Meeting with the Stella Maris Ukraine National Director and Odesa Port Chaplain, Friar Oleksandr Smerechynskyy, was a unique experience in a war zone with impending threats of encirclement, ground and air attacks. What struck the recce team was the mixture of faith, the dedication to continue providing support to all seafarers and their families affected and a mutual sense of serious concern over what the future holds for the citizens of Odesa, for those working within and surrounding the port areas, and for the many seafarers who remain on board, the vessels stuck alongside due to the Russian blockade.
A key issue raised was the concern for all the safety and security of all seafarers, whatever their nationality, who are caught up in the current conflict. This included Russian seafarers, of which several groups remained ineffective hiding at nearby locations themselves in fear of their lives and whether they would be made examples of as xenophobia was on the increase – itself a natural consequence of any such conflict.
For those remaining behind, there is a palpable fear of the unknown and a fear for everyone’s safety that is omnipresent. To suggest otherwise would be wrong, while there were no shows of bravado rather a need for facts and, critically, for external support.
The current lack of Russian targeted aggression aimed at the city does provide some semblance of day-to-day reassurance, but as a BBC reporter recently described, the cloud of war has changed the pattern of life across Ukraine. The same applies in Odesa.
Walking and talking with Oleksandr was a humbling exercise in sharing faith, mutual support and importantly, ensuring that he, his support staff, and all others providing essential welfare services genuinely felt that they were not alone.
We shared a mutual hug and told Oleksandr just how proud people were of his work, and especially of the bravery in not leaving those who depended on him.
Sometimes the human touch and a quiet supporting word are what is needed in such challenging circumstances to reinforce one’s faith and, importantly, steady any fears.