Photo: Khrystyna Bila with her children, Liza – age 9, and Nastia, age 2 – celebrating a bit of normalcy in a time of crisis.
As troops and tanks advanced on the ground and bombs fell from the sky, Khrystyna Bila made peace with her decision to leave Kyiv.
“I only thought about the fact that I must protect my children, to give them food, and keep them safe and healthy,” the mother of two children said. “I have to do everything so that my children would be happy and smile. Firstly I’m a mom. I have to survive for them, give them life.”
Bila found safety in one of L’Arche’s communities in Lithuania, a country where those with deep memories anxiously watch the advance of Russian troops in neighboring Ukraine while opening their doors to people in need at the same time.
Around 20,000 have sought shelter in Lithuania as the war there has entered its second month. A national organization has helped to piece together places for refugees to stay. This includes L’Arche communities and even the homes of L’Arche staff in Lithuania.
Ugnė Gudelytė and her family in Kaunas have sheltered Bila’s family, and over the weekend helped Bila’s daughter, Nastia celebrate her second birthday – a glimpse of normalcy in a time when worlds have been turned upside down.
At the same time the L’Arche Kaunas workshop house opened its doors to another family from Ukraine: a mother, father, grandmother and three children – one, a son teenager with disabilities. “We’re trying to help his parents find a job,” community leader Gedas Malinauskas said. “They are desperate not to be a burden to their hosts.”
In Lviv, Ukraine a respite-care home normally offers relief to aging parents of people with disabilities. It is one normal point of connection but, in the middle of the war, it has been transformed into a shelter for guests from the East fleeing the war.
The five workshops that the community in Lviv normally runs have been closed but the leaders now aim to open at least one of them – in the basement of a church where “if there is an air raid they don’t need to run anywhere”, Basia Wojcik, L’Arche International envoy for Ukraine and Lithuania said.
“It’s really critical for core members to go out a couple of times a week at least,” Basia said. “After two years of Covid and now, this terrible war… it’s been hard on them. Leaving home and coming to workshop at least every now and then, and spending time together with their friends will help everyone feel better in these difficult times.”
Maintaining community in the middle of war is a challenge in a particularly difficult time. For example, there is only one van only for more than 65 core members and their assistants in Lviv. A lack of internet connection, and even computers in many family homes, kept many isolated even before the war.
In one hand, L’Arche staff and friends hold doors open to welcome anyone in need, especially people living with disabilities who may need shelter. With the other hand community leaders aim to hold together a sense of community, which is shaped, too by the pressing imperative to welcome strangers in crisis.
“L’Arche helped me to learn how to open my heart, my home and how to welcome guests warmly and comfort them,” L’Arche Lithuania team member Ugnė Gudelytė said of welcoming Bila and her children into her home.