by Catherine Halbmaier
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — The war is real.
That was the message Deacon Philip Gilbert, of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, shared with students in his talk at St. Benedict School in Atchison on Jan. 19.
Deacon Gilbert and his wife Christine were living in Lviv, Ukraine, when the war broke out. Now in Atchison, the couple shared their experience escaping Ukraine at two speaking events — one at St. Benedict School and the other at Maur Hill-Mount Academy earlier the same day. The talks detailed Deacon Gilbert’s journey from Lviv to Atchison, starting in the winter of 2022.
“On February 24, we woke up to air raid sirens,” said Deacon Gilbert in his talk. “Before this, I thought, ‘We’re in far western Ukraine, an hour’s drive from the Polish border which is EU and NATO [territory]. We’re fine.’
“I was wrong.”
Russian missiles had struck a town just south of where the Gilberts were living. Unable to board the packed evacuation trains, the Gilberts took an electric train.
“We were about 15 miles from the border — it’s now dark — and outside the window we can see lines of cars stopped in bumper-to-bumper traffic waiting to cross the border,” said Deacon Gilbert. “The next day we started walking.”
He and his wife arrived at the Polish border at 6 p.m. the following evening. After nine hours of waiting in line, the pair was given transport by a Polish couple who drove them to Krakow.
“While we were waiting at the border, the Poles and the Slovaks were constantly walking past with boxes of food, diapers for children, drinks, hot soup, blankets, raincoats,” said Deacon Gilbert. “On the one hand you see these Europeans — that is, Poles and Slovaks and Ukrainians — just bending over backwards to help strangers.
“And on the other hand, you know that there are rockets falling on residential buildings and uncounted deaths in the east of the country.”
In Krakow, the Gilberts stayed in a Dominican monastery.
“While we were in Krakow, we still were reacting to sounds, like a plane flying over or a bus driving down the street, because it sounded like air raid sirens,” Deacon Gilbert said.
Some 337,000 refugees entered Poland from Ukraine, Deacon Gilbert said. Many more crossed into other countries.
After their stay in Krakow, the couple went to Italy where a friend hosted them.
Now, they are living in Atchison with Deacon Gilbert’s parents.
The deacon was raised in California and sent to Ukraine after entering the seminary. There, he completed a master’s degree and met his future wife.
In an interview with The Leaven, Deacon Gilbert and his wife described the welcome they have received from the Atchison community.
“Countless people have come up to us — people I don’t know — and said, ‘We’re so glad that you’re here. We’re keeping you in our prayers, the children mention you in their rosary every night’ — really, really touching things like that,” said Deacon Gilbert.
Some members of the Atchison community went the extra mile and organized a fundraiser in conjunction with Deacon Gilbert’s talk. High school siblings Thomas, Charles and Anna Rziha collected donations following the event.
“I had a sewing class with Deacon Philip’s mother, Mrs. Gilbert, and she was always talking about her son in Ukraine,” said 14-year-old Anna Rziha. “This year, my mom thought it was a great idea to maybe raise some money for the people in Ukraine, and so we got together with Deacon Philip and his wife and kind of planned out what we wanted.”
“Every year, we do a service project. And this year, we were in Italy in the spring and we were there when the war started. So, we thought about it a lot and we decided this would be our service project this year,” said 16-year-old Charles Rziha.
The Rziha family collected donations from audience members as they left the talk. The money will go to hand warmers, ponchos and other helpful items for soldiers on the Ukrainian front.
“It’s kind of cool that, like, we’re not doing much, but we’re able to do something,” Charles Rziha said.
When asked how others can help, Deacon Gilbert suggested a fund at the St. Nicholas (Chicago) Diocese of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. People can write a check payable to St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy (with the memo “Support for Ukraine”) and mail it to 2245 W. Rice St., Chicago, IL 60622. Donations can also be made online at: chicagougcc.org/en/donate/support-ukraine.html.
“The war is very real. It’s not just pictures; it’s death, violence, many suffer,” said Christine Gilbert. “The only thing I would like maybe to ask is if they can just keep Ukraine in their prayers.”
“We see pictures and maps and reports and statistics and [it looks] all very fake. It’s like any other news we see on television,” Deacon Gilbert said. “It’s no one we know; it’s the sort of thing that happens to other people.
“But this is very much happening to people, very much affecting millions of people.”
The figure indicating 337,000 refugees entering Poland is missing some qualifying information. According to European Investment Bank statistics from November of 2022 “Poland has welcomed more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war. The … population of … Warsaw, … has grown by 15%, while Kraków’s has risen by 23% and Gdańsk’s by 34%.” Reliable estimates indicate that roughly 7.5 million (that’s two and a half times the entire population of Kansas – more than the entire populations of Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Montana combined) refugees are scattered throughout Europe, and most of those were given temporary shelter in Poland before moving on.
Hi Patrick! I believe Deacon Gilbert was referencing how many refugees had entered Poland while he was staying in Krakow, which perhaps should have been made more clear. But those updated figures are startling and have been referenced in other articles we’ve covered on the situation in Ukraine. Thank you so much for your comment and for taking the time to read this article!