Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Kevin ClarkeMarch 01, 2022
A woman carries her child as she arrives at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from the Ukraine, in Poland, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. The head of the United Nations refugee agency says more than a half a million people had fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Thursday. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)A woman carries her child as she arrives at the Medyka border crossing after fleeing from the Ukraine, in Poland, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. The head of the United Nations refugee agency says more than a half a million people had fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Thursday. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Eating and sleeping have become impossible. Work. Work is good because it keeps his mind off everything that is happening at home. What cities are being attacked. What friends are running for their lives; what friends are staying put and preparing to fight. “When you work, you don’t think,” Vitaliy Osmolovskyy, S.J., says.

He has been running around the Bay area in San Francisco this week, networking, collecting goods and donations, on the phone with contacts in Ukraine, Poland and Russia, reaching out to collaborators at Jesuit Refugee Service and Caritas Ukraine, convening conversations in three different languages. He has found lodging for newly arriving refugees from Ukraine at Polish churches and retreat centers and arranged for Zambian and Nigerian students “stuck on the border” to get through to Poland where they can take first steps toward getting home.

Last week he was a doctoral student at Santa Clara University. This week he is helping to lead a Jesuit humanitarian offensive over the phone. Tomorrow he will be in Poland leading that relief effort in person.

Last week he was a doctoral student at Santa Clara University. This week he is helping to lead a Jesuit humanitarian offensive over the phone. Tomorrow he will be in Poland leading that relief effort in person.

His professional life before becoming a Jesuit—working logistics and resettlement for European N.G.O.s—has prepared him well for this grim and unexpected mission as coordinator of Jesuit Help for Ukraine. The books and the classrooms in California can wait. He is not sure when he will be able to get back to them.

He has already lost friends to the violence and witnessed his hometown wracked by rockets and mortar fire. Zhytomyr is a “military city,” he says, not far from the border with Belarus and close to Kyiv. Of course, the Russians have made it a target in their campaign to overthrow everything in Ukraine.

When it became clear that an invasion was surely coming—Father Osmolovskyy recalls that he knew it must be true when he heard reports of Russian medical units stockpiling blood near the border—he arranged to have his father and mother moved out of Zhytomyr to safer ground. He went to all kinds of trouble securing their escape, booking their passage, a personal refugee crisis all his own. This week they told him not to bother; they were not going to budge. His father, 72, and mother, 70, had signed up for the territorial guard.

He is not sure how they will help defend Ukraine, but he is not surprised that they have decided to. They told him, “We can’t stay at home when young guys and girls are dying for the country.” His father has always been a fighter, he says, a worried son thousands of miles away.

When he gets to Poland, so close to the border, he already feels how tempting it will be to slip across into Ukraine.

When he gets to Poland tomorrow, so close to the border, he already feels how tempting it will be to slip across into Ukraine, to be with his friends and family and see how he can be of service there where the missiles and bullets are flying. He knows he cannot give in to this temptation. The work he will be doing with the refugees in Poland is too important. The United Nations reports that more than 1 million have already fled the fighting, more than 550,000 of them have escaped into Poland. “I can help there too,” he says.

While his family and friends figure out how to survive at home, Father Osmolovskyy tries to remain focused on the tasks at hand, arranging train tickets and places to stay, keeping people moving, finding psychologists in Poland who can speak Ukrainian to begin working with the traumatized women and children making their way across the border.

It is, after all, mostly women and children. Martial law has been declared in Ukraine, and not many men are able to stay with their wives and children, mothers and sisters in Poland. They are being turned around at the border to face the Russians.

However Ukraine’s drama concludes, Father Osmolovskyy has found comfort in the support he has experienced personally from friends in America and Europe. He is cheered by the international diplomatic and logistics effort now in motion to support his country. He is profoundly grateful for the outpouring of help at the border itself from Polish people who are throwing open their doors to strangers as the crisis escalates.

But mostly he feels humbled and ennobled by the valor of his fellow Ukranians and the calls of sorrow and resistance he is receiving from friends in Russia. But already, as a Jesuit, as a Christian, he finds himself worrying how Ukraine and Russia will be able to reach a reconciliation, how will they ever become good neighbors again as Christ calls us to be, “to not hate but to love,” he says, anguish cracking his voice.

It is a sobering challenge, but it is one that lies ahead, perhaps far ahead. The work this week will be getting to the airport and getting to Poland. It is important and it is enough for now.

Editor's note:If you would like to learn more about Jesuit relief efforts in Poland or would like to help support it, contact Father OsmolovskyyJesuit Refugee Service or Caritas Ukraine. On March 4 at noon Pacific time, Father Osmolovskyy will be joining a panel discussion over Zoom sponsored by the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., to talk about conditions in Poland and the religious roots of the conflict in Ukraine.

March 3: This report was updated with the most recent refugee figures from the United Nations.

The latest from america

I am always going to be let down by humans, but never by the One who is fully human and fully divine.
Joe Hoover, S.J.June 13, 2024
Sea-Watch crew members help a migrant boarding a rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea on July 23, 2022. African bishops are expressing pain at seeing young people migrate to lives of uncertainty. (CNS photo/Nora Bording, Sea-Watch handout via Reuters)
Both the United States and the European Union are experiencing a period when double-digit percentages of foreign-born people have been able to achieve legal residency.
Kevin ClarkeJune 13, 2024
The Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity released a study document on the role of the bishop of Rome and how that role is viewed by other Christian churches.
Gerard O’ConnellJune 13, 2024
Pope Francis is scheduled to sit down with U.S. President Joe Biden and eight other heads of state in a series of private bilateral meetings during the Group of Seven on Friday, June 14.