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Finding light in darkness of war


Members of an Adelaide Catholic Women’s League group have been raising money for Emmaus parishioner Maurice O’Connell who recently returned to Ukraine to continue volunteering for a local aid organisation.

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Maurice O’Connell has seen extreme hardship and suffering since he began volunteering in the port city of Odesa in Ukraine.

“I have a lot of painful memories,” the Emmaus parishioner told The Southern Cross before he returned to Ukraine last month to continue his voluntary work with local humanitarian group New Dawn.

“Seeing Mariupol orphans at an Odesa orphanage, seeing grown men cry as they tell their stories of loved ones who were killed, some deliberately, villages in which every single house has been destroyed or damaged. Deep pain etched into people’s faces.”

But Mr O’Connell, who spent his childhood in Adelaide and retired here after a career in finance and banking, said war also brought out the best in people. For him, the greatest example of this is the “dedication of the Ukrainians helping Ukrainians at New Dawn”.

“When I look back at this time in my life, I know that those negative feelings will be tempered and balanced by acts of extraordinary good; kindness and generosity shown by ordinary people to their fellow human beings,” he said.

“The acts of kindness which balance out the evil.”

IN SOLIDARITY: From left, Belinda Carrabs with CWL Next Gen president Michele Coolahan, treasurer Susan Kim and Maurice O’Connell at the garage sale held at Belinda’s Hawthorn home.

Such acts were evident when he attended a garage sale organised by the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) Next Gen group at the Hawthorn home of one of their members.

The group, most of whom are Emmaus parishioners, wanted to do something to support their fellow parishioner and the New Dawn volunteers.

At the sale, Mr O’Connell spoke to shoppers, including a retired gentleman who handed him a bundle of notes. Putting them in his pocket without counting them, he later discovered it was 20 $100 notes.

“Two thousand dollars from a complete stranger to be given to complete strangers,” he said.

“No one knows him so I can’t thank him for his extraordinary generosity.”

The second “moment” was when he began talking about his work in the Kherson region of Ukraine to a woman fossicking for a bargain. After a few minutes her eyes welled up and she told Mr O’Connell her grandfather was Ukrainian and had died during Stalin’s purges.

The woman opened her purse and gave him a $50 note, apologising three times that this was all she could afford because she was on social security.

CWL Next Gen secretary Belinda Carrabs said the garage sale and raffle was a great success and raised more than $7000. A few weeks earlier,
Mr O’Connell spoke to parishioners in the church hall about his experience and shared stories, prompting parishioners to give generously. Previous fundraisers included fried rice and ‘coffee connect’ stands at the parish’s mini food market.

“After all of these efforts we, CWL Next Gen, and the generous Emmaus parish have been able to donate more than $8200,” she said.

“When we announced it (the amount) before our congregation the next day at church there was cheering, hugs and so much joy by all, and the donations continued!”

Mr O’Connell first travelled to Ukraine in May last year, after watching the devastation of “Putin’s war” on television.

Having retired from Moody’s rating agency and with his children grown up, he felt he had the “luxury to go and do something”.

After pinpointing Odesa as the place where he could do the most good he spoke to a cousin living in Dusseldorf, Germany, whose daughter was working for a German NGO sending aid to a Ukrainian volunteer group in the port city.

She put him in touch with the group, which subsequently became   known as New Dawn.

Mr O’Connell’s plan was to help them for two months and then pick up his motorbike which had been in storage in Oxfordshire since COVID.

But after two months he decided to extend his visa.

“Motorcycling seemed to be pretty frivolous when there was so much  going on in Ukraine,” he said.

Initially, the volunteers operated out of a vacant school which the local authorities allowed them to use. In August they relocated to a near-derelict university building across the road.

Mr O’Connell said anyone who had a skill – plasterers, painters, electricians, and handymen of all types – pitched in and transformed the place into what affectionately became known as ‘the Hub’.

An aid run to ‘forgotten villages’ close to the frontline.

Each day, the Hub delivers up to 200 aid packages to newly arrived refugees, who are escaping areas destroyed, under attack or occupied by Russians.

“Many arrive in Odesa with little more than the clothes on their backs and a small bag containing the barest of personal effects,” he said.

“Some have witnessed or experienced unspeakable horrors.”

New Dawn also conducts “aid runs” with several donated minibuses to outlying communities that are referred to as “the forgotten villages”.

“At one village only 8 to 10km from the Russian line, every single home was destroyed or damaged, and there were still 50 people living there amongst the ruins, mainly older women, with no running water,” Mr O’Connell said.

“We are their lifeline, no-one else is helping them, and as winter approached things became more critical. There’s no electricity, it can get down to well below zero degrees, it’s like going back to the dark ages.”

While Mr O’Connell’s background in finance and management has been helpful, he insists the main benefit is “just to be there, to be present”.

“As a foreigner, that intangible level of support is so important,” he continued. “It shows that they are not alone and that behind me is a small army of supporters in Australia and other countries.”

Destruction in Bucha, Ukraine.

He realised the impact his presence had, and how committed he’d become, when he held a traditional Aussie barbecue for about 60 volunteers before he left in November.

“Each department had chipped in to buy presents for me, it was really touching and very powerful, especially one man who gave me a string bracelet with a piece of steel from the Mariupol Avostal steelworks – made from the last batch of steel forged there before it was besieged and destroyed by the Russians,” he said.

“I knew at that moment I would go back.”

During his time in Adelaide he was busy raising awareness and fundraising for New Dawn. While the registered not-for-profit organisation has funding from significant German NGOs, this is largely for food aid.

With his contacts, and through a new partnership with Rotary SA,
Mr O’Connell has been able to provide other essential items such as candles, blankets and basic building materials for people living in villages close to the frontline.

Another example of the type of help needed is power banks for students whose schools have been destroyed or are experiencing regular shelling.

“They work from home and have generators but they need power banks for computers,” he explained.

As a result of one generous donor from Adelaide, 94 power banks were delivered to students within 18 days of the money being donated at a fundraising dinner.

“I’m so impressed with what the team is doing over there, they are exhausted but totally motivated and the turnaround is incredibly fast,” he said.

More than half of the volunteers are displaced persons and Mr O’Connell recognised early on that they needed financial assistance as they had no jobs and yet came in daily to help.

He plans to use some of the funds raised in Adelaide to help the volunteers who are in the most difficult financial situation with rent and utility bills.

One of the volunteers, Misha, lost his wife and daughter in Mariupol.

“He had to pick up his wife’s body parts after a Russian artillery explosion and bury her and his daughter in the garden.  He is a broken man,” Mr O’Connell said.

“Now, with his eight-year-old son, he is one of the volunteers.”

Mr O’Connell said it was difficult when he first came back to Adelaide to hear people complaining about “first world issues” when he had seen villages where “every single home is destroyed”.

The experience has changed his life and while his children believed he was “crazy” at first, now they are “quietly proud”.

As for his views on the war, Mr O’Connell is pessimistic about a peaceful outcome in the short term.

“Ukraine is not going to give up, the people are fighting for their existence,” he said, adding that despite the majority of Odesans being Russian-speaking, they were determined to keep the Russians out of their city.

“This is their war of independence, when we look back at history this will be their Gallipoli moment where a new unified nation is forged in a common struggle.”

For further details go to For more information about CWL Next Gen contact




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