Standing in the grey light of a cold spring day outside Warsaw’s central train station recently, Lt-Col. Terry Cherwick — with his black and white clerical collar jutting out of his combat uniform — seemed like a beacon for the bereft.
One of three Canadian military chaplains dispatched earlier this month as part of Canada’s mission to Poland to help that country manage the influx of Ukrainian refugees, the Edmonton-based padre is performing a spiritual duty in deeply personal circumstances.
Cherwick is of Ukrainian descent himself and still has some extended family in the western part of the war-torn country. He said his early encounters with frightened and war-weary refugees in Warsaw — a flood of women, men and children shuffling through the cavernous, modern railroad station, mourning the dead and the wrecked homes they left behind — made a profound impression on him.
For many deeply religious Ukrainians, something happens when they spot a priest’s collar.
“So many people see that sign and will come over and speak with us, ask us to pray for them … to pray for their family,” said Cherwick, a Ukrainian-Greek Catholic priest and a 29-year veteran of the military.
It has been a humbling experience — even for a chaplain who spent time with Canadian troops in the killing fields of Kandahar.
In Warsaw, Cherwick bears witness to those struggling to make sense of what has happened to them. One man opened his phone to show the priest before-and-after photos of his now-ruined home.
A message of hope
“There’s nothing left there, and you know, [he was] just asking how he’s gonna move forward, how he’s gonna move on,” said Cherwick, who after a few minutes of conversation got the man talking about returning and rebuilding.
Cherwick said some refugees have told him that — with no time to arrange funerals, no time to mourn — they had to leave slain family members behind in Ukraine. They’ve asked him to pray for their loved ones.
But what can you say to someone who has lost everything?
“[I’m] not sure how much you can say,” Cherwick said. Most people don’t come to him for answers, he added; what they want is a reaffirmation of hope, a promise that “from death can come life.”
It has been a privilege, he said, “to offer them that sign of hope.”
Both Ukrainians and Russians observed the Orthodox Easter over the weekend, viewing their war from vastly different perspectives.
Patriarch Kirill (Cyril), leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has supported the war. Over the weekend, he prayed for peace but avoided criticizing Moscow’s self-described “special military operation.”
Russian troops have been accused of committing atrocities, including the slaughter of unarmed civilians in Bucha outside of Kyiv and bomb attacks on hospitals throughout the country.
In the face of such hypocrisy and horror, people look to lay blame, said Cherwick. They want to know why such things are permitted to happen.
‘Love, compassion and mercy’
Cherwick said that while he hasn’t yet faced those questions, his two colleagues have had “profound discussions” with some of the refugees they have met.
What helps those struggling with such profound questions, he said, is the kind of “love, compassion and mercy” Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed with in Poland.
Lt.-Col. Mike Godard, the commander of the Canadian humanitarian mission in Poland, said the people here have shown themselves to be “very good neighbours” to the Ukrainians.
“It’s very impressive. It’s … very uplifting to see,” Godard said. He said his troops are “doing whatever jobs need to be done to help make the refugees’ stay a little bit more comfortable.”
The Liberal government has authorized the deployment to Poland of between 100 and 150 troops for up to three months. Those soldiers are assisting the Polish Territorial Defence Force — composed mostly of reservists — at refugee reception centres.
Medics, chaplains and other troops greet the displaced upon their arrival in Poland and help them get settled and find services. They also assist those who want to move on to third countries.
Many members of the Polish Territorial Defence Force are volunteers, part-timers with civilian jobs. Godard said they have been working non-stop in the two months since Russia invaded Ukraine.
More than five million people have fled Ukraine since Russian troops invaded on Feb. 24, according to a statement from the United Nations refugee agency last week.
The exodus has far exceeded the Geneva-based organization’s worst-case forecast of four million refugees — a grim milestone that was marked at the end of March.
More than half of all Ukrainian refugees — 2.8 million — have fled to Poland. Some made Poland their first stop on their way to other countries. The country has been generous and sympathetic. Ukrainians are eligible for national ID numbers that entitle them to work and to access free health care, schooling and bonuses for families with children.
Signs of support are everywhere — from TV news anchors wearing blue and golden pins to public trams in Warsaw that rattle along the street with small Ukrainian flags fixed to their antenna masts.
Meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early March, Polish President Andrzej Duda warned his country faced “a deep, deep refugee crisis.” He called on Canada to speed up its refugee application process and to help with managing the flow of the displaced.
Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski told The Associated Press last week that if the fighting intensifies in Ukraine’s east and if there is a second wave of refugees, his city will not be able to accept any more people.
There are about 300,000 war refugees in Warsaw, a city of 1.8 million. Most of the refugees are staying in private homes, Trzaskowski said, adding that while Warsaw residents expected to host refugees for a few months, they cannot stay indefinitely.
Cherwick said he’s seen no sign of Polish citizens growing impatient with the refugee burden.
“The Polish defence forces … they don’t see them as refugees,” he said. “They see them as guests here in their country, and I think that that very much kind of sets the tone when they get here. [The Ukrainians are] appreciative of the help that they’re receiving.”