Topics: Justice, September 2023 | Society

How nuns are helping displaced Ukrainians amid the Russian invasion

Photojournalist Gregg Brekke travelled to Ukraine capture how Catholic and Eastern Rite nuns care for the civilians in need

Basilian sister Anna Andrusiv in Lviv, Ukraine, in the convent basement where she, her fellow sisters and 40 people who fled the fighting last spring slept and stayed during air raid warnings. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

As the first anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 approached, I travelled with another journalist to Ukraine to report on how faith communities — specifically communities of Catholic and Eastern Rite religious sisters — are continuing to serve the people in their care. What we found as we travelled east from Ukraine’s border with Slovakia to Kyiv and its surrounding areas was an increasing awareness of the fallout from war.

Displacement and family separation are the norm. All able-bodied men aged 18 to 60 are eligible for conscription and forbidden from leaving the country. Most women and children have fled the areas of intense fighting in the east, either as refugees to neighbouring countries or as displaced persons further west in Ukraine.

In a terrain that resembles North America from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to its central plains, through winter’s unrelenting cold and wind, these nuns have harnessed their faith, a sense of duty and all available resources to offer creative solutions to the challenges faced by a war-torn people, often in addition to the ministries they were performing before the recent conflict.

What we saw was a small sampling of this work, but it is multiplied many times in countless communities. The ingenuity, bravery, hope and even joy we experienced in the presence of these sisters testifies to their spiritual grounding and the resilience of the Ukrainian people.

Passenger vehicles wait at the border crossing from Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, into Uzhhorod, Ukraine, next to a United Nations receiving center for refugees from the war. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Dominican Sister Edita Vozarova and Natalya Kommodovia, a translator and Ukrainian refugee staying in Slovakia with her two children and grandmother, prepare their paperwork to cross into Ukraine from Slovakia. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Oksana Zavadskyi teaches teen girls how to sew aprons at the home she and her husband, Volodymyr, run near Mukachevo, Ukraine. Many of the children in their care lost parents during the siege of the southern city of Mariupal. A local priest with ties to the nearby Dominican sisters in Mukachevo is helping to build housing on church land for these displaced children and nine women. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Dominican Sister Lydia Timkova teaches a catechism class at her order’s convent in Mukachevo. She and three other sisters live and work in the town, supporting the local diocese in addition to extending help to displaced families. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

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Timkova and a Caritas worker have made four trips to eastern Ukraine and the front lines of the war since February 2022 to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians and warm clothes and food to Ukrainian soldiers. (Photography by Gregg Brekke)

Timkova holds a rosary during her interview in Mukachevo, Ukraine. She has made two trips to eastern Ukraine and the front lines of the war to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians and warm clothes and food to Ukrainian soldiers. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

A Ukrainian soldier waits to board the train from Mukachevo to Lviv and places farther east toward the fighting after say- ing goodbye to his family on the platform. About 500,000 people are in the military, or 1.3 percent of Ukraine’s population. Of those, 200,000 are on active duty. Russia has 1.3 million military personnel, or 0.93 percent of the population. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

A placard near the main square in Lviv, Ukraine, expresses solidarity for the country’s independence and war effort. (Photography by Gregg Brekke)

Dasha Habovska and her son, Christian, are internally displaced persons (IDP)who live in Fastiv after Russians invaded and bombarded their home in the frontline city of Kherson. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Ukrainian Army trainees muster on the streets of Lviv, Ukraine. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Brothers Basil and Nicolai Knutarev stand in front of Basil’s apartment building in Irpin that was destroyed by Russian artillery in the early days of the invasion. Nicolai’s apartment, which was across the parking lot, was also destroyed. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Sister Veronika Yaniv of the Catechist Sisters of St. Anne holds the son of a displaced mother living at their convent in Bryukhovychi near Lviv. His mother was eight months pregnant when she arrived; he’s lived his entire life at the convent. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

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The main hall of Kryivka (“bunker” in Ukrainian), a nationalist, patriotic pub in Lviv where the code word to have the bouncer pull the lever that will reveal the hidden stairwell down to the cellar is “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”) (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Father Mikhailo Romaniv holds a photo of a friend in the army who was seriously injured in a recent battle on the front lines. His parish,St. Martin’s in Fastiv, hosts a reception centre for people fleeing the fighting in the east. There, volunteers serve soup from a large wood-fired cooker and offer respite in a warming tent. Romaniv estimates 4,000 people have passed through his small town seeking a safer place to live. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Alexander Tomchuk with his eight-month-old son at a centre for internally displaced persons in Fastiv, where they have lived since Russians invaded their home in Kherson. He is on a weekend visit and must return to his work in the contested city of Zaporizhzhia. His wife will remain in Fastiv with their six children. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Rusted Russian tanks on the roadside stand as a reminder of early war losses on the road between Kyiv and Bucha, where a 30-kilometre-long column of Russian heavy machinery stalled and was destroyed. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

A billboard in Bucha advertises for people to join the Advance Guard: “First on the border, first on the offence.” Dozens of similar billboards are up around Kyiv. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Anti-tank barriers on the street corners near the Roman Catholic cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

Sister Yanuariya Isyk, of the Order of St. Basil the Great, stands in the chapel in the apartment she shares with other sisters in Kyiv. Tanks rolled through her neighbourhood in the early days of the invasion as Russian soldiers went door to door looking for young men. (Photography by Gregg Brekke)
A sniper’s bullet pierced a window and killed a Russian soldier who was in the stairwell four storeys below Isyk’s apartment. (Photograph by Gregg Brekke)

This trip was funded by the Global Sisters Report, an independent, non-profit source of news and information about Catholic sisters and the critical issues facing the people they serve.


Gregg Brekke is a photojournalist and writer who lives in the Washington-Baltimore area.

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  • says:

    This is an amazing account and photo essay of the war in Ukraine, and the resilience and resistance of the Ukrainian people.
    Thank you for publishing it.