The Russia-Ukraine war has led to the deaths of thousands and the destruction of much of Ukraine as well as an ongoing crisis of refugees fleeing war-torn areas of eastern and southern Ukraine.  

In an effort to alleviate this crisis, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg in western Pennsylvania is funding the expenses of a handful of Ukrainian refugees so that they may visit the state’s Westmoreland County on July 30-31 to consider permanently relocating to the region. The initiative is led by Greensburg’s Bishop Larry Kulick in conjunction with Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia.

Archbishop Borys Gudziak with a Ukrainian refugee family in Romania. Photo courtesy of Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia
Archbishop Borys Gudziak with a Ukrainian refugee family in Romania. Photo courtesy of Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia

The visit will begin with prayer and dinner at the diocese’s Christ Our Shepherd Center followed by a three-hour tour of Westmoreland County by representatives of the county’s Economic Growth Connection and General Carbide Corporation.

The Ukrainian visitors will learn from business and community leaders about jobs available in the region as well as familiarize themselves with life in the county.  Ten families who fled Ukraine after the Feb. 24, 2022, Russian invasion of their homeland and who are now living in the greater Philadelphia area have so far expressed interest in coming.

‘Extremely urgent’ situation

Marta Rubel, social outreach director for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, noted that the situation of Ukraine’s refugees and the need for relocation services was “extremely urgent.”

“Eastern and southern Ukraine has been decimated,” she explained. “There are many individual towns that have been bombed out of existence.”

The archbishop added that the war has broken up many families. “In many cases, husbands and fathers are left behind since men between the ages of 18 and 60 generally are not allowed to exit the country for needs of national defense,“ he said. “That means that there is much disruption in the families; in fact, deep trauma.”

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“Of course, many who have left know people who have been injured or killed,” the archbishop continued. “It is estimated that 80% of the Ukrainian population has someone in their circle of family and friends who has been a casualty of war. So, the transfer of refugees is not only difficult as a physical process, but there are deep psychological wounds and spiritual challenges all the refugees are facing.”

While most families intend to return to Ukraine after the war with Russia has ended, Rubel suspected this intention may change if they reside in the United States long enough. “The longer the war goes on, and the more the refugees assimilate, I suspect they will want to stay,” she said. 

The idea to have refugees visit Westmoreland County originated with the Greensburg Diocese, and when Gudziak learned of the idea, he described it as “a beautiful proposal” for Ukrainians fleeing the destruction of their homeland, noting that “western Pennsylvania offers a safe, wholesome, and welcoming environment.”

Western Pennsylvania is currently home to more than 40,000 people of Ukrainian descent, the fourth-largest concentration of Ukrainians in the United States. The archbishop said the region has a 150-year tradition of immigration from Eastern Europe and there are “historic roots and contemporary communities that can understand more closely, more intimately, the mentality and mindset of Ukrainian refugees.”

There are also Ukrainian clergy available in western Pennsylvania to minister to immigrants, such as Ukrainian native Father Oleh Seremchuk, who is pastor of two Byzantine Catholic churches in western Pennsylvania and is involved in the Greensburg initiative.

The archdiocese advertised the program through its social media platforms as well as through its newspaper, The Way, and word of mouth. Greensburg is the only diocese that has specifically reached out to offer a home to Ukrainian refugees, the archbishop believes, although individual employers have reached out to the archdiocese seeking to help. The immigrants’ most immediate needs are housing, work, and learning the English language, Rubel noted.

Archbishop Borys Gudziak meets with a Ukrainian refugee family in Romania. Photo courtesy of Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia
Archbishop Borys Gudziak meets with a Ukrainian refugee family in Romania. Photo courtesy of Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia

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1,000 square miles

Westmoreland encompasses 1,000 square miles and is home to 354,663 people. Its county seat is Greensburg, a 40-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh. Not only could a relocation help a Ukrainian family, General Carbide CEO Mona Pappafava believes, but it could also prove beneficial to the local economy in Westmoreland.

“The labor shortage in this area is no secret. We are excited about the opportunity, even on a small scale, to have an influx of potential candidates,” she observed.

Jim Smith of the Economic Growth Connection, a nonprofit economic development corporation, also believes that Ukrainian immigrants, despite having no experience working in the U.S., would be beneficial to the local economy.

“I’ve had employers tell me that they are ready and willing to hire individuals who may not necessarily have all the requisite skills but are willing to be trained,” he explained. “Having more diverse channels and a wider reach for recruiting talent is a responsive strategy and one we will hope will work.”

Archbishop Gudziak expressed his gratitude to Bishop Kulick for organizing the program and noted that the bishop is of a Slovak background and regularly travels to Eastern Europe.  

“Bishop Kulick not only has a warm heart but [also] a good understanding of the region, and his leadership in this innovative humanitarian effort is one guarantee that it will be in the spirit of Jesus, the spirit of the Gospel, and for the good of the people of God,” the archbishop said.