On April 12, the Elijah Interfaith Institute convened religious leaders from numerous faiths for a special live program in Chernivtsi, Ukraine (watch here) and to facilitate visits to refugee camps. Among the participants were sisters Giac Nghiem and Luc Nghiem, nuns from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Community who traveled to the warzone to show solidarity and share spiritual support for the victims of Russia’s invasion. Sister Luc Nghiem was ordained in 2008 by Nhat Hanh and became a dharma teacher in 2016. In addition to farming and helping her community eat more local, organic food, she also organizes visits to Plum Village for young Palestinians. Sister Giac Nghiem ordained as a novice nun in 1999 and received the Bhikshuni precepts in 2003. A Christian who makes space for Buddhism and her root tradition, she became a dharma teacher in 2008.

Tricycle reached out to the sisters to learn about their participation in the delegation of faith leaders, and they shared some of their experience below. 

Tricycle: How did you connect with Elijah Interfaith?

Sisters Giac Nghiem and Luc Nghiem: This is the first time that the Elijah Interfaith Group has had monastics at a live event, but our connection dates back three decades. Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein joined a retreat in Israel in the early 1990s with Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, whom he approached about the Make Friends Across Religions initiative. Sister Chan Khong agreed to be interviewed for the program and later she appeared in a video for the rabbi’s “coronaspection project“, which emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you describe your experience at the refugee camps? What did you see and how did you feel?  

In the city of Chernivsti, most places of worship have been converted into housing for war refugees. We met young children with mothers but few fathers. Many of the families couldn’t contain their tears from the pain of seeing their homes and entire communities destroyed by bombs, of having to run away to save their lives. Many are suffering so greatly they could only stare into space, in shock over what has happened to them.

To protect their children, some mothers told us that they don’t even speak about the war in front of them, or discuss out loud what is happening beyond the walls of the buildings now providing them shelter. In the meantime, the children were simply being children—playing despite all that they have experienced, the life in them still springing up and sparkling. 

One question that kept coming up from the families was: why? “Why do they kill us?” they asked. The group of religious leaders we were a part of didn’t come to offer answers but to be with them, to feel with them.

It was hard to hold back our tears because our visit was very short and we had to leave the families without changing their situation, without ending the war or stopping their suffering. But perhaps by their seeing us come to Ukraine despite the situation to tell them that they are loved, we were able to plant seeds of hope in their hearts, seeds we hope will sprout again from the soil of our shared humanity.

Sister Giac Nghiem speaks at the Elijah Interfaith Panel in Chernivtsi, Ukraine

How can people help from afar?

As Buddhists we understand that we don’t have a separate self, and because of that we know that when we can generate love and understanding in our daily life, in any kind of situation, and wherever we are. By doing this, we are already helping water seeds of world peace and ensuring the seeds of violence, war, and discrimination go dormant. It is a small but important contribution, a way of applying Buddhism to our lives as a means of transforming our world. 

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