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Report on Study Tour of DePaul International Slovakia and Ukranian Projects



Ian Brady, Simon Dow, Clare Miller (for the Slovakia trip), Jeremy Swain and John Stebbing representing the LHF, joined Mark McGreevy and Alexia Murphy from DePaul for this return visit to Slovakia and the Ukraine.

In Slovakia we were hosted by the wonderful and very tired looking Juraj Barat and his team, in the Ukraine by the irrepressible Vitaliy Novak and his team and we wondered again at how DePaul find and retain these dedicated folk, to work, sometimes in very difficult circumstances…. It’s a miracle!

Real progress and hope in Slovakia, albeit, slow and still difficult but I think we all came away from the Ukraine saddened and depressed at the lack of any widespread improvements to a situation which seems so desolate and hopeless to us on the outside looking in….EXCEPT as readers will see there are some positives and the folk on the ground are no less dedicated and cheerful, in fact very cheerful…. Amazing!

Tuesday 8th December:

Bright eyed and bushy tailed we gather at Heathrow, it’s like the start of a school trip, although with a slightly older cohort and certainly, for some of us at least, smarter luggage..! Flight to Vienna and then that drive along even smarter roads to arrive in Bratislava, a city dressed for Christmas…… the place gets ever more prosperous as the years go by…. a Christmas market with laughing smiling faces all around…..singing from a choir who seemed to carry the troubles of the world on their elderly shoulders… warm sweet honey wine…. And a walk in the mild winters day

The street homeless problems remain of course, drinkers, drug users, people without ‘papers’ although I don’t think we got a sense of whether things are getting worse or better in terms of the numbers of folk with nothing in their lives.

We visit the St Louise’s shelter in St Elisabeth High School building which they have on a temporary basis from the Catholic Authorities – another young manager who will leave shortly to go, with the love of her life, to Israel so a problem of how to replace her and eventually find another building.  It seems that the people who stay in the hostel are only just tolerated in this rather smart neighbourhood.  It’s a 34 bed dry hostel without frills of any kind, only limited sanitary accommodation and meals taken in a corridor but it’s a safe haven, it’s warm and it is plainly serving a huge need in the centre of the capital.

We heard about the ‘no second night out’ scheme that is being developed, a modern collaborative venture with real enthusiasm from the young workers about what can and what will be achieved…. Wow!

On we go to the St Vincent’s night shelter away from the city centre but my how the area has improved since our first visit all those years ago, still the line of trudging figures carrying their possessions in an old carrier bag but now they trudge on paved roads under misty street lights and they trudge past a modern office complex and a massive Gym – young executives pounding the running machines in their Lycra – that’s progress.  Amazing!

What a transformation the 800,000 euro’s has  made to, at least a part of, this cavernous warehouse with its new insulated roof and which was used recently for a big fundraising musical bash. We are treated to a glimpse at the video and it’s all very impressive although the music was a little loud for me…as my mother used to say!

So one end of the building remains as it ever was, albeit with its new roof. It doesn’t have any kind of heating, the lighting is basic and there is still the plywood box inside which those too drunk to make the cut will sleep; it’s cold, it’s damp, it’s disgusting and it’s a stark reminder of what we saw on our first visit.

The other end of the building, nearest the road, is where the improvements have taken place, its light and it’s warm with two floors in the original huge volume….. wide corridors and with an ample sufficiency of decent WC and showering facilities for men and for women – a huge contrast with the Ukraine experience of which, more later.

Dormitories are basic but again light and warm and safe for people with nothing; meals are currently being served from the remains of the food from the gig and all courtesy of a celebrity chef with a restaurant in down town Bratislava – it looked delicious!

The clients arrive from the ‘trudge’ and queue in the entrance hall to be tested for alcohol and have their details recorded.  If they are clean then they get their pass into the luxury of the new building but if they have succumbed to the temptations of alcohol during the day then they are despatched to the plywood box… tough love!

There is a long way to go but DePaul Slovakia has their lease on the warehouse now and they are starting to become self-sufficient and as we saw plainly things are improving for them and for their clients.  They have a succession problem when, and if Juraj retires, although a wealth of talent in the wings, it seemed to me – it’s a success AND I don’t think this would have happened without the early support and encouragement from the LHF. Something to be proud of!

Wednesday 9th December

Our stay in Slovakia is all too short and so it’s a goodbye to Juraj and his team and the early taxi back to Vienna and from there to Kyiv Borispol, Ms Miller waving us bye-bye, as she returns to London to do good and important works in her day job.

We are met by Vladimir and Olena and it’s to the same Hotel Lybid in Kiev, but emptier and seedier.

On the face of it Kiev is unchanged by the war but we learn that the grid lock of our first evening is the result of the authorities reacting to bomb threats throughout the city, a bit like London really!

DePaul have been approached by the manager of the main and massive railway station complex to help manage some of the issues that arise from the fact that upwards of 3,000 people and rising, sleep rough in the relative warmth and safety of the station, constantly being moved on but a headache to the beleaguered man trying his best to keep the nation’s trains running on time.  This is a first for DePaul and is seen as the authority’s first tangible acceptance of a problem that, so far, hasn’t appeared on their radar.

From little acorns etc., etc., and this is certainly a little acorn and no mistake…. BUT it’s a positive start!

Housed in a basement no bigger than a front room, but nicely decorated and warm and welcoming are rows of station benches where upwards of 40 of the fortunate chosen few are able to stay for the night tended over by the serene Sisters of Mercy whose gentle ways we have come to appreciate on our previous visits.

Again it’s the tales of lost papers, the lack of any history, the war maybe, no family, no friends, that bring these unfortunate people to this haven. Lots of women when we get there – one who had been on the streets for 14 years, her strength shining out of her, a smile never far from her lips.  Svetlana and Ina, ancient smiling faces and warm handshakes all round as they get ready to sit together, dozing fitfully and waiting for morning and more of the existence that we can hardly imagine BUT it is progress and there is more space to be had in the basement, and if DePaul’s efforts are seen to be improving the situation for the station manager, then everyone is confident that more people can be helped…..from little acorns and it is the most positive we get in the Ukraine!

Traffic, traffic, traffic till we get to our restaurant. It’s a time to chat and eat and listen and commune with our charming hosts whose enthusiasm and just plain positivity is such a strength in what must be very troubled times for them.

Despite what was to come in Odessa and the gloom that I felt there at the relative hopelessness of it all (see below) I remain absolutely convinced that DePaul: are doing some extraordinary work in seriously difficult, dangerous and frustrating times but those excellent people on the ground really value our relationship and we need to do the same.

Thursday 10th December

Breakfast and our goodbyes to the excellent Vladimir and Olena who will return to the war zone that is Kharkiv and its back to the airport through, thankfully emptier streets, and the short flight to Odessa high over the black Ukrainian plains – an extraordinary country!

Warm hugs and back slaps from our friend Vitaliy in his new van which the day before carried the body of his elderly neighbour as he took her from her house, dug her grave and gave her a decent send-off – all part of a day’s work!

More soldiers and some tanks but no real feeling of danger even though the Crimean front line is only 35km to the east!

To the railway station and the park alongside and the scores of people, including a couple of very young children milling around the ‘soup bus’ and the ‘ambulance’ with the Sisters tending to wounds, abscesses, dog bites, frost bite and all manner of ailments for these poor souls. Who is responsible for the young children we ponder?

The soup bus, a present from Germany, driven overland by the mighty Vitaliy and we think making a real difference to the lives of the people it serves. The endless problems with authority have been resolved but the bus is tolerated by officialdom rather than welcomed – in the cold weather it offers some respite to the folk who cuddle their soup cups for comfort!

We talked to people whose lives depend almost entirely on this one gift of charity, and on the Sisters who bind their sores: young and very young and people old for their years and that day was warm ahead of a winter when the temperatures drop to 20 below!

DePaul take a host of details from the throng who come to the park each day and they have directly helped 7,000 people through the ‘soup bus’ in 2015 alone.

A short tale which shows the futility of the system… they take photographs and make up laminated ID cards with the DePaul stamp (everyone loves a stamp in the Ukraine), they hand them to their clients and as a result the service bus drivers give them a free ride to the park. It seems that no one has spotted that the ID’s are ‘non-official’.

The headquarters of DePaul in Odessa are still the flat in the basement of a block that we had visited years earlier and still run by a formidable woman who immediately starts to pitch for money to be able to pay one of her volunteers. She appears desperate. She is assisted in these cramped conditions by three young and enthusiastic women, at least one of whom is a lawyer, who spends hours and hours and hours on the thankless task of trying to reunite ‘lost papers’ with their owners -it’s the story of those papers again and again!

The organisation is surprisingly tolerated in this building with its compound surrounded by residential properties BUT plainly they have to be careful about the numbers of clients they can invite in during one day. At the moment it’s limited to 10 people and it was a women’s day when we visited – a chance to have a shower, get a change of clothes, a kind word, maybe news of ‘the papers’ before being sent out to face the street again. And that’s what made me start to feel angry because it was exactly the same as when we were there the last time… no progress at all here it seems!

The site for the shelter and day centre on the other side of the station came to nothing: the lease was wrong, the war came, the funding dried up and they are still trapped in this horrible little flat with just its one shower and one WC for clients and staff AND only 10 people a day, 50 a week can have the dignity of a visit to a loo in private and a lukewarm shower. Even then they have to get dried and dressed all together in one cold dimly lit room before, as I say, they are sent out to face what the street has to offer them…. AND it was mild when we were there!

So a maximum of 50 people can access these basic ‘services’ each week out of an estimated 10,000 who congregate around the train station. It’s unthinkable in the modern age – and how long has it to go on with three year old children wandering around in the cold and the dirt?

Now my frustrations and anger should not be seen as a criticism of DePaul under their amazing Vitaliy, because if anyone could get another shower put into this flat then he could BUT we passed hundreds and hundreds of empty, derelict buildings and any one of them could surely be used to help these people (as we have seen in Slovakia) But, no it seems it can’t happen in a country that sometimes appears to be tied up in knots by its own bureaucracy 

Of course the war has meant that the people who DePaul help have been sent even further down the pecking order than they were when we last visited; it’s a war economy, there are shortages of everything, the currency is  very weak and the poor get poorer and the street people don’t exist because they don’t have their ‘papers’.

Some positives: Vitaliy’s own projects and more of that later. The experiment with the Kiev train station manager might well translate to the Odessa station. The ‘soup bus’ is a vast improvement, the staff and volunteers are an extraordinary bunch of people who again have ready smiles despite their situation – good people, really good people, so there is hope despite my profound pessimism!

Into the bus and away out of Odessa past the ‘Battleship Potemkin’ iconic steps at the top of which, sits our rather grand (but extraordinarily cheap) hotel and out into the country. I couldn’t help noticing that we were going in the general direction of the Crimea but no one else seemed concerned and we lived to tell the tale.  Onwards to Vitaliy’s own Congregation of the Mission projects along a pot holed highway by the side of the Black Sea….he swims in the Black Sea every day, winter and summer, well that’s what he said anyway…. and to a small village along a dirt side road.

He has bought land and he is building three bungalows using totally unskilled labour (the men who live in the project) with finance from who knows where. Each bungalow a testament to the faith on which his project is based, each home to 6 men who have dependency problems of one kind or another and who need to commit to kicking it and to live by some fairly stringent rules albeit policed, it seems, by their fellow residents.

There are pigs and cows, there are chickens and talk of a cheese making plant, vegetables are grown and it is said to self-sufficient. There is a ground source heat pump which cost thousands of euros – it’s the good life with bells on.

Later we meet one of the men who is leaving the community to return to his family: he looks well and he is enthusiastic and positive about his change of circumstance.

There is a chapel and a real feeling of calm and of healing.

We ask about failure rate and we don’t really understand the answer and we don’t really understand where the funding comes from BUT it seems to work.

To the next village and another self-built bungalow, this time for women and we are treated to a recital by a concert violinist with a terrible recent past which brings tears to the eye.  Only three women in this project and not sure where the others have gone, there are obvious difficulties which Vitaliy deals with in a Vitaliy way. This project has sheep and lots of land it is calm, clean and comfortable. I come away impressed and with the words of one of the women ringing in my ears…’it’s a fairy tale that’s what it is’.

Tea at Vitaliy’s presbytery, a very well built facility with guest rooms, a lovely chapel and all modern conveniences with hearty cheerful priests seemingly feeling positive ….

Back to Odessa and our lovely, cheap hotel, where we seem to be the only guests and out to dinner with a vodka starter…..good food, good company, a drink in the hotel bar and bed…

Friday 11th December

A very, very early start for us and a very, very, very early start for Vitaliy who after leaving us at the hotel had returned to his presbytery for the night. I am not sure he had his Black Sea swim before picking us up at 4.30am but we were on the plane to Kiev at 7am.

Gatwick by 11.30 and I was picking my car up in Hackney by 1pm after a text book journey.



Slovakia is working and we saw real progress…

Ukraine isn’t working or at least it isn’t improving as fast as we had hoped and DePaul have just got to get a big night shelter up and running to deal with the massive numbers of street homeless and get a secure safe base from which to organize their work in Odessa.

What happens when the church move Vitaliy to some far flung region of the Catholic world? And a lesser problem of what happens when Juraj retires?

In both countries brilliant people doing a fantastic job with next to no resources.

John Stebbing 31st December 2015

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