Helping those affected by conflict

The Mission is providing care and funds for seafarers and their families affected by the war in Ukraine

By Verity Relph

The Mission to Seafarers’ frontline teams have been no strangers to crisis over the past two years, but the start of 2022 has brought a new emergency to the fore. With Ukrainian and Russian seafarers making up some 15% of the global workforce, the Mission has once again had to consider rapidly how it responds.

Pastoral support is of course at the centre of how the Mission’s port teams have been working to support crew. With many desperately worried about their families, facing bereavement, or dealing with contracts and the difficulties of travel, chaplains are there to listen.

“The trauma is visible on the seafarers’ faces,” explains Graham Miller, who manages the seafarers’ centre in Townsville, Australia. The port is frequently the first port of call for vessels entering Australian waters from Asia, so the team are very familiar with Ukrainian and Russian crews.

Graham recounts how one seafarer who recently visited the Mission’s centre, headed to the centre’s intimate Chapel of St Nicholas. The seafarer commented that he was moved to see the Easter decorations of sunflowers, Ukraine’s national floral emblem. Having completed an extended contract, he would be heading to his home city of Odessa after departing the vessel at their next port.

Townsville is one port which has received emergency funding from MtS to provide free communication for Ukrainians, or others judged to be in urgent need due to the crisis. “We have been supplying data SIM cards to allow Ukrainian seafarers instant communication with their families,” says Graham, “whether they are at home, on the road or in refugee stations across Europe.”

Around the world, chaplaincy teams have been handing out SIM cards and portable Wi-Fi devices to crew so they can keep in contact with their loved ones.

Contact with home

Cristi Chapman, executive director of the Seattle Seafarers’ Center, spoke of her team’s recent visit to a crew of Ukrainian seafarers in Everett (just north of Seattle): “During the visit, they gave the crew free SIM cards, which they were really grateful to have. For some, it was the first time they were able to call home in a long time, which brought relief and angst at the same time. All of the Ukrainians were from the Odessa area, and at that time, their families (who were still in the country) reported that shelling continued. For- tunately, none of the family members had been injured, but they are enduring unbelievable conditions.”

The Mission has also developed ‘own-language’ mental health materials in Russian and Ukrainian, which are available both online and in port.

More widely, there are also seafarers of mixed nationalities who have found themselves trapped in Ukrainian ports and some seafarers’ vessels have come under attack.

In Turkey, the MtS chaplain ministered to a vessel which had been struck by a Russian missile while at anchor at Odessa. The missile ripped a huge hole in the accommodation block and one member of the crew was hit by shrapnel while preparing food in the galley. Fortunately, the ship was able to sail unhindered to Istanbul where the chaplain was able to visit the crew, who were all in deep shock, while the repairs were made. The captain and crew were expected to return to the Philippines for rest and recuperation following the incident.

In addition to the work of its frontline teams, the Mission has also made $50,000 available to the Merchant Transport Workers’ Union Ukraine (MTWU) to support those who are in Ukraine or who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. The money will help 52 families, many of whom are still in Ukraine but have run out of funds to pay rent or buy food. This issue is exacerbated as male seafarers cannot leave the country to join their ships so are unable to provide for their families.

Whether stranded at home or on a ship, whether in need of practical support or simply a listening ear, the Mission is there for those who are caught up in the conflict.

Verity Relph is the grants and impact manager at The Mission to Seafarers.