Forced to Flee: Refugees in Ukraine

A few weeks ago, as Andrea and I were getting ready for bed, we heard the familiar chimes of Skype, alerting us to grandma's incoming call. Unfortunately, she looked concerned and her first question for us was, "Are you ok? Donetsk is all over the news and it seems really close to you!" 

We've heard from many friends and supporters wondering how we're faring during the unrest in Ukraine. While the fighting has indeed intensified in the east in recent weeks, things are still mostly quiet here in Odessa.

That doesn't mean that life is the same, however. We've had about a half dozen bombings, all at night, targeting pro-Ukraine centers (like clothing drop-off points for soldiers, tourism shops, banks, etc.), but there have been no deaths so far. Over the last year we've seen that the two armies have been evenly matched, resulting in a slow-moving storm. If it does progress to Odessa, we believe there will be time to leave.

Although we are safe for the moment, the growing conflict has affected our position here and our churches and ministries. Not only are there new challenges, but the conflict has also opened new doors for outreach. One such opportunity is serving newly displaced refugees.

Food, shelter, and counseling

More than a million people have been displaced by the fighting, mostly from east Ukraine, and many of them have come to the Odessa region. We made an appeal for financial assistance so we could help many of these refugees. Through that humanitarian aid fund and our counseling center, we were able to meet immediate physical, emotional, and spiritual needs at a temporary refugee camp two hours away from the city center.

At 9 a.m., on February 6, our counseling and trauma specialists piled into a van packed with 440 pounds of chicken, 200 pounds of fish and chicken liver, 550 pounds of vegetables, and 360 eggs, in order to deliver these provisions to refugees living in a children's sanatorium (about 170 persons in total including disabled people, elderly, and children). 

Our counselors talked in-depth with several refugees who had arrived that same morning and tried to help them get their bearings regarding everyday issues of life and also talked with them about Christ. Most refugees readily give thanks to God and to all the volunteers who have been helping them along the way. They also pray for aid-givers and, of course, for the terrible war to end. Some of the people who escaped reported that the organization helping evacuate people from the war zone relies heavily on volunteers, many of whom are Christians.

Hearing their stories
Lena Kolker, our Springs Counseling Center director, told us more about who they met and what those people had just witnessed. 

"We spoke with five newcomers, all placed in one room since little space was available. There was a 60-year-old man in a wheelchair, his niece, a man who looks after the disabled man, a woman with poor eyesight, and her 10-year-old grandson. All of them looked lost and very tired and after we introduced ourselves they told us about their recent experiences. They were all neighbors, living in Debaltsevo (a city that has been shelled for more than a month with fierce fighting in the streets). We asked them why they had not left for a safe place earlier and they told us that they did not want to or could not easily leave their homes and kept hoping up until the last moment that the war would end. They dared to escape only when all the houses around them had already been destroyed. 

Hiding in fear
"We asked what was happening to them and their families during this time. They told us that it was very frightening to go out, since the barrage was going on almost without ceasing. There were many corpses lying in the streets (civilians and military men from both sides of the conflict). No one could bury the dead because they were afraid of being shot. Some people dared to bury their family members right at their doors or simply left the corpses locked in coffins at their houses. They were all afraid to go to the cemetery, since shells often fall there. These people had learned to distinguish who was shooting and with which weapon.

"They could sleep only in between bombardments, because all the remaining time they simply lay on the floor, covering their heads with their hands. They told us that the first time they slept well was when they traveled by train to Odessa. They said that they themselves witnessed many people die; they saw people hit with shells and dying in torment because there was no one to help them. Miraculously, they managed to leave Debaltsevo. Their bus was fired at, but fortunately, they survived."

Andrea and I had wondered why so many people were hesitant to leave such awful conditions. Lena's account of the stories from two older women from the town of Pervomaisk, Valentina and Elena, explains why they did not leave for so long.

"Pervomaisk was controlled by the terrorists for a long time. Valentina, together with other residents of Pervomaisk, lived in a basement for 40 days, where there was neither light nor gas, heating or a toilet. They poured vegetable oil on a plate, put a string there and lit this string. This was the only light source for the basement, day and night. Constant shelling was going on, so Valentina only dared to run when an unexploded shell landed in the courtyard of the house where she was hiding.

The courage to leave
"Three months ago, she somehow got in contact with a volunteer from another town, who encouraged her constantly on the phone and advised her as to which path she should walk in order to get out of the town. Valentina said after the 40 days in the basement, she thought she would go blind from the bright daylight outside. 

"With the help of the volunteer, she found where they evacuated refugees. They gave her food, provided all the necessary things, and bought the train ticket so that she could reach Odessa. Unfortunately, her son remained in Pervomaisk since he did not believe that the volunteers helped free of charge and was sure that it was some trap.

"Elena arrived at the refugee camp a week ago. Because her children and grandchildren remain in Pervomaisk, she weeps all the time, and feels guilty that she is safe and her family and friends might perish at any moment. Both of these women sleep badly, wake up at night and cannot understand where they are; they are having flashbacks."

The counselors asked the kids to participate in some drawing therapy to help describe their emotions. Here is one 9-year-old's family portrait, showing his family under a dark cloud. He, just as all of them, is dealing with the horrors of war.

Next steps
The refugees were grateful for the help and persistently asked our counseling team to come visit again, which our counselors are eager to do. If it is financially possible, they can go several times a month. The food our humanitarian aid office brought to the refugees will be sufficient for a week. We have a detailed account of their expenses and will make certain that all the food brought in the future reaches the needy in a timely fashion. Our counseling team donates therapy sessions free of charge to refugees and only takes a minimal sum from donations to cover their costs. We would greatly appreciate your prayers for these refugees. Pray that their physical and emotional needs would be met. Pray for protection for their families. And most importantly, pray that they would find the peace available through Jesus Christ.

Your gifts are still needed. Click here to donate online and help refugees in Ukraine (Ukraine: Odessa Humanitarian Aid #95969).

Bob Burnham in Odessa Ukraine Mercy on Mar 1, 2015

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Pray for Ukraine refugees who have had to abandon their homes due to the fighting. Pray for God to use their displacement to draw them to Himself.

Thank God for bringing Ukrainians to faith in Him and giving them the vision to reach their own country for Christ. Pray for many more to be transformed.

Pray for Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed by the church in Belgorod to be drawn to Christ. 

Pray for MTW's ministry to refugees in Greece, Germany, Ukraine, Uganda, Panama, and the U.S.

Pray for teams teaching English (ESL) as a part of their ministry and for the students who attend English classes/camp.

Pray for two women, Monika and Andrea, who have recently come to faith against the odds in a hard-to-reach, largely atheistic European city.

Pray for Monika, that God would continue to heal her, give her a new purpose, and protect her life from physical harm, and for Andrea, that she would grow deep roots of faith and be a witness to those like her—unlikely subjects—of the reality of the grace of God.

Pray for the safety of believers in Ukraine. Pray for God to use the crisis to strengthen their faith and bring more Ukrainians to Christ.

Pray for the the Medical Campus Outreach team in Cusco, Peru, and for the medical and students at the clinic who are learning to practice medicine and hearing the gospel.

Pray for believers in Ukraine during a time of political uncertainty.

Pray for missionaries on the field who struggle with loneliness.