Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Churches Ally to Offer Refugees Aid

With helicopters buzzing overhead in the Dagestani town of Khasav-Yurt last month, aid worker Tam‡s K‡rp‡ti watched as Chechen children ran helter-skelter, screaming.

"They would always take any aircraft for Russian air force bombers," said K‡rp‡ti, 26, a volunteer for the humanitarian organization Hungarian Interchurch Aid, or HIA, at a recent meeting at the Danilovsky Monastery. "It goes to show that aid programs for kids like these need to be a lot more comprehensive than just providing food -- among other things, a lot of them need counseling to overcome the trauma of war."

HIA is one of a group of church organizations that is bringing succor to the 88,000 Chechen refugees who have fled the fighting in Chechnya and are now sheltering in the neighboring republic of Dagestan.

HIA's mission in Dagestan, together with a complementary project in Chechnya itself, was set up in April 1995 as part of a program sponsored by Action by Churches Together, a worldwide network of churches founded in 1991 by the World Council of Churches, or WCC, and the Lutheran World Federation. Since its founding, Action by Churches Together, or ACT, has channeled aid to refugees in the former Yugoslavia through implementing partners drawn from churches across Europe and America.

"Hungarian Interchurch Aid was selected for the Chechen program primarily because of its experience in relief work in Bosnia-Herzogovina, where, like in Dagestan, we had to deal with refugees from different religious backgrounds," said Argentina Szabados, head of the emergency desk of HIA. The refugees in Dagestan include Orthodox ethnic Russians as well as Moslem Chechens.

In fact, according to Szabados, who also supervises HIA's operations in the former Yugoslavia, one of the most positive features of HIA's work in Chechnya and Dagestan has been the cooperation it has fostered between the Russian Orthodox Church and Chechnya's Moslem Muftiate.

"HIA entered the scene in response to an appeal by Patriarch Alexy II to the WCC, but ever since operations actually started, Russian as well as foreign workers consult local Moslem leaders for suggestions about the direction the aid should take," Szabados said.

This cooperation has also proved invaluable to the Russian Orthodox church, according to Oleg Kalimullin, head of the Moscow Patriarchy's department for external church relations. "European churches have been involved in relief work for the greater part of the century, while the Orthodox church, despite its age-old tradition of charity, lacks the experience necessary to organize and manage such a large-scale aid program," said Kalimullin, who has run the mission's Grozny office for the past year.

This year, HIA will distribute over $800,000 worth of aid to refugees, and in August the camps are to finally get a psychiatrist who will treat children suffering from shock.

For the most part, relief in the camps in Dagestan has been organized on more or less traditional lines: The churches distribute food, clothing and medicines and organize rudimentary education for the children. And as they worked in the area, the aid workers learned some important lessons themselves.

"While handing out food, it is important to take cultural factors into account," said K‡rp‡ti, who is on leave from his job as a financial analyst with the National Bank of Hungary.

"For instance, most organizations would distribute imported canned food among the Chechen refugees, but we found that they much prefer their traditional food items such as buckwheat, semolina and kasha."

Distributing traditional foods has the added advantage of helping Dagestan's economy, as most of the food is bought locally, K‡rp‡ti explained.

HIA has also helped the refugees help themselves through small-scale programs such as making clothes for sale. One group of Chechen refugees also works in a bakery that sells bread to the HIA for distribution in the camps.

As well as helping those who have fled Chechnya, the churches are bringing succor to those who have had to stay behind, through a network of soup kitchens in Grozny and the distribution of essential items to the city's four orphanages.

However, aid efforts inside the Chechen border have run into considerable difficulty.

"The security is terrible for aid workers, much worse than it was in Yugoslavia," said Szabados, who said she herself escaped a kidnapping attempt when her car was ambushed near Grozny last February. "Because of these problems, as of today, only two of the nine NGOs that commenced relief operations remain in Chechnya."

In another incident in January this year, two ACT workers, Fathers Sergei Zhigulin and Anatoly Chistousov were kidnapped by Chechens. Though Zhigulin was released recently, the fate of his companion is still unknown. But despite problems with security, HIA plans in the future to shift aid emphasis from the refugee camps to programs inside Chechnya itself.

As part of this change in focus, the organization envisages the reconstruction of living quarters in Grozny and repatriation of at least some of the displaced Chechen families to these renovated apartments before the onset of the harsh winter, said Szabados, who recently left for Grozny to open a soup kitchen.

Kalimullin believes that a church-based relief organization has an edge over others working in an area like Chechnya.

"Our mission has proved to be a catalyst in relations between representatives of different faiths -- the Mufti of Chechnya and the archpriest of Grozny met for the first time under our auspices," Kalimullin said. "We hope that our aid is not limited to the material alone."

Hungarian Interchurch Aid may be reached through the Moscow Patriarchy's Department for External Church Relations, room 407, Danilovsky Monastery, 22 Danilovsky Val, Moscow. To make donations, call Oleg Rashidovich at 952-3260.