Update – April 27, 2022
Ukrainian refugee finds safety, welcome and acceptance in L’Arche
As Russian forces advanced on his town in Ukraine’s heavily contested Donbass region, a group of friends helped to save Igor Gusev’s life.
Born with cerebral palsy, Igor has managed to live independently with some limited support and the companionship of a beloved black cat. His community shunned him, but for the efforts of his few friends.
As bombing and violence approached his home, Igor’s friends packed him and just a bit of luggage into a car and headed west.
While Igor sadly had to leave his pet behind, he found new friends – and support – in the L’Arche community in Poznan, Poland. The Polish L’Arche communities have rapidly transformed themselves into a network of emergency care for people living with disabilities and their caregivers.
Igor’s disability is physical, but he appreciates the care he receives for the soul, too. “In L’Arche I met sincere love, peace … Peace and respect,” Igor said.
For most of his life, he has moved independently by crawling on his four limbs. His fully functioning left hand allows him to dress himself or hold a cup of coffee.
Escaping a war, however, proved far more difficult to achieve independently. Research, and L’Arche’s nearly six decades of experience, indicate that people like Igor have a greater challenge fleeing disasters like war, and finding access to services.
A volunteer organization in Poland came across Igor and, once understanding his needs, asked if L’Arche could help.
L’Arche was able to find a place for Igor even as L’Arche Poland’s communities are filling with refugees. He likes to live life as independently as possible, but he reluctantly asked his new L’Arche friends for help moving about in a house not fully adapted yet for someone in a wheelchair.
Donors to the L’Arche Emergency Fund are changing that, with renovations planned to adapt a bathroom to accommodate Igor and others with mobility needs.
The L’Arche Emergency fund – which supports communities in crisis – are making sure Igor and many others get needed care.
L’Arche’s two communities in Ukraine too have been able to help people fleeing war have a safe space to land and, in many cases, to continue to nearby countries hosting refugees. In Lithuania and Poland our communities have also opened their doors, with even staff and volunteers hosting guests from Ukraine in their private homes.
L’Arche communities in Poland have joined other local organizations to craft a tapestry of services aimed at supporting people with disabilities and their caregivers, which is often their families.
“In Wroclaw community we have created a day-care place where every mother who needs at least a few hours of respite will be able to safely leave her child and take care of other urgent matters for her own and their good,” L’Arche Poland National Leader Agnieszka Karolak said.
L’Arche is also involved in the PATCHWORK Association in Krakow, a network of people from Ukraine working for immigrant families of people with disabilities. L’Arche and others have helped to weave a support network of institutions and facilities dedicated to supporting people with intellectual disabilities.
With funding, PATCHWORK Association aims to formalize the reception of people with disabilities and their families, including transport from the border, providing short-term accommodation, assessing needs and opportunities for long-term assistance as well as psycho-social care for people who have fled.
“The people we have welcomed want to contribute and help somehow but, at the same time, they also have very real needs,” Karolak said.
Igor too has needs. A friend of the L’Arche community where he is now hosted offered a laptop to support his communication needs.
And while he dreams of one day having an electric wheelchair so that his mobility will not depend on his left hand alone, he has already made life-long friends in the Polish L’Arche community that welcomed him. Lidia, who lives with disability herself and welcomed Igor into her L’Arche community’s home, has become fast friends with “my dear Igor,” as she calls him.
“It’s like paradise and it’s a miracle that I’m here”, Igor says. He finds he is treated so well here, like “a human being, not an invalid.”
Igor enjoys his new community in Poznan, Poland.
Update – April 19, 2022
Workshop re-opens, offering connection and community as war rages
Anton Yakobchuk likes to make candles in the L’Arche Kovcheh workshop, but it’s his connection with others that is the real product.
It’s important for me to be in the workshop because I like to communicate, to talk with people,” he said.
The workshop has been shuttered since Feb. 24, when hostilities escalated. Ever since, many L’Arche members like Yakobchuk have been isolated, a sense of loneliness punctuated by air raid sirens.
“I was afraid when there were air sirens,” L’Arche member Galnya Nychyk said. “I was afraid to go outside, to the store. I am very sad because there is no communication. I have already started to speak to myself.”
Danger, and fear, is what prompted community leaders in L’Arche’s Lviv community to temporarily close down the workshop that has been open for two decades.
“No one knew what would happen next and we were as if frozen,” L’Arche Kovcheh leader Lesia Larikova said. “Not everyone can be online and we know how difficult it is for the core members when the workshops are closed.”
But even as attacks on Lviv escalated this week, the L’Arche community developed a plan to open the workshop safely. Stop by stop on an alternative and safe route, a minibus makes safe passage around the city to collect L’Arche members with disabilities, to bring them to a workshop where they can experience connection and community.
“We have chosen the two safest places, which are partially basement and classified in our reality as a shelter,” Larikova said. “Our minibus takes a safe route around the city, bringing core members to the workshops. They love to ride the bus, so they enjoy this innovation.”
It is an innovation that has weighed heavily on leaders in L’Arche Ukraine. Even as the risk of attack rises as the war drags on, so, too do the risks of isolation, loneliness and inactivity.
“When the sirens go off, we use the time for prayer and for personal sharing,” Larikova said.
“Such ‘trips’ to the shelter are usually received with understanding.”
The minibus circulates so that members can arrive to work in one of two shifts. Once they arrive, members put their hands to work making crafts with beads and other materials that they offer for sale.
Idle hands moving from being filled with worry to activity and purpose is helpful. Perhaps even more so is being able to reconnect with friends following such a time of isolation.
“We know our members have limited opportunity to connect with friends because of the isolating nature of disability and of war,” L’Arche Vice-International Delegate Manca Kastelic said. “Most have very limited internet or computer availability, which keeps them even more isolated.”
“We were all a little scared at first because the firing rockets did not stop,” Larikova said. “We had to adjust the work of the community including the air alerts and the danger that continues to this day.”
Other acts of normalcy in the face of war’s chaos have also taken root. For the first time during the war, last week the community celebrated a joint liturgy in person. Those who could not come in person joined online.
Workshop leader Maria Voityvich feels promise, even as she and others acknowledge risks.
“Opening the workshop is a sign of hope,” she said. “Hope that we can see each other, talk a lot, support each other, pray together, look into the living eyes, not staring into a computer monitor.”
Naturally, news of the war has filled the days of L’Arche members in Ukraine. Even with intermittent trips to the air raid shelter, L’Arche member Dmytro Kryzanovskiy finds comfort in the workshop’s availability.
“There are friends here, there is work, you can sort out the beads, help in the kitchen,” he said. “There is a place for everyone here.”
1st picture: Members of one workshop group take a break for a song in Lviv.
2nd picture: L’Arche Kocheh workshop participants take shelter in a safe space in Lviv following an air raid siren.
Update – April 14, 2022
To stay or go?
Anticipating difficulties, mother makes painful decision to flee with her disabled son.
Even though Ol’ha Lubomyrov broke both of her ankles just before the first attacks of war came in Ukraine, she knew staying in Kyiv would put two lives at risk: her disabled son’s, and her own.
“On March 7, I heard the sounds of explosions near our home,” Lubomyrov said. “We crowded into the hallways and closed all the doors. It was frightening.”
Lubomyrov thought of her son, Lubomyr, whose autism would make evacuating incredibly challenging. He thrives on a schedule and a sense of order in his day. Now age 30, Lubomyr struggles when overwhelmed with sound stimuli.
She had seen the images of train stations overflowing with people trying to leave, and of attacks on public spaces those fleeing would need to cross.
Yet it was the thought of what could happen if she stayed in Kyiv that ultimately drove her to take the risk of leaving.
“I was worried that something would happen to me and Lubomyr wouldn’t understand that I was no longer here,” Lubomyrov said. “When we watched the news I saw something in his eyes. I wasn’t going to leave because of my difficulties walking. I felt guilty that I could not bring my son to safety.
“But then I could read it in his eyes,” ‘mom, save me’,” she said.
Friends who had left called many times and finally convinced her and Lubomyr they needed to leave.
The journey to safety
As members of Ukraine’s Faith and Light spiritual community, Lubomyrov and Lubomyr are used to enjoying a trip to summer camp.
“So I think he thought we were going to summer camp,” Lubomyrov said.
It was a comforting thought against a growing list of unknowns. Would the train station be noisy? Would the crowd force Lubomyr into a meltdown? Would police consider his uncontrollable actions, as a fully-grown man, as violent? Would strangers shun them because of Lubomyr’s disability?
Bringing only the barest of essentials, mother and son made their way to an evacuation point. There, they happened to connect with others in the Faith and Light community who had access to a minivan. It was a relief to Lubomyrov.
“It was cold but the van had blankets and pillows, and we were comfortable,” she said. “We did not ask, “where are we going?”
The trip took 16 hours. Soldiers at checkpoints tried to question Lubomyr, leading to some tense moments before they realized his disability.
In western Ukraine friends of the L’Arche community in Lviv welcomed Lubomyrov and her son. They sheltered in a school set up to host people fleeing the war. There, they learned other friends of L’Arche in the Faith and Light community might be able to help them to make it to Poland, and a much more safe environment.
Even though a journey to Poland was fraught with many unknowns, it was a risk Lubomyrov knew she had to take.
Overwhelmed at the border
Lubomyrov says the border was not chaotic but generally well controlled. But in the arena-sized housing facility, echoing with the din of hundreds living in limbo, the noise overwhelmed Lubomyr.
“It’s set up to serve many people and well organized, with plenty of food and medical care,” Lubromyrov said.
Lubomyr had a meltdown, which brought the attention of medical staff and police. They were understanding and helpful but his mother knew it would not be sustainable for Lubomyr to stay there.
A friend of L’Arche helped to collect the mother and son and connect them with first a temporary place to stay and now, a private room set up by an aid organization, where Lubomyr plays with the fraying stuffed blue dolphin he brought as his only toy from home.
The family has settled into a routine. Lubromyrov remains connected to her friends in Kyiv, one of whom cares for her disabled son and fears the challenges of leaving with him even as bombs and rockets continue to fall, weeks into the war.
And Lubromyrov remains connected through a daily online gathering with others from Faith and Light, L’Arche and extended friends in a time of prayer.
“Every day we look forward to our evening prayer, we meet a lot of people from all over the world and feel their support,’ she said. “It is the main event of our day.”
Update – April 6, 2022
Emergency fund sustains critical connections
Community’s power remains unbreakable by bombs and war
Olesia Larikova, the community leader of L’Arche-Kovcheh in Ukraine, describes how many of her community’s members respond when air raid warning sirens sound.
“When the alarm sounds, they take stools and go to the common corridor, where they are safest from attack,” Larikova said. “And there they pray on a rosary with the neighbors.”
Even as war attempts to sever connections, the strength of L’Arche’s community relationships in Ukraine and nearby countries remain strong.
Since the beginning of the war, L’Arche communities in Poland and Lithuania have provided connection and support to those fleeing the war’s violence, as well as to the two L’Arche communities in Ukraine – whose members have remained even as they have helped others to escape.
The L’Arche Emergency Fund sustains deliveries of critical supplies from Poland to L’Arche Lviv and Ternopil. The Poznan community van shuttles materials to a rendezvous point just inside Ukrainian border, from where a van from Lviv delivers them to those in need.
“Our action was very simple,” L’Arche Poznan community leader Michal Talar said. “We used our resources, the help of volunteers, and an available car. We drove the needed items to the other side of the border where we transferred them to another vehicle that took them to the community in Lviv.
“The decision was not difficult,” Talar said. “With support from the L’Arche Emergency Fund, the biggest task was to coordinate the work of the volunteers, and to communicate with the community in Ukraine.”
The operation has been able to deliver critical medicines, supplies and food to Ukraine’s L’Arche communities, which have maintained community connection even as they endure attacks.
The community connection has not been limited to those who are part of L’Arche. Doors in L’Arche communities in Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland have opened, including those who have welcomed refugees into private residences as friends of L’Arche.
Assistance has been provided to many, with and without disabilities, who are simply in need of help in a time of crisis.
In Vilnius, 7-year-old Oleg has brought unexpected vitality to L’Arche Betzata, Lithuania. Paper airplanes fly over the dinner table. “The childish ability to wonder and openness warms the core-members and assistants of our community,” L’Arche Betzata Community Leader Ruta Domarkaite – Cerniauske said.
Comfort and support are freely offered. Vasily Kravets, a L’Arche community member living with disabilities in Lviv, was on his way to mass with Larikova Friday evening when they saw a woman kneeling, and crying on the street.
“Vasily approached her and hugged her, she responded to his embrace and leaned close to him,” Larikova said.
Faith & Light communities inside Ukraine, joined by many members of both Faith & Light and L’Arche communities from across the world, continue to lead an online prayer time daily. The times of connection and community have been meaningful, and a common place of peace for many.
So, too are the regular shipments of supplies from L’Arche Poznan in Poland.
“It is a valuable experience for us, which continues because of the L’Arche Emergency Fund,” Talar said. “The compassion with which the community took on this project is in strong contrast to the brutality and senselessness of war. “
(1st photo: Community members unload a L’Arche van with food and supplies made possible by the L’Arche Emergency Fund. 2nd photo: Oleg, nearly age 8, forced to flee by the war. 3rd photo: Vasily Kravets, friend Lesya Lyakh and Sister Lucia in more peaceful times in Ukraine)