Q&A: Why Catholic groups are focusing on mental health in Ukraine

23.08.2022, 09:28
A man hiding in a bomb shelter in Ukraine - фото 1
A man hiding in a bomb shelter in Ukraine
Photo source: Taras Chuiko on Pexels
“Early on, we realized that there was a need for more capacity building on mental health protection,” says Monsignor Robert Vitillo, the secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission, following a recent visit to Poland and western Ukraine where he had been assessing the scale of the refugee crisis. “At one of the centers I visited one woman said, ‘we need food, and we need a place to stay, but we also have to cure our minds in our hearts.’”

Source: Devex

ICMC is a network of Catholic organizations responding to refugee and migrant crises, which also provides humanitarian assistance in refugee camps globally.

In May, ICMC convened and launched the Catholic Response for Ukraine, or CR4U, a forum for Catholic churches and associated humanitarian organizations responding in the Ukraine region, with the aim of improving their response.

Vitillo, a social worker by training, joined ICMC after several years working for Caritas Internationalis — a global confederation of Catholic relief and development charities based in Vatican City — which included 11 years as the organization’s head of delegation to the United Nations in Geneva.

In July, Vitillo conducted a fact-finding mission to hear directly from people who are displaced in Ukraine to find out more about “what they need both now and then when peace returns.”

Speaking with Devex, Vitillo outlines what ICMC hopes to achieve by convening the CR4U working group, and how he hopes the world will respond to displacement more broadly as refugee numbers increase and climate change threatens more instability.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve set up a new working group to support Ukraine. Can you tell us more about that?

In early March, the Vatican's Office for Migrants and Refugees convened the major global Catholic humanitarian organizations including Caritas Internationalis, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Order of Malta, and the ICMC to talk about the situation in Ukraine.

We realized that we needed to do a lot more sharing of information and to try to work much more closely together. We started a new working group called the Catholic Response for Ukraine, and the ICMC was asked to convene it.

We prepare weekly briefing documents that go out by email for the members of the working group, sharing what's happening in terms of the U.N. response in Ukraine and neighboring countries, and the Ukrainian response. We share information about what our different organizations are doing — what advocacy the pope is doing, and the statements we’re making. We meet every two weeks to try to identify where the gaps are and what kinds of needs we're hearing about.

What kinds of issues are arising and how are Catholic churches responding?

Early on, we realized that there was a need for more capacity building among the church organizations in Ukraine and the surrounding countries on mental health protection, especially for children, and the need for psychosocial support there.

A lot of the emphasis being placed by the international community is of course on the material assistance that's necessary — food, shelter, clean water. Catholic organizations are also involved in material support too: There are food and medicine collections, and they are opening up convents, monasteries, [and] schools, for people to stay in.

But we also saw these other needs that we wanted to be able to respond to, so we've been developing training programs and materials for these organizations to be able to assist with counseling.

Some of our organizations have done quick courses in psychological first aid for emergency situations. So that’s helping people who don't have a background as psychologists or psychotherapists to learn how to listen, how to react and identify some of the more serious mental health issues that might be arising and try to help people get the professional help that they need.

I thought it was telling that in one of the centers that I visited one woman said, “We need food, and we need a place to stay, but we also have to cure our minds in our hearts.” They are grieving, many of these people have lost their loved ones.

There’s a different refugee pattern here. Mostly it's women and children and older people who have been displaced. Their families have been separated because the men between 18 and 60 have to remain in Ukraine for potential military service.

What should the international community be aware of in terms of what this community needs?

In many places in Ukraine and in Poland, people were being housed in schools. But soon their schools are going to start again after the summer and so people said to me: “Look, we've been well taken care of here, but we know that school has to start and so what's going to happen?” They don't have a lot of certainty about shelter right now in the short term.

Then there’s the situation where homes have been bombed. I met a woman who showed me photographs of her bombed house — she can't go back to her city as it’s practically in ruins.

We need to think about what kinds of rebuilding is going to be necessary in Ukraine. The international community has a responsibility to respond. We need to avoid the perennial problem that we face, which is that there's a very short window of public attention to these situations. So trying to keep open that understanding of the needs and our desire as an international community to build solidarity with the Ukrainian people is key.

The other thing that Pope Francis has brought up frequently, and many of our Catholic organizations are bringing into their advocacy is that yes, there's been a great response in terms of military assistance to Ukrainians, to defend themselves. But we are also trying to encourage the international community to insist on opening the avenues of dialogue and trying to find a peaceful solution through dialogue.

Refugee crises are becoming more common and the number of refugees is set to increase due to the climate crisis. How do you want to see the world respond?

Our group, the CR4U, made a commitment to not only talk about Ukraine when we do our advocacy because there are so many emergencies throughout the world that have been longstanding.

“Development also influences peace. … If we want lasting peace, then we have to help access human development.” — Robert Vitillo, secretary general, International Catholic Migration Commission

In Turkey and Lebanon where we work with Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of them have been there for seven to 10 years. And then there are emergencies that almost never get mentioned like Yemen. There are also newer ones that are coming up that we need to look at. We're very active with the Catholic church work in Burkina Faso, where we have a massive displacement of people, for example.

Then there’s the climate. We complain about the heat wave in Europe but it's not anything compared to the massive displacement going on in areas such as the Sahel, and the Oceania Pacific region.

We haven't given enough thought and action towards this. In 2018, the U.N. passed both the global compact for safe, regular, and orderly migration and the global compact for refugees. And many countries signed on to those compacts — and yet, we have to ask about how much of what they signed up to has actually been implemented.

Those compacts had provisions for decent work for all people, yet in many places in the world migrants and refugees don't have access to the basic health care and labor assurances that people born in those countries have.

Going back to the 1951 Geneva Convention for refugees, countries promised that people would have a right to bring a claim for asylum in that country. And yet, now we have a situation where some countries are trying to send people to another place to be processed for the claims of asylum.

Have you seen any positive or negative changes in attitudes toward refugees during your work?

Certainly there are many people of goodwill that understand some of the reasons why people have to move, but I think much of the world doesn't understand it.

We think that people are moving simply because they want a better life as in higher salaries. But we’re talking about a basic life, to be able to have access to food, education, decent salaries, and to save for the future.

I think we need to do a lot more work on understanding the connection between migration and development and understand that if we really committed ourselves to have positive development in many countries — and that means maybe not getting the cheap goods or products we look for in the global north — then maybe we could be able to safeguard the futures of people who want to stay in their home countries, and yet can’t do so.

Development also influences peace. That connection was made back in the 1960s when Pope Paul VI said, “development is the new word for peace.” If we want lasting peace, then we have to help access human development and make sure that things like the Sustainable Development Goals really have a chance of being implemented throughout the world.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.