Ukrainian nuns open the doors of their monastery to the displaced

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By RENATA BRITO

April 11, 2022 GMT

HOSHIV, Ukraine (AP) — Beneath the ancient beech forests of the Carpathian Mountains, a peaceful monastery in the western Ukrainian village of Hoshiv has turned into a giant playground for a dozen children displaced by war with their families.

Nuns from the Greek-Catholic Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Lviv, granted refuge to around 40 people fleeing fighting with Russian forces in eastern and central Ukraine.

The chirping of birds and the gentle hum of prayers are a relief for Ryma Stryzhko, 59, who fled Kharkiv. “It looked like the planes were flying in the middle of the house. And you could hear the sound of shelling,” she recalls. She often had to hide behind cars to buy bread or medicine.

“After what we have seen, (the monastery) is a paradise.”

The monastery itself is a symbol of resilience, built after independence from Ukraine in the early 1990s. The village’s former monastery had been closed by communist authorities when the area was part of the Soviet Union, and the nuns sent to Siberia.

“All our prayers now are focused on peace in Ukraine, for our soldiers, for those innocent people who died, who were murdered,” said Sister Dominica, the senior nun.

Before the war, the 17 nuns led a quiet life. In addition to their religious duties and charity work, they also grew mushrooms, made their own pasta, and painted icons to decorate the chapel. Today, they run after young children, support and advise their mothers and cook daily for dozens of guests.

“Everything in the monastery is all about prayer and order,” Sister Dominica explained. But when the Russian invasion began, they told local officials they could accommodate up to 50 displaced people.

“We have adapted the prayer and work times to people,” she said.

Many of the children who now laugh and hug the nuns arrived traumatized.

“At first they were a little reluctant. It’s a new place for them. They came from cities where (there is shooting), where there are constant (air raid) sirens,” she said.

But even in this peaceful environment, the nuns still receive air raid alerts on their smartphones. They warn the rest of the residents by ringing the bells of the monastery – a less traumatic sound than the loud sirens of the cities – and direct them to the basement.

A makeshift chapel is decorated with a painting representing Mary and the child Jesus, a candle and a large cross made of branches. Mattresses, blankets and benches also line the basement. One of the walls had “The Prodigy” written in chalk, an apparent homage to the British electronic dance group.

But even when there are no mermaids, children gladly use the cavernous underground space.

“We play and read prayers,” said 10-year-old Rostyslav Borysenko, who fled besieged Mariupol with his mother. “It helps.”

His mother is still anxiously awaiting news of relatives and friends who were unable to escape from Mariupol, or were evacuated to eastern areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

Although they are thousands of miles from the front lines, the conversations at the table revolved mainly around the war.

While the families break bread in the dining room, the nuns dine separately in the library, at a long table under a painting of the Last Supper. Among them is 44-year-old Sister Josefa, who was evacuated from a kyiv monastery on the first day of the war.

“It’s hard to leave the place where you lived,” she says. “Although I may live here… my heart is there.” And I look forward to going back.

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Associated Press photojournalist Nariman El-Mofty contributed to this report.

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