March 29–As the conflict in Ukraine enters its second month, Niranjana Swami, GBC representative for Ukraine, addressed the Governing Body Commission (GBC) of ISKCON with a report on Ukraine, the devotees affected, and future planning. The following information is drawn from that report. For the purpose of this report, Niranjana Swami explained that due to the natural relationships with devotees currently sheltered in neighbouring regions, some facts on those areas, such as Crimea, would also be included.
ISKCON has temples, either rented or under construction, in 32 cities throughout Ukraine. There are eight cities where ISKCON is located that have seen significant military activity. These include Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Mariupol, Zhytomyr, and Chernigiv. In the cities where Deities were regularly worshipped, those Deities have either been secured safely, relocated to a safe place where the worship has continued without interruption, or as in the case of Kharkiv, the large Deities have been secured, but the small Deities are still being worshipped.
Deities and pujaris who were moved to Mali Lysivtsi village, a devotee farm in Ukraine
The ISKCON Ukraine National Council continues to meet regularly. The last meeting was in early March–during the ongoing military conflict. At that meeting, it was decided to encourage all the devotees living in the large cities near military installations to leave their residences for safer places. They also encouraged devotees, wherever they relocate to, to keep connected with their community and congregation for ongoing support.
Kyiv is the biggest temple and the largest devotee community in Ukraine. Based on the information Maharaja had, approximately 80- 90% of the active congregational members (approximately two thousand devotees) have relocated to areas outside of the military operation. At the start of the conflict, many of the congregational members had moved into or nearby the temple. They have now all been encouraged to leave Kyiv. There are just two senior devotees living in the Kyiv temple and about 15 devotees staying near the temple. Amazingly, Food for Life is continuing in Kyiv and is distributing approximately two thousand plates of prasadam a day.
As of March 28th, the majority of devotees from this area have been evacuated. Maharaja reported that as best we know just 20 devotee adults and 10 children remain in the city, but Ukrainian leaders have lost contact with them. The military conditions have made it impossible to reestablish contact with these devotees, despite repeated efforts to communicate with them. Efforts to contact them are continuing and constant.
Lviv has been somewhat of a safe haven. The ISKCON building was recently constructed and there are 70 devotees from Eastern Ukraine currently living there.
Food for Life is continuing in major cities including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Chernihiv, and Sumy. Approximately ten thousand plates of prasadam are being distributed daily to people in need.
Approximately thirty thousand plates of prasadam have been provided to the devotee refugees hosted at various temple projects. This does not include the hundreds of devotees who have been accommodated in central and western Ukraine in other devotees’ apartments and homes.
There are four BBT titles that are soon going to print in Lutsk, where there is a printing press and a devotee printer authorized by the BBT. He is printing 10,000 copies of Beyond Birth and Death in Ukrainian, and Srila Prabhupada Lilamrita Volumes 1, 2, and 3 in Russian. Even amidst the conflict, book distribution is still going on in some cities in Western Ukraine. Some devotees are on average distributing 30-60 books daily in the city of Chernovtsiy, close to the border of Romania.
Book distribution Chernivtsiy, Ukraine
Niranjana Swami stated that he is in regular communication with leaders of the ISKCON European Regional Governing Body (RGB). They are planning how to best provide for the current and future scenarios of refugees in Europe. The number of refugees is increasing daily. Poland alone has approximately 800 devotee refugees, mostly women, and children. The yatra’s capacity is already over-extended.
Some European leaders are encouraging Ukrainian devotees to travel to other countries. They are also discussing how these devotees will be accommodated and funded for the long-term. Despite the conflict, Maharaja, and other leaders, are regularly giving online classes for the benefit of Ukraine devotees. For example, Niranjana Swami gave an online class on March 27th to 250 devotees. Maharaja reported he is also in contact with devotees who continue to plan rescue operations for devotees in dangerous areas.
With the help of the international financial support, Ukraine has been receiving, about 700 devotees have been relocated and provided personal maintenance and necessities like medication. 255 devotees have been accommodated in Ukrainian temples where there is minimal military action. The majority of these devotees are being accommodated in an ISKCON rural retreat center – New Mayapura – which is outside the city of Dnipro. Currently, there are approximately 250 devotees being accommodated there, most of whom are women and children. This is a lot of extra people for the retreat center, but with the financial support and donations, they are able to provide for them.
So far, the international funds that have been received have been adequate to meet the immediate needs of devotees.
Niranjana Swami commented, “Gratitude is not a word I could properly use to express on behalf of these devotees. Many of them are making videos and writing letters expressing their words of gratitude. Some are pretty emotional, some are traumatized, as to be expected.”
Maharaja noted that a big concern for the future is how to deal with trauma, especially for the women and children who have left their homes, husbands, and fathers, and have become refugees.
Sunday feast and program in Chernigiv, Ukraine. Chernigivis was heavily destroyed but there are still some devotees left.
He also noted that if funds currently available are distributed at the present rate, they will run out in 30 days. Thus more financial help is needed, as the rate of disbursing the funds has also been increasing.
Maharaja ended his report on a somber note: “It’s also necessary for us to prepare for the future: some temples and homes will be destroyed and they will need to be restored. This is a major concern in the mind of many of the devotees who had to vacate. What will be left, and how will we rebuild?”
Readers wishing to contribute to the Ukraine relief efforts, either by helping Ukrainian devotees still in their country, or devotees who have become international refugees, or to support ISKCON efforts by distributing prasadam (hot vegetarian meals) for others suffering from the conflict can find out where to send money to authorized ISKCON sites here.
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