to accept people.

There are around 300,000 war refugees in Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million people. Most of the refugees are staying in private homes, Trzaskowski said, adding that while Warsaw residents expect to host refugees for a few months, they cannot stay indefinitely.

Cherwick said he had seen no signs of impatience from Polish citizens with the burden of refugees.

“The Polish Defense Forces…do not consider them refugees,” he said. “They see them as guests here in their country, and I think that sets the tone when they get here. [The Ukrainians are] grateful for the help they receive.”