WILLIAMSBURG — Film producer Jason Jones did not have to enter Ukraine to assess the humanitarian crisis wrought by Russia’s invasion a month and a half ago.
It was there on full display just a few days ago as he toured Poland’s border with Ukraine — a portal for refugees, mostly women and children, fleeing the carnage.
Jones, founder and president of the Vulnerable People Project (VPP), had just returned from there Monday. On Tuesday evening, he joined a special gathering of Lithuanian and Ukrainian Catholics at Our Lady of Mount Carmel-Annunciation Parish in Williamsburg to pray for the refugees.
He addressed the faithful outside the 150-year-old church that was replete with full-size and hand-held banners bearing the colors of the yellow and blue Ukraine flag.
“The people of Poland I think deserve a Nobel Prize,” he told the audience, which responded with cheers and applause. “They’re doing an amazing job welcoming Ukrainians. And they say, ‘They’re not refugees; they’re our families, and we bring our families into our home.’
“But what concerns me is that Poland is doing such a good job managing the refugee crisis, that we’re not seeing what’s happening beyond, and it’s a logistical nightmare.”
Before the event, Jones described for The Tablet what aid workers face in Ukraine.
“There’s so many checkpoints,” Jones said. “There are Chechen kill squads roaming around. And we have one of the most powerful land armies in the history of the world operating in Ukraine — the Russians. Every day we’re hearing of more and more atrocities.”
Within the past week, news outlets have shown images of slain civilians on the streets of Bucha, a city on the northwest outskirts of the capital of Kyiv. Russian forces attacked there in late February, but have since withdrawn.
Earlier Tuesday evening, when the gathering was inside the church, participants got a firsthand report of the bloodshed in a live-streamed video from Ukraine. The speaker was Andrew Koshman, a baritone for the Ukrainian musical theater company, Nova Opera. In 2016, the group performed its opera, “Liturgy,” at Our Lady of Mount Carmel-Annunciation.
“They came and killed a lot of not-military people,” Koshman said. “So it is very cruel and they are trying to cancel our freedom.
“But Russia did not expect that we would defend our country so good. They thought, ‘People will wait for us with flowers.’ No. We saw what happened in 2014 when they came and occupied Crimea. And now even Russian-speaking people in Ukraine hate Russia.”
It was about 3:30 a.m. In Ukraine when Koshman addressed the Williamsburg audience.
“There is no electricity. There is no water. There is no food,” he said. “There are a lot of explosions. You do not know where they will attack next time.”
Still, Koshman said Nova Opera will perform its latest work “The Art of War,” Thursday, April 7 in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine.
“We will show that art cannot be destroyed by weapons,” he said.
Russian aggression is not the only problem in Ukraine. Jones said many female refugees don’t reach the border because criminal gangs prowling Europe divert them into human trafficking pipelines.
That was not the case for one young woman with a baby boy, who made it to Poland. Jones described how Marilis Pineiro, his organization’s legislative and diplomatic relations liaison, used Google Translate to communicate with the woman.
Subsequently, they arranged to bring her with them to Germany, her destination. It is also where Jones and Pineiro had earlier arranged a meeting in Munich with Afghani refugees to help their relatives get out of Afghanistan.
“It so happens that the Hazara leaders that we work with, these young Hazara women from Afghanistan, lived in Strasbourg,” Jones said. “So tonight, we have Afghan women helping a young Ukrainian woman as she’s getting settled in Germany. This is what it is to be the body of Christ. And when we stand together, none of us are vulnerable.”
The Vulnerable People Project (VPP) is one of two organizations under the Human Rights Education Organization (H.E.R.O.). The other is the production company Movie to Movement.
VPP conducts “influence” campaigns via op-ed articles, blog posts, and a podcast, “The Jason Jones Show,” to promote the struggles of people under assault by either the governments, competing cultural groups, or both. But VPP also provides direct aid in cases of sudden calamities, such as genocide in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, East Turkistan (the Uyghurs), and now Ukraine.
In Ukraine, for example, it is working to reach and resettle women vulnerable to human trafficking gangs, and provide vans or trucks to ferry supplies to people trapped in the conflict. Information about how to support both efforts is at VPP’s website, thegreatcampaign.org.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel-Annunciation Parish contributed $10,000 to the VPP, announced its pastor, Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, who was the master of ceremonies for the event. Musical performer Al Barbarino pledged to donate proceeds from the sale of his CDs sold at the event.
Also at the event, Father Michael Perry, pastor-emeritus at Our Lady of Refuge, Flatbush, whose grandparents were Ukrainian, helped with introductions for Koshman.
It was a reunion of sorts of the parish’s Lithuanian members and the congregation of the neighboring Holy Ghost Parish Ukrainian Catholic Church. On Feb. 27, just a few days after the invasion began, the Lithuanians marched up North 5th Street to join Holy Ghost Parish for an emotional Sunday Mass of solidarity.
The roles reversed on Tuesday when the flag-carrying Holy Ghost Ukrainians came to Our Lady of Mount Carmel-Annunciation. Leading them was their pastor, Father Ivan Tyhovych.
Also speaking was Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the East Turkistan Government in Exile, who came at the invitation of Jones. Hudayar expressed empathy and solidarity for Ukrainians; his fellow Uyghurs are enduring genocide inflicted by the Chinese Communist Party.
“We don’t want the people of Ukraine to have to face a brutal genocide under the hands of the Russians,” Hudayar said. “So we want to let the Ukrainian people know, never give up, whatever you do. Keep on fighting and maintain your freedom and independence. We stand in solidarity with you.”