Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has not only caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians—including many children—and terrible destruction of cities and towns; it has also involved in different ways more than 30 European countries, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Turkey, China (to an extent), and other states.
The war has already caused the greatest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II, forcing more than two million people to seek refuge in other countries. But it has also provoked a tidal wave of solidarity across the continent, the likes of which has not been seen since 1945.
One extraordinary example of this solidarity was the incredible effort made over the past weekend by Lucía Caram, O.P., age 55. Sister Lucía, an Argentinian nun living in Spain, drove 2,000 miles in a minibus from her convent in Manresa—near the cave where St. Ignatius of Loyola famously wrote the Spiritual Exercises—to Romania’s northern border with Ukraine. She went to offer concrete help to refugees arriving from the country under attack.
Sister Lucía departed from Manresa at 6 a.m. on March 4 and arrived in Romania the following evening. She immediately went to a refugee camp in the north of the country. The next day, on the morning of March 6, she set out on the return journey to Spain, bringing six refugees with her: three women and three adolescents who had nowhere else to go.
Sister Lucía spoke with America via Zoom a few hours after she had arrived back safely at her convent in Manresa, having traveled 3,725 miles over four days. This is her story.
‘I spent some restless nights wondering how I might help’
Sister Lucía is a dynamic, contemplative Dominican living in a community that is undergoing renewal. Her work is very much in the spirit of Pope Francis, who knows her. She has extraordinary organizing skills and is well known in Spain for her assistance to refugees and her work to combat child poverty. She is a fan of Barcelona’s soccer team and is a friend of the soccer player Lionel Messi, who has helped, along with many others, to support her extensive charitable work helping young people, families in need and migrants.
For four years now, Sister Lucía and her community have been assisting three Ukrainian families, and more recently they have been caring for a mother and child who had come from Ukraine. Because of these experiences, Sister Lucía was already well informed about the situation before the war began.
The day after Russia invaded Ukraine, on Feb. 25, Sister Lucía organized a prayer service for peace in the large chapel of her convent. She had expected a handful of people to attend, but so many came they could not all fit into the church. “The desire for peace was palpable,” she said.
On Saturday, Feb. 26, she joined the Ukrainian families whom she knew at a peace demonstration in Manresa.
“We cannot just look on the other side because peace depends on everyone,” she said. “We’re all threatened, and the Ukrainians are our brothers and sisters.” Sister Lucía said she was “deeply impressed” by the large crowd that came to protest the war. It revealed that “people want peace, not war,” she said.
“People want peace, not war,” Sister Lucía said.
After the rally, she said that Inna, a young Ukrainian woman living in Manresa whom the sisters help, confided that she was deeply worried about her parents who were living in Kyiv but hoped to flee to northern Romania in the coming days; one of her parents has a serious health condition. Inna asked Sister Lucía if she could bring them to safety in Spain.
“I spent some restless nights wondering how I might help,” Sister Lucía said, “until Wednesday, March 1, when Luis, one of the volunteers who helps in the work of our foundation, said half in jest, ‘Lucía, why don’t we just go to Romania and bring them back?’”
She reflected on his suggestion, prayed and decided to travel to Romania to bring back Inna’s parents. Early Friday morning, March 4, she set out on the long journey in a minibus, accompanied by Luis, who took turns driving with her.
‘A river of refugees’
When they arrived in Romania the evening of March 5, Sister Lucía received a message from the young Ukrainian woman saying her parents could not get out of Kyiv because of the bombing in the surrounding area. But, she said, she had a friend with a child who had managed to flee the city and was now entering Sighet, a city in northern Romania. Inna sent Sister Lucía photos of the woman and child and asked if she could bring them instead.
Sister Lucía went to Sighet to find the friend and her child. She searched for them at the refugee camp in the city of Satu Mare, where people were being given food, clothing and a place to rest after fleeing the terror of the Russian bombs. At the camp, she happened to meet Marian, a Romanian man who had worked in Spain for 18 years as a carpenter but was now serving as a volunteer, helping refugees. Marian helped Sister Lucía search for the woman and her son among the thousands of refugees at the camp.
At Satu Mare, “I was deeply moved as I watched a stream of coaches bringing Ukrainian refugees, and a river of refugees, arriving by foot, having walked many, many miles,” she said. “They came with little or nothing, clutching their few belongings. They were exhausted. They all looked afraid; they were like sheep.”
“I will never forget seeing very many men, some of them young and alone, walking back towards the Ukrainian border, carrying a rucksack or bag, with tears in their eyes,” she said. “They were returning to fight for their homeland.”
At the camp, she said, “we saw the best of human nature,” but she also learned that this war has brought forth a darker side: At some entry points on Romania’s borders with Ukraine and Hungary borders, what she described as“mafias” were demanding money from the refugees to be allowed into Romania and Hungary.
At the start of the war, some 75,000 foreign nationals were studying at educational institutions across Ukraine, but their status has been thrown into tumult during the war. At the Satu Mare camp, Sister Lucía said she saw a group of 30 medical students from Turkmenistan, as well as people from India and Africa who had residence permits for Ukraine but did not have documents that would allow them to enter the European Union beyond Romania. Their right to asylum was not being recognized, so they were stranded. “They were the poorest of the poor!” she said.
Sister Lucía also noticed that Ukrainians are “very religious people” and that many religious groups, including Pentecostals and Orthodox, were keen to be close to the refugees at this tragic moment in their lives.
But “I will never forget seeing very many men, some of them young and alone, walking back toward the Ukrainian border, carrying a rucksack or bag, with tears in their eyes,” she said. “They were returning to fight for their homeland.”
Welcoming the stranger
As Sister Lucía moved through the camp, Inna’s friend, Olena Rozhova, spotted the nun. She recognized Sister Lucía from a photo Inna had sent her. Ms. Rozhova ran to Sister Lucía and said, “I love Jesus very much.” Sister Lucía was overcome with emotion; she embraced Olena and then kissed Nikita, her 12-year-old son. “It was a great moment,” she recalled.
Not long after, Sister Lucía noticed another woman, Irina Antonenko, 39, with two teenage children—Illia, 13 and Alexandra, 14. Ms. Antonenko had said goodbye to her husband in Kyiv, where he remained to fight. She knew no one in the camp and had nowhere to go, so Sister Lucía invited her and her children to join the group returning to Spain, and Ms. Antonenko gladly accepted. Then Sister Lucía noticed another woman, Alessa, 39, who was visibly sad; she had left her mother in Kyiv. She too looked lost, and so Sister Lucía invited her to come along as well.
Sister Lucía now had a group of six refugees. She invited them to board the minibus, and they set off for the Hungarian border early Sunday morning, March 6. None of the three women knew each other; they were total strangers to each other and had met for the first time in this tragic situation.
They set off on the more than 2,000-mile journey to Manresa but soon ran into trouble at the Hungarian border after being stuck in traffic for over four hours. Ms. Antonenko did not have a biometric passport for her or the children; they only had a family identification card issued by the Ukrainian authorities. Sister Lucía tried to convince the Hungarian border officials to allow Ms. Antonenko and her family through. Her patience was tested to the limit, she said, but the fact that she was a nun helped, and eventually she succeeded. “It was the hardest experience I had on this journey,” she said.
En route to Spain, “the six refugees slept the whole journey, except when we stopped to get something to eat or go to the bathroom,” she said. “They came with nothing, no money, and some had only the clothes they wore.”
The refugees were given a warm welcome when they arrived at the convent. The sisters of Sister Lucía’s community were waiting to greet them along with many young people, older volunteers and members of the press. News of Sister Lucía’s daring enterprise had traveled fast.
Sister Lucía’s next step is to work to integrate the refugees, first by teaching them Spanish and then helping them find homes. She said that for the first week the refugees will stay at the convent, and after that she will relocate them to apartments in Manresa and the nearby area. The news of her initiative has elicited an outpouring of solidarity: More than 500 apartments have been offered for the refugees, as well as all kinds of other assistance, she said.
Sister Lucía works with 17 lay volunteer couples, who will do the necessary bureaucratic work to ensure the refugees get residency permits and social security cards. The European Union has passed legislation guaranteeing residency permits for up to two years for Ukrainian refugees, complete with social benefits.
Sister Lucía Caram, however, does not consider this a time to rest. She has now joined forces with some N.G.O.s and a local company. With their help, next Saturday, she plans to hire a plane and travel from Spain to Poland to bring back 200 more Ukrainian refugees to Manresa.