A network of Catholic pensioners in London are working round the clock as volunteers to provide food, medicines and clothes to people the world has forgotten - in the Western Ukraine. The political system may have changed but, for ordinary people near Chernobyl, life has come to a standstill. Many children are seriously ill as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Large tracts of farmland are unusable. Government welfare is nonexistent. Malnutrition is rife. There is huge unemployment. Those lucky enough to have jobs have not been paid for more than a year - or they receive payment in crates of vodka. Children take it in turns to attend school - because they share one pair of shoes. The registered charity 'Friends of Poland', based in Surrey, is now spearheading aid to the area. Originally set up in 1982 to provide emergency food and medical aid via the Church to political prisoners and their families in Poland during martial law, they now find that country's neighbours are in much greater need. The Catholic church is proving to be a lifeline, organiser Julie Hykiel explained. For 50 years the churches were closed and Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith, she said: 'People were overjoyed when churches began to reopen. Many broke down in tears when they were allowed to attend Mass for the first time. It was incredible that they managed to preserve their faith through so many years of oppression.' Besides bringing back the Mass, the Sacraments and running catachetical programmes, the church is also giving hope in the form of practical help. Throughout the region, teams of dedicated, hard-working young priests and religious and lay workers are setting up voluntary welfare training schemes, soup kitchens and clothing banks - supplied by Friends of Poland. 'Conditions are appalling,' Julie said. 'In order to be treated at a hospital, would-be patients must first bribe the doctors and nurses - who have not been paid for a year. Then they have to bring their own bedding, food, medicines, dressings, soap and all hospital disposables. It is an impossible situation. Pensioners also have not been paid for a year and have no way of purchasing medicine or care. 'Without the church, the plight of these people would be hopeless. We are doing what we can to support their work.' The charity has a warehouse in West London where they collect supplies. Four times a year they send out a 15 ton articulated lorry filled with supplies to parishes in the Ukraine. The next lorry goes out on 18 June. Julie Hykiel said: 'We still need medicines of all kinds. We are also short of soap and toothpaste. Many people are suffering from skin problems as scurvy is rife and the water is only on for two hours a day. If anyone could donate any of these items we would be very grateful.' If you would like to help Friends of Poland in their work call Julie Hykiel on 020 8399 3876.
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