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All-volunteer Camino serves food, support and hope in Ukraine

Since the war began, the Rev. Dr. Jan Dus, a Presbyterian pastor and genealogist, has made 10 trips to Ukraine

by Leslie Scanlon for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Camino is a grassroots organization that works with organizations already in Ukrainian communities to feed and support people impacted by the war. (Contributed photo)

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the Rev. Jan Dus was in Yemen, working at a hospital on a mission assignment for Doctors Without Borders. He knew immediately he needed to go home to the Czech Republic to try to mobilize help.

“Honestly, I had no idea,” Dus said in an interview recently. “I couldn’t imagine the war would last this long.”

Since then, Dus — a Presbyterian minister and genealogist who lives in Prague — has made 10 trips to Ukraine, creating a humanitarian organization called Camino that raised about $80,000 for relief work in 2023, with about half the money coming from Czechs and half from Presbyterians in the United States.

Dus has seen close up what it can be hard to discern from far away: that people in Ukraine live every day with suffering, lament, loss, exhaustion and wounds, both visible and hidden. Hardships become commonplace, but no less painful. The electricity comes and goes, so the heat and lights and sometimes the hope flicker on and off as well.

Some international relief organizations are big household names: Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children.

Others, like Camino, are small and grassroots, with no paid staff — working through partners already involved in local communities.  In the early days of the war, Dus arranged deliveries of food and hygiene supplies. “After a while it became apparent that we needed to start an organization,” a structure to provide accountability and to raise funds, he said. Now, Camino is involved with a handful of projects across Ukraine, assisting everyone from senior citizens to children.

Dus trained as pastor in Prague and studied for a year at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary. He is ordained in the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (ECCB), and from 1996 to 2010 worked as a parish minister, including one year serving a Presbyterian church in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Then Dus moved into humanitarian work with Diaconia, a nonprofit social services branch of his denomination, and then later with Doctors Without Borders, where he volunteered on eight missions to Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Dus does humanitarian work as a volunteer, paying his bills by working as a genealogist and leading tours in Central Europe for Americans wanting to connect with their Czech roots.

Periodically, Dus has traveled to the U.S., speaking at Presbyterian churches in Iowa, Michigan and elsewhere, describing what he has seen of the war in Ukraine and raising funds to support the work.

In the western and central parts of Ukraine, at first “you don’t feel like you are in a country which is in the middle of a war,” Dus said. “People just seem to be living their regular lives,” walking to work, going to school, “until the moments when the sirens go on,” and people dash for shelter. “Often it is several times a day. Then you could go two days without anything, then it could be six, seven times a day. You don’t know when it will happen.”

In conversations, “I heard from Ukrainians the same thing I heard from people in other countries that are in a war conflict,” Dus said. “We get used to it. … We don’t want to worry about it, because if we did, we would not be doing anything but worrying. We just live our lives.”

The projects Camino supports include these:

House of Mercy — Before the war, this facility in Vatutine, a small town south of Kyiv in central Ukraine, was home to roughly 35 senior citizens. After the fighting started, refugees from eastern Ukraine fled here — mothers with children, the elderly, teenagers with nowhere to go. About 150 people shelter in House of Mercy now — with several people crammed into each bedroom, people sleeping in the hallways and common areas.

To feed all the new arrivals, the House of Mercy staff decided to start farming, using donations to purchase chickens and pigs and other needed supplies.

Orphanages — Camino supports three orphanages, all on the outskirts of Kyiv. The children have been evacuated to Germany and Poland. At one facility, near the start of the war, more than 100 children and their caregivers sheltered in a dirty, wet basement for more than a week, trapped between Russian attackers and Ukrainian defense forces. The plan is for the children to return when it is safe, but funds are needed to repair damaged buildings.

Food distribution — This program in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is named Mirne Nebo (Peaceful Heaven), the name of an upscale restaurant in the city before the war began. When the fighting started, the restaurant’s owner was determined to join the defenders, but, according to Dus, a friend told him: “You have never received any military training, you don’t know how to deal with guns. … People here need to eat. Just start preparing food.”

The program started slowly but grew as the organizers went to the bomb shelters and recruited volunteers to help. “Slowly they built up the team,” Dus said, starting in the restaurant but moving to multiple other locations to divide the risk, after the building next door was struck by a Russian rocket.

Now, they prepare thousands of meals a day for the elderly, mothers with children, people whose homes are damaged or don’t have electricity to prepare their own food.

Dus, who speaks fluent Russian and can understand Ukrainian, said one of the strongest feelings Ukrainians have expressed to him is that of betrayal. “Many of them have family in Russia, many have relatives in Russia. They feel stabbed in the back by a sibling,” and have switched from speaking Russian to Ukrainian, he said.

Camino ministers to many families who are grieving and displaced by the war. (Contributed photo)

“The sadness and the grief are very strong,” Dus said. Families are divided, displaced and grieving. People show him photographs of their homes, damaged by the fighting, and say “I have nowhere to go back. My house doesn’t exist. I don’t know where to go. Basically, I don’t belong anywhere.”

Still, Dus says many Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, and often speak openly of their faith. “They feel betrayed by the Russians, they don’t feel betrayed by God,” he said. “I have never heard this phrase, ‘How could God have allowed this war to happen?’ I have never heard that. They are very clear about who caused the war.”

When he asks Ukrainians how people from outside the country can help, “typically the first thing they mention is prayer,” Dus said. “Pray for us. Don’t forget about us. Remember us. Pray for Ukraine.”

In February, the Presbytery of East Iowa donated $2,300 to Camino after Dus spoke to a gathering at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.

“He’s a trusted voice,” said Rev. Dr. Julie Schuett, pastor of First Presbyterian Church near Ely Iowa, who organized the event. Years ago, when Dus studied in Dubuque, he made connections with her congregation, in a part of Iowa where many people have Czech heritage.

“This is an older, rural farming community,” with many military veterans who served in Europe, and where many people remember when the Czech Republic was still part of Czechoslovakia, Schuett said. “There’s this long understanding of how easy it has been to go from being neighbors over there to all of a sudden tyranny and oppression is knocking on your own door.”

Dus reminded his audience in Iowa that “war isn’t just when the war begins and the war ends. It stays with people. It transforms entire generations. It can affect every aspect of life” — faith, family, education, the economy, the land itself.

The Rev. Dr. Jan Dus says during speaking engagements that war can affect every aspect of life, including faith, family, education, the economy and the land. (Contributed photo)

Schuett described the work Dus is doing through Camino as a model for ministry and mission done in partnership. “Each person is here to live a good and rich life, and one way of doing that is paying really close attention to what is going on outside ourselves,” she said. “It’s amazing how, when we get to know someone and get to know a situation, how connected we are with them” — from farm country in Iowa to a war zone thousands of miles away.

To support the work of Camino in Ukraine, click here. You can also get an update concerning Camino every Sunday on Facebook and Instagram under the name “Camino Humanitar.

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