Catholic Expert Warns of ‘Humanitarian Fatigue’ as Trauma Grows in Ukraine

This article first appeared on Crux.

After a recent visit to Ukraine, the head of an international Catholic charitable organization has said humanitarian aid is drying up as traumatized citizens continue to navigate the fallout of the ongoing war with Russia.

Speaking to Crux, Monsignor Peter Vaccari, President of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), said that right now, “What we see is the way in which so many countries in the West are giving such military support. What’s a concern is humanitarian fatigue.”

“Whether you agree with it or not, the military piece of it, there’s certainly humanitarian fatigue and that’s a real concern,” he said, adding that Ukraine is “now in every sense of the word, a traumatized people. They went from COVID to war, from the trauma of COVID to the trauma of war. Now, the trauma will continue.”

As Ukraine continues a major counteroffensive in occupied territory, millions of people will need to be evacuated Vaccari said, “Which is going to place another emphasis on humanitarian aid.”

“So, it’s humanitarian aid, it’s going to be the education of children, these are going to be big priorities,” he said.

Vaccari traveled to Ukraine 2-8 June alongside the national director for CNEWA in Canada, Dr. Adriana Bara, and program officer Anna Dombrovska.

The delegation visited humanitarian projects run by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church that are supported by CNEWA, which places a special emphasis on assisting Eastern Catholic churches, and funded by donors from North America.

CNEWA has been present in Ukraine since the early 1990s, often working with and through local partners on the ground, such as Caritas Ukraine and the Ukrainian Catholic University, among others.

Projects they visited included a home for children orphaned or separated from their families due to the war, as well as those receiving treatment at the Sheptytsky Hospital in Lviv, and a food distribution center in Novoyavorivsk.

They also held meetings to assess current on-the-ground needs with members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, including its leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, as well as representatives of Caritas Ukraine and monks and sisters belonging to the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, who assist the displaced.

In those meetings, humanitarian fatigue was flagged as one of the most concerning issues, especially as military activity increases.

The war was sparked in February 2022 when Russia invaded several parts of Ukrainian territory. Fighting is now mostly concentrated in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

In early June, around the same time Vaccari and his colleagues were in Lviv, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive against Russian forces in occupied cities. Ukrainian forces have attempted to breach the front line in several directions, including Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, among others.

Seen as crucial step to the long-term outcome of the war, the counteroffensive has so far failed to meet expectations, but Western powers remain optimistic that Ukrainian forces will make important gains. Those hopes got a boost from the recent turmoil in Russia amid the aborted mutiny led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenaries, sowing doubt about the cohesiveness of Russia’s forces.

CNEWA representatives were in Ukraine at the same time as the pope’s personal peace envoy, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who visited Kyiv 5-6 June and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other top-level officials to discuss strategies for achieving peace.

According to Vaccari, Zuppi’s visit and the pope’s bid to promote peace “wasn’t a topic at all” among ordinary Ukrainians his group encountered.

Zuppi’s visit “was happening at the time that we were there, [so maybe] we were there too early, and maybe it’s gotten into the Ukrainian press since we left,” he said, but noted that while Shevchuk had mentioned Zuppi’s visit, “the general population we met didn’t comment on it.”

“What I did get a sense of in a couple of different spots, was – I’m not criticizing anyone, but I didn’t get a sense from them that they are really looking for some sort of diplomatic silver bullet,” Vaccari said.

Vaccari said that what most Ukrainians he met seem to want is “an extra Patriot (missile) system and F16s…I’m not saying it’s the answer, because I can’t say, but that’s what I heard.”

As far as most Ukrainians are concerned, “this war started in 2014, and they want every inch back and they are determined to get it, and they know what they need to get it,” Vaccari said, saying in his time in Lviv, “I never heard any Ukrainian say he or she either wants to go further west, or stay out of Ukraine.”

“Their one objective in all this was, what do I need to do to get back to Ukraine?” he said, saying Ukrainians are “a very resilient people, they are very proud of their culture. They will tell you, they might take my life, but they will never take my country and they will never take my culture.”

“So, it’s a very powerful story. But right now, it’s trying to respond to the needs of a truly traumatized people, where the trauma is ongoing,” he said.

Vaccari said juggling humanitarian support is also difficult due to crises in other countries, including the ongoing political and economic troubles in Lebanon and fallout from the massive earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

Crises such as these make fundraising a challenge, he said, noting that many donors who offer regular contributions will give to emergency appeals for disasters such as the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, or the Beirut port explosion in 2020, or increased need due to a new wave of refugees fleeing war, but due to economic constraints will “hold back from their regular contribution, which we’ve already budgeted.”

“We’re very, very grateful, we’ve got very generous donors and their generosity really explodes during the time of the emergencies, and the crises, it explodes. But it’s no longer unrestricted giving,” he said.

Likening CNEWA’s work as being in an emergency room trauma unit, Vaccari said the need is overwhelming and is only going to increase.

CNEWA recently opened a new Rome office inside the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches, which Vaccari hopes will help to not only raise awareness of their work, since “many people don’t even think the eastern churches are Catholic,” but also bolster fundraising efforts by expanding their donor base.

“We’re coming up to the jubilee year, so I hope that by starting more or less summer 2023, that should give us the time to really be up and running and getting the word out there in the jubilee,” he said.

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