Inish Rath, United Kingdom - Nestled among the reeds of Northern Ireland’s Lough Erne, the wooded island of Inish Rath has been home to a Hare Krishna temple since the 1980s. But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, it has also become a sanctuary for devotees fleeing the city of Mariupol, which fell to Russian troops after a brutal siege in May. “We left Mariupol because it is completely burned down,” Ruskin Khabibullin, a leading member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in Ukraine, told AFP.

“They bombed the buildings, bombed our apartment and office,” he added. Since April, Inish Rath’s temple, located in a 19th century hunting lodge reachable only by boat, has been home to Khabibullin, 48, his wife Tatiana and their 14-year-old son Nikita.

In the peace of the island where deer and peacocks roam, Khabibullin said the family are starting to recover from the horrors of the devastated port city. “It was difficult. Even (after leaving) when we saw planes or helicopters, we immediately remembered the war,” he said. “But the care of devotees, the care of people that are nearby, the atmosphere in the temple... gives spiritual protection,” he added.

While Khabibullin and his family live in the temple, other Ukrainian refugee Hare Krishna followers have been taken into homes in the surrounding area. Narayan Das, 22, and his wife Valeria had been crammed into a Mariupol basement with 50 other Hare Krishna devotees to escape the bombing. “We were cooking, looking for water, looking for food supplies and everything. When you’re in a city which is surrounded, it’s very hard to maintain,” he said. Three months of fierce fighting for the besieged city on the Sea of Azov led hundreds of thousands of residents to flee for their lives and caused the deaths, by Kyiv’s estimate, of at least 22,000 people. Narayan left Mariupol in mid-March, using the Hare Krishna international network to reach Ireland via Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

With 90 percent of his home town now in ruins, “I am thinking of settling down over here,” said Narayan, who is now living in Ballinamore, a half an hour drive over the border in the Republic of Ireland. “There’s really no place to come back to.” On Sundays, Das helps prepare food for visitors to the temple and joins the devotional services.

ISKCON, which is known commonly as the Hare Krishna movement, was founded in the 1960s and is an offshoot from a historic line of Hinduism. The movement, which claims to have one million members worldwide, expanded rapidly into eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its purchase of the island in 1982 was inspired, in part, by the tradition of Irish Catholic monks secluding themselves on islands and in other hermitages for spiritual reflection. Tulasi Priyal, a 67-year-old member originally from Dublin, said the island temple had become a “focal point” for Hare Krishna followers and other Hindus across Ireland. Even if the future is uncertain, Khabibullin said his faith will remain constant. “It’s impossible to predict, to think about returning or not, because it is unknown what’s going to happen with Ukraine, when the war will be over,” he said. “We will stay with devotees in any case and keep practising, whether that be in Ireland, in Ukraine, or somewhere else in the world.”