U.S. bishops learn how conflict affects lives of displaced Ukrainians

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LVIV, Ukraine - Olexiy Kondratenko, a scout with the Ukrainian army, is wondering if he will ever be able to travel to the United States.

The 31-year-old soldier lost his left hand in firefight with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern city of Luhansk weeks ago. He needs specialized surgery followed by a period of rehabilitation.

Volunteers and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church military chaplains have found a clinic in Chicago that provide the treatment Kondratenko needs. Enough money for the trip and the hospital stay. But he still can't travel because he is having trouble obtaining a visa because he grew up an orphan and he has no family members to vouch for him.

His fortune may be about to change.

Members of a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops delegation touring Ukraine pledged to help Kondratenko and ask the American embassy in Kiev what could be done get him on a plane to the U.S.

Such were the stories a USCCB delegation heard during its June 20-24 visit to the beleaguered eastern European country. Led by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, USCCB president, and Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, chairman of the bishops' Subcommittee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe, the five-member delegation heard about the challenges facing young Ukrainians because of the 15-month conflict over Crimea, a separatist movement in the eastern part of the country and the ongoing recovery from nearly a half-century of Soviet dominance.

"When we came to visit Ukraine, we could keep things very abstract and very general," Archbishop Kurtz said. "But it's good to put faces on the situation and tragedy in Ukraine. The young man who was in need of a surgery and a visa to get to the U.S. was one of that faces that I will not forget."

"We've learned that this conflict has a human face: families who are divided, mothers who are trying to protect their children, people who strive for dignity, freedom, opportunity," echoed Stephen M. Colecchi, director of the bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace, who was on the delegation.

In meetings in Lviv with representatives of the Crimean Tatar community and representatives of the displaced activists from the Donbass region, the delegation heard stories about security concerns, the effects on family, the lack of employment opportunities from numerous young adults.

Russian authorities in Crimea violate rights of the Crimean Tatars, whose political leaders were exiled and police intimidate the population by searching homes, mosques and Muslin educational institutions known as "medreses" in the Turkish language. Some Tatars have disappeared, the representatives told the delegation.

Alim Aliev, co-founder of the initiative Crimea SOS, was born in Uzbekistan, to where his grandparents were deported in 1944 along with 189,000 Crimean Tatars after Soviet officials accused them of collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. They returned home in 1990. Aliev was a year old then.

Because of his family's experience, Aliev understands the importance of preserving the language, culture, and Muslim faith of his small ethnic Tatar community in Crimea.

He explained how the initiative provides assistance to about 2,000 Crimean Tatars who moved after the annexation to predominantly Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking Lviv. The organization helps deliver food, arrange housing and find employment along with efforts to protect the unique Tatar identity that enriches Ukraine, Aliev said.

The organization also works with the pro-Ukrainian activists who fled from the eastern cities of Luhansk and Donetsk where the Ukrainian army continues to skirmish with Russian-backed separatists despite a negotiated cease-fire.

"Our goal is to show that Ukraine, torn apart by a war, is one united country", explained Donetsk refugee Karina Adamyants, coordinator of a photo exhibition of artists from the embattled Donbass and Crimea regions.

Archbishop Cupich left Ukraine June 24, saying he was impressed by the unity and patriotism of the young Ukrainians.

"I've learned in a new way how Ukrainians, no matter what their faith is, whether they are Muslim or Orthodox, Latin or Greek Catholics, see themselves as Ukrainians, and this kind of unity is very positive," he said.

Finishing his fourth visit to Ukraine, the archbishop noted that he discovered many young people are in shock and feel that their aspirations face roadblocks. Despite the challenges, he found young people harboring deep hope for what lies ahead.

"The conflict that's going on is very damaging," he said. "But the young people that I talked to give me hope that the future is in good hands."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015