Ukrainian Refugee Report 3-11-22
Giving What We Cannot Keep
Twenty years ago our family printed prayer cards before moving to Ukraine. On it was the quote “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”- Jim Elliot. I used to wonder at Jim Elliot’s bravery. How could he risk his life like that? I think I’m only now understanding what he meant. Our lives are never our own to keep, and war makes us more keenly aware of that. Our humanness shies from suffering and pain. We fear what God may ask of us. Yet deep within our hearts is a longing to do the little we can to ease the suffering of our fellow mankind. God has given us the resources. Is it not up to us to use it for Him?
I did not fully realize how much strength I received from sticking together as a family, until we had to separate. War struck closer home than ever that Tuesday morning as we told each other good-bye. It was excruciating to see them leave, yet at the same time there was peace in our hearts that we were doing the right thing.
As more and more requests came in, Dad decided that it was time to make a trip to scout out the needs. So Tuesday morning, Dad and three of my siblings headed north to Rivne where they met with an organization to see how we could work together to meet the current needs. Volunteers from the States are risking their lives to help orphans and others escape from war-torn cities to safer regions further west or across the border. Several brothers from our Mennonite churches are partnering with them as interpreters and drivers.
The following day Dad and my siblings traveled home to Krivoshientsi. As they neared our village they stopped at the local grocery store in town, and found it basically empty. Only a few of the most expensive groceries remained. The empty store shelves were gaping reminders of the many hungry people in our country.
When they arrived in the village their first mission was to visit the church people. It had only been two weeks since our family left, but if felt like much longer. The reunion was sweet; war and uncertainty has a way of strengthening the bonds among the body of Christ. They found the church family in good spirits, excited about the opportunities of serving the refugees and meeting the many needs that surround them. “I will admit,” said one of the young sisters, “that at first it was really hard. That first Sunday we gathered for church there were only ten of us. Brother Zhenya got up to lead the songs but soon became choked with tears. Soon we were all crying too much to sing. It was terribly depressing and sad. I kept wondering why God had shown the other families to leave while showing our papa to stay. But after Brother Sasha’s returned, it was easier. There were more of us, and we could encourage each other.”
After fellowshipping with church folks, they drove up to the checkpoint and turned into our lane. Here is how Veronica described it. It was a strange feeling coming home and being met by neighbors with guns. We had not been at home long at all before a guard pulled up, wondering what we were doing. We felt like strangers in our own house.
When they arrived the house was still locked and intact. But it was easy to see that there had been visitors on the farm. Several trees were cut down, and some of the shed doors were ripped off their hinges. The cows were in better shape than the rumors that had been filtering through the village.
They spent a bit of time at the house, packing up more household items and personal belongings. Because of the checkpoint on our property, they did not feel safe spending the night at our farm, so they slept in our vacated rental house. The next day Dad and Aven helped a neighbor butcher two bulls to feed the hungry refugees, soldiers, and our church families.
Veronica went to school to pack up a few of her things. She found an older couple living in her classroom, refugees who left the city. It was a strange feeling. Was I a guest in their house or were they intruders in my classroom? I explained that I’m a teacher and that this is my classroom and that I just needed to collect a few of my things. They kindly let me in and offered me tea. I packed up some of my personal belongings, and collected my planner and the report cards. But what am I supposed to do with the report cards now? What will happen to my school students? Out of my nine first and second graders, only one is left in the village.
Last night Dad and my siblings were privileged to host the Igor Bagati family from Rokitni. The Bagatis are a beautiful family of nine children, ages ranging from eight to twenty-eight. A few of the children were born to them, and the rest are theirs through foster and adoption.
The Bagati Family in their Cellar
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, bombs fell on both sides of the Bagati family. They hunkered in their cellar for the next two weeks, waiting for help to evacuate. During the day, they spent some time above ground, but always they were prepared to run back down to the cellar. After a fortnight of sleeping on straw in the damp cellar, they were so grateful to be able to sleep in real beds in a warm house last night.
Today Dad and Lashonda are taking them to the Polish border. Then Dad and Lashonda plan to pick up a load of potatoes for refugees and come back here to Shipintsi for the weekend.
Veronica and Aven stayed back in our village. Today they finished processing and delivering the beef from the cow they butchered yesterday. They also are busy turning our old church house in Berezyanka into lodging quarters for refugees. Six months ago we changed our meeting place from the church house in the neighboring village of Berezyanka to a building in our village. A long cobblestone road stretches between the highway and Berezyanka. The bumpy road that has slowed our life for years has suddenly become a treasure, a safety feature in this time of war. Now the church house is a prime location for hosting refugees.
Refugees have been flooding our village. Some stay only a night or two and then are on their way further west. Others stay longer. The church families in our village have been providing food and lodging for them. Our school house has been turned into living quarters, and the main classroom has become a sewing factory where Sister Luda is helping the refugee women how to sew. At the church service this evening there were ten refugees, and almost all of the women were wearing skirts and veils that Sister Luda helped them sew.
Lashonda says, “I’ve really, really enjoyed the last few days. Being busy is so much better than sitting there, not being able to do anything. Even though it means that you make plans, and then the plans change. The last two nights we went to bed with plans for the next day, but the plans had changed a couple of times before morning came. But at least things are still happening.
“The whole idea of this system of helping people escape from the city is really, really great. But we are working with tough situations. It’s hard getting the people out of the city. But it’s exciting when everyone is inspired about helping and looking for ways to be a blessing.”
This separation is tough, but for now it feels like the right thing to do. If our family can be a bigger blessing by spreading out, then the pain of separation is worth it.
Meanwhile here in Shipintsi, we are finding plenty to keep occupied with. There are still a number of refugees under our roof, so there is food to prepare, cleaning to do, and laundry to keep after.
Babushka Valentina still has not received her passport to travel through the border, and so she continues to stay here with us. Her eyes shine with new joy since prayer meeting last night when she repented and gave her life back to God. It’s been eighteen years since she left the Mennonite church in Kiev, and our hearts rejoice to see the work God is doing in her life. Valentina gifted Mom with some tulips from the local flower shop. “You’re too generous,” Mom protested when she insisted on buying them. “No, I’m not,” she replied. “I’m just immeasurably grateful.”
Another load of refugees arrived last night, seven people piled into one small car. It is not surprising that they had little room for luggage. Babushka Lyenna had only the clothes on her back. She packed a suitcase, but there was no room for it in the car. She hopes that someone else will be able to bring it for her later. She asked to borrow a nightgown, which presented a problem. The rest of us are refugees as well, and no one had extra nightclothes to share.
Here is nine year old Elisha’s version of the story. We woke up one morning at five when the bombs started falling. We left our house so quickly that we did not have time to get our stuff. We could hardly drive anymore because we were almost out of gas. Even the gas stations did not have much gas.
Our car was so full, I could hardly breathe. Papa drove and Babushka sat up front beside him. Mama, Aunt Alla, and my sister and brother sat with me in the back. The police would stop us sometimes and ask for our passports.
I don’t like war. It’s scary. Even my papa is scared that we won’t be able to get across the border. We want to go across the border to a safer place to live. I don’t know why Putin thinks he needs our Ukraine. Not all Russians are bad, though. My babushka is a Russian. She moved to Ukraine when she was three years old.
I miss school a little bit. I like math and recess. I hope that sometime we can go home. But probably our house will be bombed. I hope it won’t, because I still have stuff back there. My legos are still at home and my cat and my dog. I miss them!
So many children’s lives have been ruined because of this awful war. Recently I received a notice that in the last two weeks there are over 100 children orphaned in Kiev. My heart aches as I think of the trauma they are going through. Thousands of children have had to leave their homes. Many crossed the borders into neighboring countries leaving their fathers behind to defend the country. How many more children will be fatherless before this dreadful war is over?
This evening some refugees from Kiev stopped by for a meal. They had aged much since I had last seen them. The dazed look in their eyes reflected the trauma they have experienced. But when we paused for prayer before they left our place, their prayers were filled with praise. I marvel again and again how people praise God in the midst of the storm.
Our family hopes to return home soon. It does not feel safe to live at our farm, so we plan to move temporarily into the mission house in Berezyanka. We hope to be able to help host and transport refugees as well as working with the rest of our church people to provide food and humanitarian help to meet the needs in the areas around us.
Thank you for your continued prayer support. We feel in need of God’s wisdom and protection. Returning home looks appealing, but there are risks involved. But again and again we are reminded that the safest place for any of us is in the will of God.
Pray also for my brothers, Meesha and Anton, who are still in the States. As the needs multiply around us, so does their longing to return. They would be prime helpers as they know the language, the culture, and so much more. They are checking into tickets to return to Ukraine.
Please continue to keep us in your prayers. Pray that God would direct our steps and show us clearly where He wants us to be.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Anya Hursh March 11, 2022