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Faces of poverty in Ukraine

A community’s response to need

by Yuriy Lifanse | Mission Crossroads

A member of Sant’Egidio community distributes bottled water to people experiencing homelessness in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of he Community of Sant’Egidio)

In 2020, the Parliamentary Committee on Social Policy reported a 42.4% poverty level among working Ukrainians.

According to a study by the Dmitry F. Chebotarev Institute of Gerontology of the National Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine, 80% of single people or single elderly couples live below the poverty line — their pensions less than $100. As of February, the Ministry of Social Policy reported that nearly 1.5 million internally displaced people from the war zone were registered in Ukraine.

In terms of territory, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe and among the poorest. More than 40 million people in Ukraine live in poverty due to corruption, which permeates all areas of life. Most of the wealth belongs to a few families of oligarchs, while the majority live modestly or poorly. The situation became especially difficult after the outbreak of the war in Eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea in the spring of 2014. The war between Ukraine and Russia has lasted longer than World War II and has caused more than 13,000 deaths and a huge number of injuries and disabilities. Many have lost their homes, and no prospects for an end to war are visible. Every day, violence continues to take and maim lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a deep economic and social crisis, challenging both the medical system and social security system. More than 50,000 people in Ukraine have died from the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard, and hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs.

Members of Sant’Egidio gather near a metro station to feed the hungry.
(Photo by Yuriy Lifanse)

The community of Sant’Egidio in Ukraine is part of a large international movement of lay Christians responding to specific problems within society. Pope Francis identified the community’s charisma in a very short 3P (Prayer, Poor and Peace) tweet. Sant’Egidio in Ukraine and the Ukrainian government are celebrating 30 years on Dec. 1.

Sant’Egidio concentrates its work in three regional centers. Its nearly 1,000 active members help children, older people, people experiencing homelessness, Roma families and other poor families. In Kyiv, the community has opened a School for Peace, where children are brought up in the spirit of openness and solidarity, and a rehabilitation art workshop for people with disabilities, Gli Amici, which means “The Friends” in Italian.

For the community and its poor friends, the onset of the pandemic was a particularly difficult time. To the already enormous burden of poverty was added the threat of getting sick, or worse, due to the inability for unsheltered people to isolate and poor people to work remotely. Nearly all organizations that helped the poor were forced to close their doors. The homeless and older people have suffered most.

The typical resources provided to people who are homeless are food and temporary unskilled work provided by nonprofit organizations, acquaintances and friends. In mid-March 2020, as the temperature dropped to -5 degrees, thousands of people in Kyiv alone lost their jobs and ended up on the streets in a locked-down city.

“There is no one so poor that he cannot help another,” says Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio. This evangelical conviction helped in organizing a network of solidarity and friends in the city, ordinary people who prepared food and distributed needed items. An important task also was sharing the experience of working on the street, which Sant’Egidio acquired through the tragic experience of the pandemic in Italy. “Friends in the Street,” advocates for the poor, gathered around the community in Kyiv, where assistance could be provided in a coordinated way. Thanks to this coordination, most organizations not only returned to humanitarian work, but also increased aid. An important part of the work was advocacy efforts with the city authorities on behalf of unsheltered people.

Young people in the community of Sant’Egidio prepare a meal for people who are homeless. (Photo by Community of Sant’Egidio)

Tragically, COVID-19 hit the elderly first and hard. Those living in their own homes could no longer move around the city, as public transportation shut down. They could not receive necessary services, because of the lockdown (city offices and many medical services were closed). The problem caused lack of opportunity or the inability to use services online. To address this issue, the community organized check-in phone calls, the delivery of free grocery kits, hygiene products and other support. It was especially difficult for elderly people living in facilities. All houses were hermetically sealed as an added protection.

With the development of safety guidelines during the pandemic, homes for the elderly were completely closed to visitors for 14 months, until the start of vaccinations. These facilities, designed for security, turned into solitary confinement prisons. Throughout the year, the Sant’Egidio community has tried to support and encourage its elderly friends by providing protective equipment for residents and staff. It has also purchased video communication equipment for the nursing homes and provided encouragement through letter-writing, care package delivery and “concerts at the fence,” to address loneliness.

Yuriy Lifanse is a professor of the Italian language at the Pavel Chubinsky Academy of Arts and a leader in the Sant’Egidio community in Kyiv, Ukraine.

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