Caleb carefully pushes Sveta across the rutted sidewalk, working hard not to tip her wheelchair as they hit large cracks.
“I have a very nice chair at home with bigger wheels,” Sveta says apologetically. “Unfortunately, they won’t let me go home.”
The pain in her voice is evident as she talks about being forced to leave everything behind when the war broke out in eastern Ukraine. Her feelings of homesickness are interwoven with a profound sense of powerlessness that she, and so many others, are experiencing in this war.
Shortly after the war began, the Ukrainian government hastily evacuated people with disabilities from the conflict zone. Most were only given a moment’s notice to hurriedly grab a few things before they were bused away from their homes, their loved ones, and the life they knew. They were told it would only be for a month, but for some, it's been more than 20 months and still the war drags on — and home feels further and further away.
While the war in Ukraine has faded from international headlines and has long been forgotten by most of the world, it is still a heartbreaking reality for the people living here. After two tumultuous years, most Ukrainians are wondering if the war will ever end, and more poignantly, the 2.6 million Ukrainians who fled the conflict zone are wondering if home still exists.
Ever since Russia attempted to seize control of Ukraine's southern Crimea region and began supplying support to rebels in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has been battling for control — leaving the Ukrainian people caught in the middle of a war that has simmered to a stalemate of occasional fighting on the frontline. Much of the country has become hostages in this never-ending war, but perhaps, the most powerless population is Ukraine’s disabled. When war broke out, more than 60,000 disabled people fled or were evacuated from the conflict zone. Many were moved into rundown government-owned buildings in western and southern Ukraine, like the old Soviet mud sanatorium near ABWE Missionary Caleb Suko’s church in Odessa.
The sanatorium was a wellness facility built in the 70s on the shores of a salt lake whose mud was reported to have medicinal and healing properties. Originally part of a government health program for factory workers, the building now sits in disrepair. Its old wooden windows and doors are drafty, and the heating system is weak. It was never intended to be used during the winter, but for more than 500 disabled refugees, it is now home.
“We just sit here and wait,” said one of the refugees living at the sanatorium. “We think about home all the time.”
The uncertainty about their living arrangements, combined with inability to do anything about them, is agonizing for the people living here.
“They long for home more than almost anything,” said Caleb, who has been ministering to the sanatorium residents for more than a year. “While I can’t bring them home or stop the war, I can give them hope that will overcome all their problems — even this despicable war.”
The Start Of A New Ministry
Caleb and his Hope for People Church learned about the refugees living at the nearby sanatorium through Alex, a new believer at his church who worked with the local city government to relocate these refugees. Alex immediately saw a unique opportunity for ministry, and in December 2014, Caleb’s church invited the refugees to their elaborate Christmas outreach event. They bused over about 50 people from the sanatorium to watch a live reenactment of the Christmas story, featuring 75 actors from local churches, alongside real horses, donkeys, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, and ponies.
“They were grateful that we went out of our way to do something special for them,” said Caleb. “Life as a refugee can be pretty bleak, and it’s a rare occasion when they get to enjoy something like this.”
Afterwards, the refugees joined more than 2,000 attendees for games, food, and fellowship. For most of the refugees, this was the first time they had heard the gospel, but Caleb made sure it wasn’t the last.
At Easter, he extended another invitation to attend a special picnic in his church’s courtyard. More than 50 refugees eagerly accepted the invitation, and while at the picnic, a few of them asked if Caleb would come do regular Bible studies with them at the sanatorium.
“It was clear they had been through a lot. They needed physical healing and spiritual healing,” said Caleb. “They needed Jesus.”
Ministering To The Broken Hearted
In late spring, Caleb and a few members from his church began going out to minister to the refugees every Sunday afternoon. They welcomed any refugee who wanted to join them in the sanatorium’s small courtyard to discuss the Bible.
As they sat together under warm blue skies, they would sing songs of hope, Caleb would preach the gospel, and then they would pray together. Almost all those who attended were unfamiliar with the Bible and had rarely, if ever, attended a church, so Caleb also spent a lot of time answering questions. Some of their questions were difficult, like “Is God punishing us with this war?” But every week, Caleb worked to show them how faith in God could give them peace during times of tribulation.
While many continued to struggle with anger, hopelessness, and depression, the tone of the group seemed to be changing, and one Sunday in July, Caleb’s words finally hit home for Sveta, a disabled refugee who had been coming to the services for several months. Caleb’s sermon that afternoon had explained how the Bible sets a standard for our lives that we can never meet on our own and how Jesus offers forgiveness to all who believe. When he concluded, there were still a lot of questions, but this time his words resonated with Sveta and she asked to pray a prayer of repentance.
While Sveta’s spiritual walk is still new, and change among the refugees has been slow, a shift is happening in the attitudes of those who have been attending the outreaches. One man named Misha came for several months without hardly saying a word. Caleb began to wonder if he even knew how to talk because every time he saw him he would just give Caleb a little grunt and go on his way. However, in the last couple of weeks, something has shifted in Misha, and instead of greeting Caleb with a gruff grunt, he now greets him with a hug and a kiss. Every week, he tells Caleb how glad he is to see him.
“God is working in the hearts and lives of these people like I have never seen before. The change can be seen and felt. Many of them have the glow of hope in their eyes that they did not have just a few months ago,” said Caleb. “This can only be God working through the power of the gospel.”
Through these uncertain and seemingly hopeless times in Ukraine, Caleb and his church have been given a unique opportunity to share the source of their hope.
While only a small group of about 10 refugees initially attended the sanatorium services, that number has grown to nearly 70 regular attendees, and last September, Caleb added a Tuesday night discipleship and Bible study group.
“Please pray for these disabled refugees. Pray for them to find a stable housing situation. Pray for peace,” said Caleb. “But more importantly, please pray that our words and Jesus’ love will reach their heart.”