A New Home in Lithuania

Created: May 23, 2024
Category: General News

Knights of Columbus in Vilnius turn an empty hotel into a residence for Ukrainian refugees

By Karolina Świder



When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Yuliia Solonyna felt as if her spirit had broken. She left her hometown of Izyum, 75 miles from the Russian border, two weeks later and traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania, with her 11-year-old son, Oleksandr.

Yuliia made the difficult decision to flee her homeland for the sake of her son, whose school had moved to Vilnius to keep students safe. She had no knowledge of the Knights of Columbus before meeting them in Vilnius, where she found welcome in a residence Lithuanian Knights had established for refugees.

The Knights of Columbus has been present in Lithuania since 2013. And though small in numbers, Lithuanian Knights are carrying out the mission of Blessed Michael McGivney to care for widows and orphans by providing housing and other support for women, children and elderly people displaced by the war in Ukraine.

“When the war started in Ukraine, one of my brother Knights asked me how we could help. Our first idea was to organize some accommodation for Ukrainian refugees,” said Sigitas Daugnoras, a member of St. Francis Parish Council 15900 in Vilnius.

He contacted Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius to ask about an out-of-use hotel belonging to the archdiocese, right in the city center, that could accommodate around 90 people. The Knights received authorization to use the building and immediately started getting it ready to welcome Ukrainians fleeing their country.

“We managed to gather a team of around 15 Vilnius Knights, and we organized everything that was necessary at that time to invite the refugees,” said Daugnoras. “We prepared and cleaned the rooms, repaired what needed repair, bought food and supplies.”

The first bus of refugees came March 29, 2022, with about 50 people aboard. A second one arrived the very next day. Two years later, 85 people reside in the hotel, including about 40 who have been there from the beginning.

The Knights’ support has continued long after their initial work to renovate and stock the residence with necessities. They helped women find jobs and organized schooling in Ukrainian for the 30 children present. They have organized psychological and spiritual support for the refugees, with a psychologist at their disposal for private sessions. And they have built community within the residence with activities from concerts to workshops to poetry readings.

“We could never do it without help from the Holy Spirit,” said Daugnoras. “I didn’t have time nor the good conditions for this to happen, so this is something from above.”

At first, the Knights collected all the necessary funds themselves. As the refugees have been able to start working, they have also started providing for themselves financially and helping to keep the facilities in a good condition. Recently, the Lithuanian government and the municipality of Vilnius offered the Knights 100,000 euros to support and further develop the project.

Yuliia Solonyna has served as administrator of the hotel since soon after she arrived, coordinating the kitchen, helping people settle in and adapt, and making sure that safety rules are followed.

“I was actually very lucky, as I realized later,” she explained, “because I had a lot of work in the first days and weeks. New people were coming in and I needed to take care of them. I lost track of the days, and I didn’t think so much about what was happening at home.”

This initiative has opened a new chapter in the Lithuanian history of charitable support, as the country had no official program to relocate war refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are currently more than 40,000 Ukrainian refugees in Lithuania.

Lithuania was under occupation by the Soviet Union for 50 years, reclaiming its independence only in 1991. Therefore, Lithuanians know well the hardships of fighting to preserve a nation’s identity and a sovereign state.

“We understand how horrible it is, and why it is so important not to get tired,” said Archbishop Grušas, who was instrumental in establishing the Knights in Lithuania in 2013. “This is why we can’t let our hands down, why we need to continue to pray and support those in need. The brother Knights have done this around the world in times of war for moral and ethical issues in the world.”

Soon after Russia’s invasion, Archbishop Grušas traveled to Ukraine as president of the Lithuanian Bishops’ Conference, among other representatives of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe.

“I saw all the devastation, the difficulties and the large migrations,” recalled Archbishop Grušas. “It solidified our resolve to assist the people of Ukraine both with the brother Knights and with the massive support that came through the Lithuanian church community and the Lithuanian community in general.”

But the situation of Ukrainians torn away from their homes and families by the war isn’t only a call to charity — it is also a call for a deeper kind of solidarity.

“I see our mission is not only to help those people to live, but also to help them find God,” explained Daugnoras. “When I see how people changed over those two years, how friendships were born, how the community evolved — I clearly see this is from God.”

“It’s not about money, not about the fact that they brought us food, but about the way they know how to support. And I believed in God anew through them,” explained Yuliia Solonyna, summing up her two years’ experience in Vilnius. “It was through the Knights of Columbus that I saw that there is a lot of love in this world, despite the war in Ukraine, despite the misery and the grief — there is a lot of love. … The main thing that changed in me was my view of God and how he shows his love through other people.”


KAROLINA ŚWIDER writes from Kraków, Poland.