15 Apr, 2022 @ 17:15
3 mins read

DISPATCH: Ukrainian refugees rescued by Spain’s maverick priests join Easter parade in Madrid

Main Father Angel, Father Teodoro With Oksana, Leila And Karina In San Anton Church.j
Photo by Heather Galloway

THE Catholic Church in Spain may be mired in scandal and shedding fans at an alarming rate, but there are still pockets of goodness and gestures worthy of the Christian message.

While 27.5% of Spaniards declared themselves to be non-believers in 2019, 37.1% made the same claim in 2021, according to a recent report by la Fundacio Ferrer i Guardia.

But the story behind the presence of Ukrainian refugees in an Easter Good Friday parade in Madrid, could go some way to restoring faith in men of the cloth, even if those men number no more than two.

Since the start of the war, rogue priests, Father Angel and Father Teodoro, have dodged the Church’s red tape to bring more than 2,000 women and children from the Ukrainian-Polish border to Madrid, with the support of the NGO Messengers of Peace and Father Teodoro’s secretary Tahany Alim and his congregation of Faith and Hope.

On Good Friday, a number of the evacuees wearing the colours of the Ukrainian flag stepped momentarily out of limbo to become an intrinsic part of Semana Santa, one of the cornerstones of Spanish culture, marching solemnly around the block, in the centre of Madrid. in the wake of a brass band and ahead of 17th century carving of Christ on the cross.

“We are just so glad to be safe,” Leila, 21, tells the Olive Press while her mother Oksana Harber explains, “We decided to get out before Kyiv was surrounded. We took a bus. The road was clear. But there was a 5km queue when we got to the border.”

Leila and Oxana are being housed in a hostel in the Sierra of Madrid, along with Leila’s 15-year-old cousin, Karina whose parents are still in Kyiv. Karina barely speaks. She is worried about her parents, Oksana tells me. She is on the phone to them every day. “She is young,” Oksana explains. “It is difficult for her to grasp what is happening.”

But Karina is not alone. The situation is hard for all the refugees to get their heads around. “We never thought the war would actually happen; we saw the build up but Russians and Ukrainians were like brother and sister. Many people have family, relatives in both countries. Now this. The Russians are crazy. They understand nothing. They believe everything they are told on TV.”

Oksana and Leila put on a brave face. They are determinedly upbeat, going out of their way to show their gratitude. But Tahany, Father Teodoro’s secretary, tells me many of the refugees are too traumatised to even talk.

“Many of the children I have met were shaking and absent,” she says, adding, “There was one woman who escaped from her building with her four-year-old son just as a missile struck it. She grabbed what she could and ran. Her son is now deaf from the blast.”

Tahany With Oksana Leila And Karina
Tahany with Oksana, Leila and Karina. Photo: Heather Galloway

Though not regular churchgoers, Oksana, Leila and Karina come to watch the Easter parade that emerges from the Church of San Anton, famous for keeping its doors open 24/7 to the city’s homeless.

Oxana, Leila and Karina have a roof over their heads, but they are now homeless too all the same. “We don’t know what will happen next. Whether we should unpack our clothes or if we will be moved on,” says Leila. “What will my children think when I tell them about this episode in my life?”

Leila has left her boyfriend behind on Kyiv. Her eyes tear up when I ask about him, revealing some of the strain behind her smiles. Ukrainian men must stay and fight. She is keen to get back to him but believes the war will last for years. “Maybe stop then start up again,” she says. “We will have to find somewhere else to live.”

Oksana thinks she wouldn’t mind settling in Spain. She’d been wanting to visit for some time. And after three weeks of hiding in the boiler room under their building, wondering if they would come out alive, she decided to contact the Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid which put her in touch with Father Teodoro and Tahany.

Main Father Angel, Father Teodoro With Oksana, Leila And Karina In San Anton Church.j
Father Angel, Father Teodoro With Oksana, Leila And Karina In San Anton Church. Photo by Heather Galloway

“Father Angel and I bend the rules to help people,” admits Father Teodoro. “We are the only ones in the Church bringing refugees to Spain. Each bus costs €14,000. It’s very expensive. I approached the bishop for help but he told me there’s no budget to help the refugees; that it’s not up to him. The Church has a lot of money and is made for this kind of thing, but it’s not doing anything. It makes me sad.”

Cardenal Carlos Osoro Congratulates Father Angel
Cardenal Carlos Osoro congratulates Father Angel on Good Friday.

On Good Friday, Madrid Cardinal Carlos Osoro was on hand to congratulate Father Angel’s pioneering work. But, according to Tahany, that is about as far as it goes.

Anyone wishing to make a donations to Congregación Fé y Esperanza can do so via Bizum: 662268786 Referencia: Ayuda a Ukraine

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