“CHRISTMAS is the celebration of the longing for our better self, for the heaven we search for in vain here on Earth, and for the carefree life that exists only in heaven.” These are the words of Father Werenfried van Straaten (1913-2003), founder of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). This longing is evident in the stories of two remarkable Catholics from Nigeria and Ukraine, two of the 149 countries where ACN supports the local Church in helping faithful—at Christmas and throughout the year—cope with adverse conditions and draw hope from the message of the birth of Christ.
Ukraine: ‘The people no longer know what holidays are’
Christmas in a war zone in central Europe: the fighting in the eastern parts of Ukraine has been going on for five years now. Recent escalations, such as the current confrontation between Ukraine and Russia for supremacy in the Sea of Azov, have caught the public’s attention. The same cannot be said about the agonizing years of war. “Yet people are dying here every day. I have seen so many people die,” Volodymyr Zavadsky says.
The 42-year-old has been a volunteer of the “Christian Rescue Service” in the port city of Mariupol since 2016. He also spent a year as a civilian helper, living with the soldiers directly at the front. Since that time, he has openly worn a rosary on his military-issue protective clothing. “Prayer gives me a sense of security,” he says. Together with a team of priests and volunteers, he now coordinates relief supplies for the combat zone.
He also organizes children’s retreats, catechesis and prayer services; visits old and sick people and provides pastoral care to soldiers and the civilian population. His pride and joy is a center serving the needs of 65 children, which his organization has founded to take the place of closed-down schools. Says Volodymyr: “Their childhood is being drowned out by the din of the grenades. They often have to hide in cellars. Many have forgotten how to cry, but their souls are weeping.”
It will be another Christmas without holiday cheer in eastern Ukraine this year. “The people no longer even know what holidays are. Fear is everywhere,” he says. In defiance of this fear, Volodymyr and his colleagues are hosting a Christmas party for children and people with no family near the city of Donetsk. “We will begin by celebrating Holy Mass, followed by a nativity play for the children—and of course it wouldn’t be a party if we didn’t share a meal,” Volodymyr says.
For just a few brief hours, the war will be forgotten. “The people have placed all their hope in God,” Volodymyr stresses. It is a hope that also gives the young aid worker the strength to pursue his mission in the war zone. He says: “I hope that one day, love and peace will be the fruits of our efforts.”
Nigeria: ‘An extra serving of rice is my Christmas cheer’
“Christmas is a time of joy,” Suzanna John (50) says in summary of her thoughts. A sentiment that is almost unbelievable considering all that she has been through. The fighters of the Islamist terror group Boko Haram may largely have been forced into retreat in northern Nigeria, but there are signs of their former presence everywhere—most of all in the plight of the survivors. Suzanna John is one such example. Boko Haram invaded her village in 2015. Her husband was killed before her eyes; later, two of her sons were murdered when they attempted to escape. Since 2009, more than 20,000 Nigerians—Christians and Muslims alike—have lost their lives to terror and more than 1.8 million have lost their homes, including Suzanna and her three surviving children.
“We wandered aimlessly for two weeks until we reached Maiduguri,” she says. There they were taken in by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and have been cared for by the diocese ever since. The diocese receives financial aid from ACN. “The Church gave us a place to stay and a little money so that I could start selling charcoal on the streets. This means that I can at least earn a little money to provide for my family.” However, she and her children also receive food parcels because she does not make enough for them to survive on.
Suzanna’s plans currently revolve around having a modest Christmas dinner. “If I have a little money left over, I will buy a little extra rice. That will be our feast.” But it wouldn’t be terrible if this were not possible; she says: “We always manage with whatever we have. The spiritual is more important on Christmas.”
That is why Suzanna and her family will attend Mass Christmas, “as we do every Sunday.” At Mass, she prays for the survival of her family, because the situation in the country continues to be unstable. “My greatest hope is that we will one day be able to return to our village,” Suzanna says. “Christmas is the celebration of peace, and that is exactly what the people in northeastern Nigeria need now more than ever.”