Cardinal Cherny listens to the pain of Ukrainian women fleeing war

The head of the Vatican’s Department for Integrated Human Development, Cardinal Michael Czerny, is concluding his mission to Hungary and Ukraine in the name of the Pope, where he spent Thursday listening to the horror stories faced by Ukrainian women.

By Salvatore Sernozio

Cardinal Michael Czerny, interim governor of the Dicastery to promote integrated human development, returned to Rome on Friday, after spending several days in Ukraine and Hungary, bringing Pope Francis to rapprochement with refugees fleeing war in Ukraine.

On Thursday, he visited the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) center at the Nyugati railway station in the Hungarian capital Budapest. He also visited the Knights of Malta Center, where he listened to the dramatic stories of Natalia, Tamara and others.

Marina and Nadia took a taxi to the Moldovan border to escape the bombs in Kharkiv. Natalia used a restaurant table as a bed. In a hurry to escape, Tamara forgot her cell phone at home and hadn’t been in contact with her children for weeks. Eighteen-year-old children Dana and Dangra traveled alone for a fifteen-hour drive to reach safety.

life stories

In a facility hall on the outskirts of Budapest, the pain of these women fleeing war was palpable. Six Ukrainian refugees, all women, now safe thanks to the assistance they received from the Orders of Malta, await a new destination.

On the third and final day of his mission in Hungary, Cardinal Czerny met these women on Thursday afternoon at a sports center now converted into a reception centre. With the help of an interpreter, pause to listen to their stories, ask questions, and look at pictures of bunkers, makeshift shelters, children and elderly parents on their cell phones.

Natalia’s tears

Natalia and her parents, who hail from the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, which is controlled by Russian-backed separatists, have not had a respite since 2014. Natalia, who fled Donetsk in 2015, is once again living amid fear and destruction. Since March 5, she has been traveling with another 29-year-old woman: one to Germany and the other to France.

When the Cardinal arrived, she was the only one sticking her smartphone. She listens to the stories of her compatriots, and gets up to tell Cardinal Cherny about the stages of her journey with the help of her mobile phone.

Natalia moved from the basement of the building in which she lives, with her neighbour’s daughter, who is only a few months old, sleeping under a hookah, moving to gyms in sleeping bags, and finally to an abandoned hotel restaurant. The photo of the parents appears in the gallery, and Natalia bursts into tears. “They have neither food nor medicine. They will die even without bombs.”

Natalia shows the Cardinal a picture of her parents who remained in Ukraine

Natalia shows the Cardinal a picture of her parents who remained in Ukraine

Marina’s tears for her parents

The cardinal puts his hand on the shoulder of Marina, a 62-year-old former employee of the Space Shuttle Company. She fled the eastern city of Kharkiv with her daughter, who has a mental disability. They took a taxi to central Ukraine, and paid only for fuel. She is now waiting to move to Germany.

Although she has not witnessed her house collapsing under mortars, she finds no point in returning home. “We were forced into the cellar 31 times. I could no longer stand the constant sound of the siren; it drove me crazy. So I decided to leave.”

Marina does not regret her decision, although she left her husband and father. Tears of gratitude fall for the “human warmth” received in Budapest. “I am really grateful,” she repeats to the cardinal, who blesses her and gives her a picture with a prayer to Pope Francis.

Tamara for mobile phones

It was the same story with Tamara, a petite woman in her sixties, with a wrinkled face and tired eyes from a 5-day trip.

She laughs, saying that she was in a hurry to leave her phone. But her laughter soon turns to tears. “For about a week, I have been walking around without being able to communicate. My kids are in town. We heard from them thanking the volunteers. They are safe with the Baptist community in a basement.”

Cardinal with a Ukrainian refugee

Cardinal with a Ukrainian refugee

Niugati Station

The women make up a small part of the 54 refugees currently sheltered by the Knights of Malta, which also brings an ambulance service “on four wheels” to the border, and is the only charity to do so. They also work, together with Caritas, at the Keleti railway station, east of Budapest.

Cardinal Cherny visited the center on the first day of his trip. After a long layover at the headquarters of the Jesuit Refugee Service Thursday morning, he wanted to visit the station to the Nyugati railway station, where the refugees congregate together in poorly coordinated services.

However, from 3 to 4 thousand people descend on Nyugati. Shortly before Cardinal Cherny arrives there, an email from the border announces a train with 125 people on board coming from Zahoni.

A large number of them in Nyugati are Roma people. In the cardinal’s first invitation to approach, they were curious to tell their story.

One of them says that her family in Odessa were merchants or factory workers, and they were evacuated within about an hour. We want to get to Berlin but there is no way. In Germany, they don’t know anyone but want to try their luck, “because there are more possibilities”.

Cardinal Czerny greets several Nigerian refugees at Niugati Train Station

Cardinal Czerny greets several Nigerian refugees at Niugati Train Station


The cardinal’s last stop on Thursday was the parish of Szent Josef, in Esztergom, led by the 35-year-old priest, Father Andras Sele, who had been serving the Spanish-speaking for 3 years. For weeks, he’s been living amid phone calls that more people are arriving.

They are young Ecuadorean refugees who have been evacuated from Kyiv, and are being housed in the chapel or parish catheter rooms, awaiting their return home via the consulate. They stay for a few nights, share a computer and two bathrooms, with only one shower, among 56 of them. They receive Cardinal Czerny with Cardinal Peter Ardo from Budapest.

“I am here because the Pope wants to express his closeness and his hope to Ukraine,” Cardinal Cherny says. “The Holy Father asks you to pray in order to contribute to peace.”

The Cardinal swings as he approaches the two children, offering him biscuits. They tell their stories followed by a handshake and a group photo. Before leaving, the Pope’s envoy reminds them: “Do not forget the charity you received. When you return to your country, you will be the one to give to others.”

Cardinal Czerny returned Friday morning to his base in Rome.

Two children serve the Cardinal some snacks

Two children serve the Cardinal some snacks