She has spent nearly 20 years of her professional life helping foreign nationals living in the Czech Republic with integration into society. Originally from Ukraine, SVETLANA PORSCHE is now coordinating the extensive assistance provided to thousands of war refugees from Ukraine who turn to the Caritas of the Archdiocese of Prague for help.
How is the current situation different from anything that you’ve dealt with at the Migration Center in previous years?
This emergency is exceptional due to its large scope. It has affected, and will still affect, millions of people, who are losing their loved ones, their homes, things they took for granted, their future. The degree of misery that they’re experiencing is enormous. Not even in 2014, when we oversaw the medical evacuation of a large number of Ukrainians following the events at Maidan, was the situation as dire as it is today.
People who are fleeing the war and come to Czechia are completely drained, both physically and mentally. Most of them are women, children, and seniors. They are all crushed by what they’ve been through, but all of them are hoping to be able to return home.
What are you doing to help these people?
We assist them with registration with the authorities. We’re present seven days a week at four branches of the Interior Ministry department where foreign nationals apply for a residence permit. The offices are visited by thousands of clients every day, including children too. In the morning, when it’s still dark and freezing cold, people are already lining up outside the immigration offices. We distribute food and drinks to them, while many require additional assistance, which we try to arrange for them. Some individuals need medical attention, some are moving in with their relatives, but need household furnishings, while others are completely without any means, and that includes shelter and food for their children.
We arrange accommodation for refugees and plan adaptation activities for kids. We envisage that we’ll continue providing lasting social support to refugees who have no one to turn to here until they are able to safely return to Ukraine, or until they become fully integrated into Czech society.
How many members are there in the team that provides assistance?
Under normal circumstances, our Migration Center has 15 workers. Today, however, there are many more of us. People who formerly worked on an external or part-time basis are now working full-time. We are closely cooperating with the Ukrainian community, from among whom additional workers and volunteers are recruited. The whole organization of the Caritas of the Archdiocese of Prague is involved. Humanitarian aid is distributed by warehouse staff, and we have workers who organize collections of goods, communicate with donors, and interact with local authorities. We’re working in emergency mode. Teams are being set up and enlarged on an ad hoc basis in response to current needs.
What assistance is provided by members of the public?
We’re witnessing a huge wave of solidarity that ranges from private individuals to government officials. When a branch of the Immigration Department was opened in Prague 6 a few years ago, people in the local community protested. They were afraid of a high number of foreigners and the prospect of increased crime. Today, these people are offering help. They bake pies for Ukrainians who spend days and days waiting in line, they help with distributing drinks, they encourage us with a good word, and they thank us for the work that we do. Government officials are very helpful as well. They are able to bypass the red tape to some extent and issue approvals and organize assistance in an expedited manner. The Borough of Prague 2 has provided a hostel where we can put up approximately 40 persons. For its part, Prague 6 is opening a community center where we’ll organize adaptation activities for children. In addition, accommodation has been provided by our founder, the Archbishopric of Prague.
How do you feel about the current situation, personally? You come from Ukraine, your home is at stake.
I not only have my family, but also friends and acquaintances in various parts of Ukraine. We call each other every day. My family is in areas where fighting is taking place and from which nobody can leave at the moment. Chernihiv. Kyiv. Kharkov. They’ve spent eight of the last 10 days in the basement. It’s cold there, the children are sick. Yesterday, I spoke to my niece, who has a young daughter. She was saying goodbye, because she doesn’t believe that we’ll ever talk to one another again.
What’s happening is hard on me. Often, I’m not able to hold back the tears. Nobody can imagine the desperation that people are experiencing. My colleagues and I don’t have enough time to eat and sleep properly, because thousands of people urgently need our help. Unfortunately, I’m not able to help my own family, despite the fact that their lives are now in danger.
Caritas Czech Republic is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The motto of the celebrations is Out of Love for People. What does that mean to you?
I’ve been working for Caritas since 2003. Everything we’ve done in the past and do now, we do out of love for people. This vision has been the basis for building services that aim to assist foreign nationals living in the Czech Republic. This year, our Counselling Center for Migrants and Refugees is celebrating its 20th anniversary. But there is no time for festivities. The current emergency requires that we pull out all the stops. I want to thank all of my coworkers for their professionalism and hard work in these difficult times. During these days, I draw a great amount of strength from my faith in God. I attend worship services and listen to God’s word on a daily basis. I would be powerless without being able to rely on God.
Photo: Svetlana Porsche (in the center) and her colleagues in a new 40-bed accommodation facility for war refugees from Ukraine
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