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Situation Report: Ukraine and Eastern Europe (June 6, 2022)

More than three months since Russian troops invaded Ukraine, fighting continues to intensify as humanitarian conditions deteriorate. The United Nations’ OCHA Ukraine: Humanitarian Report estimates that 6.6 million people have fled the country and 8 million are displaced internally. While the majority of the people who crossed borders to safety have remained in the neighboring countries, others have continued to other countries in Europe and beyond. The UN estimates that more than 24 million people — more than half of Ukraine’s population — will need humanitarian assistance in the coming months.

The policy in Ukraine that prevented most men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country has resulted in forced separation of families. Far from their homes in Ukraine and often from their husbands and extended families, many mothers with children face the difficult challenge of creating a safe space and a version of stability for their families. In addition to continuing to meet the immediate needs of arriving refugees including food, shelter, hygiene kits and medical supplies, our partners in the region support those fleeing the violence in Ukraine with assistance in psycho-social care, pastoral care, housing, job searches, language study, school admission, legal services, cash assistance and other key integration support for individuals and families. Our support is also reaching communities not eligible for state-sponsored services for refugees, including Roma people and third-country nationals fleeing the violence in Ukraine.

Partners: Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland (ECACP), Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania (ECACR), Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovakia (ECACS), Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary, German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ukraine (GELCU), and in collaboration with Lutheran World Federation (LWF), ACT Alliance, Church World Service (CWS), Hungarian Interchurch Aid (HIA) and Phiren Amenca.

Partner update: Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary (ELCH)

A Ukrainian-language school in the basement of the ELCH office in Budapest, Hungary, provides structure and learning opportunities for children who fled Ukraine with their families due to the war.

As the early-spring influx of refugees has slowed, the humanitarian needs have changed. In a recent interview on the ELCH website, Anna Gyöngés Kelemen, the head of the ELCH diaconal department, observed that “our tasks have changed to the extent that the focus is not on providing rapid assistance at border crossing points and nearby settlements, but on providing assistance to those who remain in Hungary temporarily or permanently in the medium and long term.”

One of the ways the church is assisting is through a temporary school for Ukrainian children, set up in the basement of the ELCH office in Budapest. Though not an accredited educational institution, the school provides structure for children, allows them to continue learning, and enables their caregivers to have time to work or seek employment. The volunteer teachers are themselves refugees from Ukraine as well. The school serves children in first through eighth grades and approximately 50 children attend each day.

ELCH congregations, as well as the national church, are also assisting refugees with longer-term integration needs such as financial support, counseling, housing and more.


Partner Update: Lutheran World Federation

As of the end of May, LWF has opened two of six planned enrollment centers for refugees in Poland. The two centers, in Gdansk and Wroclaw, will serve a combined 37,000 families. Families will be able to enroll in a multi-purpose cash assistance program as well as access services including counselling for children experiencing post-traumatic stress and referral services for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

“I have mixed feelings about today,” said Allan Calma, LWF global humanitarian coordinator, at the opening in Gdansk on May 17. “I am happy that we can open this center today, but I am also thinking that we should not have an enrolment center in Gdansk. This war is not right, it is not right for women and children to flee their homes, to leave their husbands and fathers, and flee for safety.”

“This war has divided a lot of people,” he added. “But all I could see in the past weeks was people coming together and trying to be human.”

The additional centers will be based in Ostróda, Zgierz, Bielsko-Biała and Bytom Miechowice, and will support a total of 56,000 households or about 168,000 people.


Be a part of the response:

Please pray for people who have been impacted by the war in Ukraine. May God’s healing presence give them peace and hope in their time of need.

Thanks to generous donations, Lutheran Disaster Response is able to respond quickly and effectively to disasters around the globe. Your gifts to Lutheran Disaster Response (Eastern Europe Crisis Response) will be used in full (100%) to assist those impacted by the war in Ukraine.

To learn more about the situation and the ELCA’s response:

  • Sign up to receive Lutheran Disaster Response alerts.
  • Check the Lutheran Disaster Response blog.
  • Like Lutheran Disaster Response on Facebook, follow @ELCALDR on Twitter, and follow @ELCA_LDR on Instagram.



Can You Flee a Pandemic? Four Lessons from Luther


As new as the COVID-19 pandemic is to us living today, it is far from the first pandemic the church has had to address. One of the deadliest was the bubonic plague, which ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s, killing millions (estimates range from 25 to 50 million people.)  In 1527, the plague re-emerged. When it hit Wittenberg in late summer, the University of Wittenberg closed. The students were sent home, and many residents self-quarantined to avoid the deadly sickness.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death (1562)

Martin Luther, recovering from his own illness, responded to an earnest plea from Johann Hess, the pastor at Breslau. Hess’ central question was thus: as everyone else sequestered themselves in isolation, “is it proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague”? Luther responded with his letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Below are four lessons we can learn from Luther’s response, both for our situation today and for our long-term approach to health and wellness.

Good health matters to God.

The Lutheran World Federation’s “Waking the Giant” initiative invites member churches to reflect on the many ways churches are already contributing to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of good health and well-being for all – and to consider new ways churches can be part of this work. Accompanying communities as they seek good health for all people is a cornerstone of ELCA World Hunger. As a member of the LWF, and with the United States being a target country of “Waking the Giant,” the ELCA continues to accompany companions and partners in this initiative and to work toward the goal of good health here in the US and the Caribbean.

This focus on health is nothing new for the church. Some of the earliest hospitals were founded by Christian leaders, and history is full of examples of churches accompanying people living with illness, from the Plague of Justinian in the 600s to today.

For Luther, this work was grounded in two claims of faith. First, the church is called to service of the neighbor, particularly in times of distress. Citing Matthew 25:41-46, Luther argued in his response to Hess that “we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.” To help one’s neighbor in times of illness is to serve Christ. Second, Luther believed that medicines, treatments and intelligence are God’s gifts so that “we can live in good health.” Recalling St. Augustine’s image of Christ as the “physician,” Luther counsels Hess that God cares both for the spiritual needs of the soul as well as the physical needs of body. Simply put, good health matters to God.

Christ as apothecary; suggesting the idea of Christ as the universal healer. Reproduction of a photograph of an oil painting after J. Marie Appeli, 1731. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

And good health matters to God’s people.

So, can one flee a plague if one’s life might be threatened? Luther’s answer is not simple, in part because the question itself is a bit of a problem. When we ask, “what ought we to do in a crisis?” it’s often asked from the perspective of obedience. “Can one flee a deadly plague?” is really a way of asking, “Can I flee a deadly plague and still be doing what God wants me to do?”

Of course, for Luther, the life of faith isn’t about obediently completing certain tasks. It’s about responding in love to the neighbor. So, whether one can flee a crisis to save oneself depends: what is in the best interest of the neighbor? Luther offers a well-reasoned defense of self-preservation in the face of pandemic. BUT, he is quick to temper this by saying that self-preservation is only permissible if we are certain our neighbors are taken care of. It’s one thing to leave a neighbor with a network of other supporters. It’s a very different thing to leave a neighbor alone, without aid.

What ought we to do in a crisis? For Lutherans, the answer isn’t obedience to a universal rule but rather a question of discernment – what is in the best interest of our neighbor? Accompanying the neighbor is the end against which our methods should be measured. This includes helping care for the bodily needs, as well as the spiritual, as we’ll see below.

That said, Luther also wanted his readers to consider whether their presence was more harmful than helpful. What, besides self-preservation, ought to shape our response to a pandemic? And, what might love of neighbor look like?

Pray…then work.

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others.

Leaving aside his questionable belief that epidemics are spread by “pestinential breath,” Luther’s description sounds timely, still today. What he is describing, essentially, is social distancing. Pray, yes, but take practical steps to avoid infecting yourself and others, he claims.

Of course, Luther is not discouraging prayer. But in his day, as in ours, there are those who believe that prayer, faith or other spiritual powers can protect them, and so they do not need to take other precautions. Luther called this sinning “on the right hand.” Those who rely solely on faith as a sort of spiritual, magical power without taking advantage of the other gifts of God, such as intelligence and medicine, “are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.” Contrary to this, Luther argued that Christians are called to take necessary, practical steps to protect physical health.

He went further, too, arguing that governments should “maintain municipal homes and hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that patients from private homes can be sent there.” This, he wrote, would be “a fine, commendable, and Christian arrangement to which everyone should offer generous help and contributions, particularly the government.” This echoes what Luther says elsewhere, namely that government, too, is a gift of God for our well-being. As such, those in power are obligated by their station to help. Churches, for their part, are called to assist in this work – and to hold government accountable when it fails.

Listen to the experts.

In his letter, Luther admonishes readers of the importance of taking medicine, of self-quarantining, of hygiene and other practical measures. He also offers his proposals for care for the soul, responding as we would expect a pastor to do. But throughout, what is very interesting is Luther’s deference to medical experts. Sure, he is more than qualified to offer spiritual care advice, and he does so. But when it comes to specifics about avoiding illness, he is more hesitant.

This is clearest near the end of the letter, where he writes about burials. Because of the spread of the bubonic plague, there was debate about how to handle the dead bodies of victims. Luther writes,

I leave it to the doctors of medicine and others with greater experience than mine in such matters to decide whether it is dangerous to maintain cemeteries within the city limits. I do not know and do not claim to understand whether vapors and mists arise out of graves to pollute the air.

What to do with dead bodies is no small matter in any religion. Christians, like other faiths, have specific rituals and practices, informed by our beliefs about death and life. It’s not too much to assume that deferring to medical authorities here is a pretty significant step for Luther. It means giving up the church’s right over its dead. Luther does a bit of fancy prooftexting of scripture to support not burying corpses within the city limits in his letter. But in the end, his thought process is clear: when it comes to health, defer to those who have been gifted by God with expertise. And recognize their work as one of the ways God is active in our world, promoting good health for all.

Luther’s understanding of health and illness may be scientifically outdated, but his nuanced approach to the church’s vocation during times of crisis can give us food for thought. Health and wellness for all are not ideals for the future reign of God but practical realities the church is called to pursue today. Accompanying neighbors facing illness and working to keep communities healthy is an important way to reduce hunger and to discover God at work in our midst, through community leaders, medical experts, first responders and one another. And we see this in the hospitals, maternal and child care programs, health education initiatives and other ministries ELCA World Hunger supports.

Health was part of God’s intention for the world long before it was a Sustainable Development Goal. Working together toward this – even if that means, right now, working and living apart for many of us – is where the church is called to be, and where it has been during the “plagues” of the past.

All quotes cited above are from Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague (1527),” in Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, eds. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 475-487.


Refugees React to Ban – Voices from Dadaab


Photo credit Faith Kagwiria/LWF

In northeast Kenya, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) helps manage the largest cluster of refugee camps in the world. At their peak, the Dadaab camps were home to nearly 500,000 people, most of whom are children, women, elderly and people with disabilities who have fled conflict in Somalia, one of the countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Today, 240,000 refugees remain at the camps, though Dadaab is slated by Kenya for closure later this year. For many young people, the camp is the only home they have known. It is safer than their countries of origin, but like other refugee camps, Dadaab was not meant to be a permanent home.

LWF, with support from members like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is working with other agencies to provide sufficient, equitable education, food and health care at the camp, but many residents still struggle to meet their needs. While the care they receive is critical, many refugees still long for a permanent home of their own. Refugees often spend years in Dadaab waiting for resettlement in a new country or repatriation to their country of origin. Resettlement is a lengthy ordeal, with numerous background checks, interviews, and delays. Some refugees at Dadaab have been in the process for up to nine years.

Abroon*, a refugee from the Dagahaley camp in Dadaab, has been working toward his family’s resettlement since 2008. The news of the executive order was a significant blow to his hard work and hope.

“Finally, I had completed all the processes and was waiting for flight confirmation,” he says. “The ban simply means that the United States of America does not want refugees, and I am very demoralized. If someone stops you from going to his house, then you have no option but to go away and look for where you will be accepted and you can belong.”

Shire, a refugee in Kambioos camp, was also disheartened.

“The ban by the USA has just made me make a decision to withdraw my resettlement case,” he says. “It has been a long and tiresome process, but now I concede defeat.”

The President’s executive order for suspension of admission of refugees into the United States sent shockwaves through Dadaab. The immediate effects reverberated around the world as officials struggled to understand the order’s implications for enforcement. But in Dadaab, the effects were not merely confusing but dispiriting. Bashiir, a refugee from Ifo camp in Dadaab remarked,

“I had just finished the whole resettlement process and was only waiting for flight confirmation. Now my case is unknown. After the announcement, I could not sleep and it feels like my dreams and aspirations have been shattered.”

When the executive order was implemented, refugees awaiting travel were sent back to the camps to wait for more information. Because they were planning for resettlement, some had quit their jobs in the camps or sold their possessions to other refugees. Asad, from Ifo camp, had a flight confirmed for January 29, 2017. He notes with frustration,

“I was already in the USA in my mind, and I had finally been able to get this opportunity to belong. When I return to the camp, where do I start from? I had sold and given out all my belongings and even said goodbye to my friends. What does a human being do? I even have the ticket in my hand.”

Culan, a single mother with a disability and three children was also left in a serious lurch.

“I had bought items for my travel and back at the camp I have nothing to go back to but the many problems that exist,” she says.

While some commentators in the United States downplay the significance of the refugee ban because of its intended 120-day duration, those three months put refugees in Dadaab ever-closer to the closing of the camps. For many, it closes one possible avenue away from the violence they fled. Representatives of the LWF note that Somali refugees in Dadaab fear returning to the conflict they once escaped. Dubad, a Somali refugee, had been trained for work in motor vehicle maintenance at Dadaab, with support from LWF. “I passed my exams and even secured a job in Somalia, but due to threats on my life and family problems, I had to return to Kenya to seek refuge,” he says. Being from a minority clan in Somalia leaves Dubad at risk from ethnic violence.

“The announcement has left me hopeless since it feels like every time I seek an opportunity to get better life for me, my family and children, I get a challenge.” Unlike Asad, Dubad had not yet sold his belongings or purchased a plane ticket. But the emotional and psychological cost of Trump’s executive order have been difficult to bear. “My life is still at a threat, and I do hope things get better and that President Trump stops this discrimination and rejection.”

Even those who were not in the process of being resettled are confused and afraid. Lennart Hernander, LWF World Service’s program representative in Kenya-Djibouti, notes that young people were particularly disheartened, losing hope in the resettlement process entirely. Other refugees with family already living in the United States are fearful that their resettled relatives will be deported. These same relatives are often a vital form of assistance, sending remittances to their family back in the camp so they can buy the essentials they need to survive in Dadaab.

The United States, once the source of hope for many refugees seeking resettlement, safety and a new start, has become for some a symbol of exclusion and rejection. Ishaar, a refugee in Hagadera camp and also from a minority clan in Somalia, echoes Dubad’s sentiments:

“I had already been confirmed [for resettlement] and told that my process was successful and to travel on February 28, 2017, to the USA. I thought I was going to be safe, but now the USA has rejected me. Where do I belong since I cannot go back to Somalia for I fear for my life?”

For some, a sliver of hope remains that as borders against resettlement seal and the date to close Dadaab grows closer, new possibilities will be opened by welcoming communities around the globe. But in the wake of the executive order from the United States, the fearful prospect of returning to the places they fought so hard to escape draws closer to reality.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton released a statement yesterday that affirmed the ELCA’s commitment “to continuing ministries of welcome that support and build communities around the country” and to “stand firmly against any policies that result in scaling back the refugee resettlement program.”  Read the full statement here.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the persons quoted in the article. Quotes are courtesy of LWF World Service, Kenya-Djibouti.