Entering the room, the sound of children’s laughter fills my ears. Brightly coloured paintings and drawings decorate the walls. On one wall, paintings of houses, lakes, trees and flowers make a collage depicting a town. A yellow road winds through the collage, connecting the houses together. 

Seeing the artwork brings tears to my eyes. I’m at Depaul Ukraine’s children’s centre in Odesa where many of the children around me have been displaced, some more than once. When they first come to the centre, they are isolated, lonely and struggling to cope with the trauma caused by the ongoing war.  

At the centre, the children are supported in small groups by specialist psychologists. Activities including art therapy help them work through their trauma, and children develop confidence through socialising and playing with others. The parents I speak to describe this support as life-changing. Their children laugh and play with others again – made possible thanks to the dedication and care shown by Depaul’s staff. 

This dedication and care is highlighted again and again throughout my trip to Ukraine. I’m accompanied by Fergus Conmee, Director of International Programmes at CAFOD. CAFOD, through the Disasters Emergency Committee, fund vital Depaul projects throughout the country. Together we head towards Mykolaiv, visiting formerly occupied villages outside Odesa. In the first village we enter, nearly every house has been damaged by shelling. The same is true for the second. As the day goes on, and we visit the third, fourth, fifth village, the devastation is repeated every time. 

This physical destruction mirrors the personal devastation felt by those we speak to. These are places where they have lived their whole lives. For many, it’s where they have gone to school, got married, started families. These are tight-knit, close communities, who are trying to cope with the intense trauma of living through over two years of war.  

During our visit, we accompany Depaul’s outreach team, who work with people to help them rebuild their lives. Many live within the communities, taking the time to speak with, and listen to, each person within the village. As we speak to more and more people, there is a real feeling that Depaul’s team is walking alongside them. In these places, knowing that Depaul hasn’t, and won’t, forget about them, is invaluable. 

As the war continues, Depaul’s teams are ready to respond to new challenges. Back in Odesa, we visit Depaul’s day centre, meeting men who served in both Chechnya and Afghanistan wars and in which I had been involved in providing humanitarian assistance earlier in my career. Returning to Ukraine, they were unable to process their trauma, leading to family breakdown, issues with alcohol and, eventually, rough sleeping. 

It’s an eventuality that Depaul Ukraine are already seeing in their services, as men begin to return from the frontline. The team are leading the way in responding to this challenge, opening a low-threshold shelter in Odesa. The shelter provides people under the influence of drugs and alcohol with a safe place to stay – people who would otherwise be spending a night on the streets. It’s the first shelter of its kind in the area, and is a testament to Depaul’s global expertise, as the team drew upon knowledge from Depaul teams in Ireland and Slovakia to set it up. 

Visiting the shelter, I’m struck by the humility and care shown by our staff. I hear how the shelter provides more than just a bed. It’s a place where people can have a meal, take a shower, and, in some cases, be signposted to psychological support. Above all, it’s a place where they are treated with the dignity and the respect they deserve.  

Reflecting on the trip, the compassion and empathy shown to every single person supported by Depaul stays with me. Depaul’s work in Ukraine, and globally, is about listening to those we work with, and walking alongside them in times of need. As I write this, our teams are already exploring options for expanding psychological support in Kharkiv city, in response to growing need as fighting in the region intensifies.  

Visiting our team in Ukraine makes me feel more connected to the global Depaul family than ever. I think again of the children’s drawing I saw in Odesa, depicting the town and road connecting the houses. For these children, and everyone Depaul supports from Ukraine to the USA, Croatia to the UK, the dignity and security of a home is vital. Our work, both in Ukraine and globally, sees our teams walking alongside people on their journey towards this – until everyone, everywhere, has a place to call home. 

 Matthew Carter OBE, Group CEO Depaul International.