UCU’s Emmaus Center has for 18 years now has been changing the attitudes of Ukrainian society to people with special needs: it organizes educational meetings, supports families with such children, and also helps people with disabilities find work, hobbies, and friends. At Emmaus, people with disabilities are called “friends.”
The Emmaus House, where people with intellectual disabilities and assistants live, is one of the center’s projects. Similar buildings exist in many countries, but UCU is the only university in the world where such a house is located in a student collegium (residence).
This article will explain how the idea for Emmaus arose, what the center does, and why it operates at the university.
Professors of human relations:
How did the idea of creating Emmaus at UCU arise?
The idea of the presence of people with intellectual disabilities at UCU is connected with an encounter… Archbishop Borys Gudziak, when he was a student at Harvard University, became friends with Fr. Henri Nouwen, a teacher and world-class professor, who was the second most popular Christian author in the USA (after C.S. Lewis). At that time, Fr. Henri was going through a critical stage in his life: the late Jean Vanier (founder of the L’Arche communities, where people with disabilities live together with assistants) invited him to live in one of the communities. At first, Fr. Henri stayed three months in a French L’Arche, and then he went to L’Arche in Canada, where he lived the last 10 years of his life. He left Harvard, the surroundings of brilliant colleagues and students, to live in community with people with intellectual disabilities. It was at L’Arche that he found many answers to questions which he had found neither in university nor even spiritual surroundings.
His acquaintance with Fr. Henri and the L’Arche environment inspired Archbishop Borys to invite people with intellectual disabilities to the university. From the very beginning, the Ukrainian Catholic University was built on the principles of two “m”s. The martyrs of the underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church are the first “m.” The second “m” is marginalized persons, people with intellectual disabilities.
“At UCU we think about the integrated formation of young people, not only intellectual education but preparation for life in relationship. This is why we have invited to our university people with special needs, those who, according to usual logic, should not be here,” explains Archbishop Borys Gudziak.
“Already in the 1990s, when we were formulating the concept of the university, we discovered that people with intellectual disabilities have not only special needs but also special gifts. They not only need us but, sometimes we, poor in the area of human relations, need their help. They are open. They don’t wear masks. By their presence they remove protocols that freeze communication. People with intellectual disabilities don’t care if you’re a rector or a bishop. One thing is important for them: ‘Can you accept me, interact with me? Can you love me?’ We want this question to be clearly heard at our university. And so, at the heart of our academic institution, which has high academic ambitions, there are people with special needs. They are our professors of human relations.”
What does the Emmaus Center do at UCU?
Within the UCU community, the Emmaus Center realizes some integrating projects for friends with special needs and students: liturgies together, meetings over coffee, and it also coordinates the activities of the Emmaus House.
The Emmaus House is an apartment on the UCU campus where people with intellectual disabilities and assistants live together. The house opened in March 2013. This is a family-type setting, an alternative to residential institutions. The Emmaus House is set up on the model of a community. On the premises friends live together with assistants.
The uniqueness of the Emmaus House is the fact that it is located in the Patriarch Josyf Slipyj Collegium, where there also live students, university staff, guests, and three nuns. For friends with special needs, this is an opportunity for more socialization and integration into society. The residents of the Emmaus House take active part in the life of the student community – they attend common prayer services, have various encounters and parties, and they also invite residents of the collegium to visit the Emmaus House. In their turn, our friends with special needs by their directness teach students authentic and sincere relations, trust, acceptance, communicating without masks, defensiveness, or “armor.”
Life at the Emmaus House has its own rhythm. On weekdays the friends attend a workshop or day program. At that time the assistants are involved in necessary daily matters and have free time. Every day the community has dinner together, often inviting guests.
Monthly the Emmaus Center invites friends with special needs who are isolated to pray at Liturgy together with the UCU community. For youth with disabilities, this is an opportunity to deepen their spiritual life. Every last Friday of the month, the Emmaus Center invites UCU staff and students to coffee with the friends. Drinking coffee is not mandatory: most important is simply coming and spending time in spontaneous and happy company.
What does Emmaus do for society?
The Emmaus Center strives to proclaim a new model for society, in which each person with disabilities is valued and accepted.
Emmaus conducts educational meetings in schools and universities not only in Lviv but in other regions of Ukraine, from Uzhhorod to Starobilsk, which is in the Luhansk Region. 70% of attendees have never had experience of personal communication with people with disabilities. The presentations of Emmaus help overcome stereotypes and fears regarding people with disabilities and also reveal their gifts and create friendly relations with them. Emmaus also organizes training sessions for specialists who work with people with disabilities and publishes books and other thematic publications.
The support of families is an important part of the Emmaus Center’s activities. The center organizes seminars, therapeutic meetings, weekends for parents and relatives of people with special needs, and provides psychological consultation for people with disabilities.
Emmaus encourages the socialization and integration of people with special needs. Thanks to a project innovative for Ukraine, 20 young people with moderate intellectual disabilities have not only work and income but are also integrated into society. Of these, eight are employed at UCU, in the refectory, cafeteria, library, personnel department, and also business school.
People with disabilities are often isolated in Ukrainian society. It would seem that usual things –
hobbies, going to the movies, theater, concert, or café — for many of them are rarities. The Emmaus Center’s integrational projects are opportunities for socialization, development, self-realization, and leisure for youth with special needs.
“We believe that there are no ‘accidental people’ in the world, and that every person is beautiful. People with intellectual disabilities need us, but we also need them. They teach us trust, simplicity, unconditional acceptance. We hope that more and more people will know about their gifts,” says Christina Anglès d’Auriac, director of the Emmaus Center. “Limitations are not the problem of only a few individuals. They are part of the essence of our humanity. Limitations can enter our lives through illness, accidents, or simply through aging. People with special needs teach us to accept our own limitations, to be ourselves and live in communion with one another.”
Watch videos about Emmaus here:
Text: Oksana Levantovych