From Christmas decorations to camouflage netting  

War: when the unthinkable happens, how would any of us react? And suppose we have a family member or close friend with an intellectual disability, for whom a predictable routine is a ‘must’, what then? What help could we hope for? Where would that help come from?  

As L’Arche community leader in Lviv, Ukraine, Lesya Larikova has had to find answers to these tough questions for the last two years, since the full-scale invasion of her country on 24 February 2022.  

‘Even up to the last day before the invasion, our community life was more or less normal. Our four program sites were running as usual… team meetings, ensuring daily transport… birthday celebrations, all the usual things. Then suddenly, our country was at war.’ 

Lesya and Bogdan from L'Arche Kovcheh in Lviv, Ukraine.

And for all Ukrainians, the war turned normality upside-down. One of the L’Arche  buildings was soon needed for the army: instead of pretty Christmas decorations made by teams with and without intellectual disabilities, camouflage netting began to roll off the production line. In addition, some assistants got their call-up papers for military training; others, along with their fearful families, became refugees. Inflation suddenly rocketed. And some vital everyday goods became impossible to buy at any price. Normal daily life? Vanished.  

Lesya remembers: ‘transporting our members from their homes to the program sites is essential. We only just managed to prevent our minibus from being taken away for war service.’ 

Each loss or threat of loss provoked a new wave of uncertainty. The constant threat was to each person’s inner peace: ‘if we had lost that….’   

In Ternopil, a few hours to the south-east, L’Arche’s other Ukrainian community was facing similar issues. ‘All of us knew the existential threat our country was facing: if Russia stopped fighting, the war would end; but if Ukraine stopped fighting, that would be the end of Ukraine.’  

But Ukraine is not the only country where recent conflict has upended the daily life of members of L’Arche with and without disabilities. L’Arche in Bethlehem, Ma’an lil-Hayat, is also doing all it can to maintain their rhythm of community life in a time of great insecurity. Mahera Ghareeb, the leader explains:    

‘This war brings real danger to our core members: if some of them are forced to stay at home, they don’t stay indoors but run around in the streets. For those living close to the Israeli settlements, this is very risky. And their disabilities are not always visible. There are Israeli soldiers: a person could get shot, or arrested, or beaten up.’ 

And not so long ago, Syria was living through a civil war, and afew years back Ivory Coast as well, both countries where L’Arche is present. So, the question remains: How to ensure that vulnerable people stay safe? How to keep going as a community?  

Shukri Anwar Murra, an intellectually disabled member of Lil Ma’an Hayat points the direction: ‘it is frightening during the war. I love coming to Ma’an lil-Hayat every day, so we can be together. At Christmas, we had lunch, and exchanged presents. I was happy.’  

Shukri in L'Arche Lil Ma’an Hayat's workshop.

In a word: safety is about ‘togetherness’. Being part of a bigger circle, being known, and loved. Being missed if you are not present. That is the surest way of staying safe and ‘happy’ in a time of national crisis. This is why Mahera, Lesya and their teams have been making every effort to keep their L’Arche programs open, to give their members the security of the daily routine, and the support one gets from connecting with one’s friends. Against the unpredictable chaos of war, even a small dose of normality can help a lot: a bulwark against the trauma, that keeps threatening to overwhelm one’s inner peace. ‘Coming to the program gives our disabled members a place of safety,’ Mahera reminds us. 

If vulnerable individuals need circles of support to keep going, so do vulnerable communities. Learning from past experience, L’Arche immediately set up emergency support teams around Ukraine and Palestine. Mahera explains the difference they make: ‘The solidarity campaign launched by L’Arche International didn’t just help financially, but emotionally and psychologically; to feel that we are not alone; that we are part of this big family. That gave us all a big push to keep going on, to keep moving.’ The value of shared prayer too, should not be underestimated: since February 2022, L’Arche members in Ukraine, along with Faith and Light have been holding a prayer on Zoom twice a week, joined by a wide group of regular participants from round the world. Each of these little signs of solidarity shows that Shukri and Mahera are right: with and without disability, the best way through any disaster is together.    

In that spirit, the respite house of the Lviv community welcomed two internally displaced families, with disabled members. Similarly, L’Arche communities in Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, France and Scotland opened their doors to Ukrainian refugee families, prioritising those impacted by disability where possible.   

Wherever war flares up in the world, it is well-known that a person with an intellectual disability faces exceptional risks of physical and psychological harm, a fact recognised in Article 11 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  

How does this happen? Shockingly, a person with a disability can simply get left behind. Abandoned by the fleeing staff of institutions, and also by their frightened and overwhelmed family, the person who is seen as weaker or slower is sometimes left to fend for themselves: without medicines; without food; with almost no understanding of the chaos around them, nor of the shouted orders of military personnel. In the hair-trigger tension of war, unexpected reactions are not welcomed…  

As an international network-building organisation, L’Arche is convinced that a person with a disability is not a burden or a problem, but part of the solution. Time and again in a period of conflict, communities have seen how a member with a disability can make a contribution that helps others to cope better. For instance, N’da, an intellectually disabled member of L’Arche in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, who inspired those around him with his courage in wartime. (See the short film here #AsIAm Documentary | N’Da’s Story | Beyond the Wall | Episode 7).    

N’da was lucky. His nickname, ‘The Colonel’ well conveys a gift of leadership much valued by others in his L’Arche community. So when the storm of war struck the Ivory Coast, the Colonel could count on his deeply rooted relationships of belonging.    

Experience shows that in conflict after conflict, these circles of belonging – local, national and international- can make all the difference for men and women with an intellectual disability. But if they are not already in place by the time war comes, then it is almost certainly too late. Resilience during war is not about a short-term quick-fix. What really counts is having a pre-established place of belonging: the networks of human dignity that are carefully built up in times of peace ensure that when it comes to war, no-one – with or without a disability- will get left behind.  

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