Gunfire & bombs sound in the distance. Broken wires hang form poles & crumbling buildings feebly stand. The city is weary — just like its residents.
“The atmosphere here is permeated with anguish and depression. It is like visiting a cemetery,” said a pastor of a partner church in the conflict zone of Eastern Ukraine.
Just months earlier, the city of Donetsk was bubbling with life. People had good paying jobs and work was plentiful in the coal mines and factories. Children laughed and played in the parks under trees dripping with apricot blossoms. Today, that life has all but been extinguished in Donetsk, and throughout Eastern Ukraine, as the conflict between pro-Russian forces and Ukraine has turned innocent citizens into victims of war.
It all began last February when massive street protests broke out in Ukraine and a violent revolution led to the expulsion of Ukraine’s Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych. New elections were held, and the new government moved the country in a decidedly Western direction and away from Russia’s influence. This shift sparked a struggle between pro-Russian forces, and those wanting to align with the European Union and NATO.
In March, Russia stepped in and annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea region. They also began supplying support to pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels have been battling for control of this region ever since. According to UN estimates, more than 1 million Ukrainians have fled the region and nearly 6,000 people have lost their lives, but the numbers are likely much higher and continue to grow as the war rages on.
Despite the shocking amount of people affected, the numbers fail to communicate the full extent of the humanitarian crisis gripping Eastern Ukraine. In a matter of a few months, cities in the conflict zone have gone from bustling societies with robust economies and lively populations to burned-out shells that only faintly resemble their former selves. Many that remain in Eastern Ukraine have been left without access to money, electricity, water, food, and medicines. Many were not physically able to flee or had nowhere to go, and others were afraid to leave their homes to the looters who openly pilfer houses in this lawless republic.
Despite these desperate conditions, many believers have chosen to stay. They are continuing to serve and bring the hope of Christ to those in need.
“It would be easy to assume that the atmosphere of disappointment, anxiety, and despair would prohibit the church from fulfilling its calling,” said Caleb Suko, ABWE missionary ministering in Southern Ukraine. “But hardship doesn’t prevent the church from doing its mission; it enables it.
God designed the church with these kinds of situations in mind. Jesus gave the church a foundation that cannot and will not bend or break, no matter how tragic or hopeless the situation.”
To help the church meet the growing need in Ukraine, ABWE missionaries, in partnership with local church leaders, established the Ukraine Crisis Fund in May 2014. The fund aims to strengthen the church’s ability to share Jesus’ love by ministering to people’s physical needs during these uncertain times. In less than a year, they have collected more than $85,000 from generous donors and judiciously distributed $56,000 through churches, church leaders, and Christian organizations.
Every week, ABWE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund receives as many as 20 letters from Ukrainian pastors and churches. The needs are overwhelming, but the fund leaders allocate the limited money based on the request’s alignment with the fund’s goal to aid those impacted by the current crisis, connect with affiliated local churches, and have an evangelistic component.
In the past 10 months, the fund has helped thousands of victims of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It has helped provide supplies and shelter for refugees and orphans who have fled to other parts of Ukraine. It has also funneled money into churches in the conflict zone to help feed and provide for the elderly, disabled, and those unable to flee.
Missionaries and partner churches are helping get aid to those who need it most, and people are responding. Recently, two young men, whose homes were destroyed by the war, met an ABWE ministry partner at an Eastern Ukrainian hostel for war refugees. The two boys had seen him bringing supplies and grew curious. They approached him in the hallway as he was delivering more items to the residents.
"We see that you are bringing everyone food and clothing. Why are you doing this?" one of the boys asked.
"To let you know how much God loves you," he replied. The next week the two young men came to church for the first time in their lives. They were not alone. Hundreds of people who had never stepped foot in a church before are finding refuge and hope in the middle of the tragedy that surrounds them.
Handing Out Hope
No one knows the tragedies of this war better than Alla. She lived in a three-room house in Eastern Ukraine with her two children, Dima and Valya, and her mother. Alla worked hard to make ends meet and managed with the help of her mother’s pension.
When the conflict erupted, Alla heard about the battles being fought nearby, but she didn’t have the means to leave. She never imagined that the war would destroy her whole world.
On an ordinary August afternoon, Alla had gone to buy school supplies in preparation for the end of her kids’ summer break. Alla’s mother was watching seven-year-old Valya and 10-year-old Dima. They were playing and enjoying their last days of summer vacation when a loud whistling sound suddenly filled their ears. They spotted a rocket coming towards them and watched as it slammed into their house. It made a deafening explosion and then everything went black.
Alla rushed toward the wailing sirens and found her house burned to the ground and her family severely wounded. In a split second, Dima and his grandmother had each lost a leg, and all three had multiple wounds from shrapnel fragments. They were rushed to an overwhelmed hospital that was already flooded with victims and short on supplies and staff. Dima, Valya, and their grandmother only received basic first aid, but were not given much-needed surgical care.
With no home to return to, Alla and her family were forced to move into a cramped two-room apartment that shared a kitchen with their neighbors. Alla lost her job, as did most of her neighbors in the town brutalized and stripped bare by war, and relied-upon monthly pensions were cut off to residents in the conflict zone. Alla’s resources were bleeding away, and she wondered how she was going to feed her family. Then, there was a knock at her door. It was a lady from a nearby church who asked if they needed any help. Alla wept with relief and soon people from the church began bringing groceries purchased with money from ABWE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund. The church shared Christ’s love and hope, and now Dima dreams of the day he can run again in heaven.
More Than a Building
Like Alla’s town, the city of Antratsit is facing similar hard times. It sits in the heart of the conflict zone, and the Russian-backed separatists who took control of the city have banned citizens from driving — even riding a bike around town is prohibited. Only the separatist fighters are able to freely navigate the city, often in vehicles they have procured from defenseless citizens. Mobile phones don’t work and home phones only work within the city. Stores no longer have food on their shelves, pharmacies have been emptied of their medications, electricity is on only during specific hours of the day, and all income and pensions have been cut off.
The situation in Antratsit is dire for the poor and the wealthy, but 20 members at an ABWE-partner church decided not to flee the worn-torn city so they could serve the suffering people of their community. They turned their church basement into a bomb shelter where up to 70 people would come nightly for safety, and they began caring for and housing 20 disabled people who could not quickly make it to bomb shelters when shelling occurred. Occasionally, the church was also able to secure a shipment of food that they shared with their hungry neighbors. As many as 700 people would line up outside the doors of the church just to get some bread and potatoes.
Despite the church’s efforts to aid and shelter victims of the conflict, the war continued to press in, and last September, Russian-backed separatists armed with machine guns stormed through the doors of the church. They demanded that everyone vacate the premises immediately and hand over the building’s ownership documents.
“Why is our church being taken from us?” asked a church leader.
“Because your denomination supported the Ukrainian army,” said one of the soldiers.
Despite being falsely accused and punished, they left secure in the knowledge that the church is not a building. The church members continued their ministry by taking the 20 disabled individuals they had been caring for at the church into their own homes. The war may have taken their building, but it could not take away their faith and their ability to serve. They did what they could for their helpless neighbors, even as their own food supplies grew short. They prayed and trusted that God would provide, and He did.
Just two months after it was forcefully seized, the church building was unexpectedly returned. The church’s pastor received the ownership documents with a letter stating that military forces would no longer touch their place of worship. With some support from the Crisis Fund, the church is once again using the building to meet the physical and spiritual needs of their broken community.
“Getting our church building back was a miracle and an answer to prayer, but things are still hard and getting harder,” said a leader at the Antratsit church. “We are seeing a new wave of people who want to leave our region and a large number of people who are hungry. Please pray and continue to pray for our area.”
While people remain in the conflict zone, many of the more than 1 million refugees, including Daniel German, have sought safety in other parts of Ukraine.
Daniel moved to the Donetsk province about 15 years ago to attend Donetsk Christian University. After graduating, he worked at the university for a few years before opening his own flower greenhouse. He was a strong leader at his church, and when the war broke out, he sent his wife and four children to live with his parents in Southern Ukraine, while he stayed to help his church and to harvest as many flowers as possible before joining his family.
Daniel left when he could hear the bombs and artillery from his house. He only took what he could carry, leaving his home, all his earthly possessions, and his roses behind.
“The Bible says we are pilgrims, strangers on this earth. But it is difficult to pull up our roots. It was hard to put my whole life into one suitcase,” said Daniel. “While it was hard to leave, I felt lighter when I got here.”
At first, Daniel’s family of six lived with his parents in their small three-room house near the city of Odessa. It was challenging, but God gave him a good-paying construction job, and eventually, they had enough money and security to start looking for an apartment to rent. They prayed for help and were connected with a new church plant nearby that had purchased a property with an old church building and a small house. The church was looking for someone to live in the house and take care of the property. To Daniel and his family’s delight, they discovered the house was larger than their lost home in Donetsk and there was even a small greenhouse that Daniel could use.
“When I left, I cried over losing much, but I realized that God has my life in His hands,” said Daniel. “The Hebrew word for ‘blessing’ is a complex word that has two meanings: gift and fall to your knees. God gives us gifts to drive us to our knees. When I lost my home and greenhouse, that was a blessing because it drove me to my knees.”
Churches and ABWE missionaries throughout Ukraine have been working to give shelter, support, and hope to refugees like Daniel. The Ukraine Crisis Fund has supplied food, beds, blankets, shoes, and winter clothing to refugees — many who fled the war with just the summer clothes on their backs.
“Refugees feel safe, but worthless. It is difficult to find permanent work that pays a decent salary in Ukraine. It is also hard to find a place to live. They don’t know what to buy here as they left everything behind, and they don’t know how long they will be here,” said Daniel.
Over the last six months, an ABWE-supported church plant in Odessa has housed and helped more than 50 refugees, and recently, three of them walked into a church leaders’ meeting carrying cake and tea. They said it was to thank the church for letting them stay and the loving way the church welcomed and helped them. Then, one of the refugees said something that shocked the church leaders.
“I'm a Muslim, but I have never seen so much love and kindness before,” she said. “We're going to be moving out of the church facility because we have found an apartment nearby. But even though we're moving out, we are not going to leave the church.”
Without A Home
Of the more than one million refugees who have fled Eastern Ukraine, UNICEF estimates that at least 134,000 are children, including several hundred orphans. There were approximately 10,000 orphans in Eastern Ukraine when the fighting began, but many have fled to other parts of Ukraine. These refugee orphans are pouring into overcrowded orphanages with nothing but a small bag of personal belongings and a few summer clothes. They thought they would be gone for just a month, but the war continues on.
“I didn’t know what it would be like here, so leaving was really tough. But here it is safer,” said a refugee orphan.
One orphanage in the Odessa province has taken in 62 orphan refugees, in addition to the 210 kids it already cared for. Despite the 30 percent increase in children, the orphanage was given no additional government funding. The workers did their best with their limited resources. They pulled beds out of storage, scrambled for bedding, and thinned down the soup. The orphanage was forced to use unheated rooms and rooms with missing windows.
It was a temporary solution that sufficed during the summer months, but as the weather turned cold, their needs grew dire. ABWE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund and its national partners intervened. They bought windows for a dorm room that houses 15 kids and for a dining room that was expanded to feed the new children. They also provided school supplies, clothing, food, basic hygiene products, and winter boots and coats to help the refugee children stay warm during Ukraine’s harsh winter.
The aid from the Crisis Fund and local churches has opened doors and made the orphanages very receptive to church involvement. It has made it possible to share the gospel with the children and workers, and at the Odessa orphanage, a local pastor is hosting a biweekly Bible club for all the kids.
“That’s our biggest priority — helping them have a chance to hear the gospel and know who Jesus is,” said Miriam Wheeler, ABWE missionary and coordinator of the Ukraine Crisis Fund. “Whatever expression we give of Jesus’ love, we want them to know that it all comes from our love of God.”
The Crisis Fund is now helping to support and meet needs at five orphanages in the Odessa province that have taken in refugee children.
“At first it was really difficult to get used to a new place, but after a while I wanted to study, and even felt safe to dream about the future,” said one orphan refugee.
The Ukrainian people are facing hard times, caught in a war that has no end in sight. Fear and hunger are daily battles within the conflict zone, but the effects of war are uncontainable. Prices are rising throughout the country, while wages are not, and many are worried the fighting will spread. The future is uncertain, but in these seemingly hopeless times, missionaries and national believers have been given a unique opportunity to share the source of their hope. Perhaps refugee Daniel German said it best, “When things are normal, we expect safety, bread, and salaries to always be there tomorrow. When things fall apart, we realize that every minute is God’s gift.”
Support the Ukraine Crisis Fund by clicking here.
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