This time last year, we were so busy I didn’t get to write a lot about our time in Ukraine. It only lasted for one month, and we were living in the moment and soaking it up as much as we could.
Let me back up even further. In October of 2021, we had decided to go back to Ukraine for at least a short trip, scouting out possible ministries where we could get involved and find a place to live. We knew we wanted to move over there permanently, sooner rather than later. After talking to our friends Dennis and Galya, whom Vladimir had worked with last time, we decided to go all in. This was not going to be a short trip. We were going with the intent to stay. It was, to be honest, a little scary. We sold everything we could and gave away plenty more. It felt like we were missionaries of old, leaving everything behind to start a new life. By December, the news (particularly American media) had started talking about a potential escalation. Russia was conducting war games with Belarus, close to the Ukrainian border. But for us and Ukrainians, this was old news. It had been happening on and off since 2014, when Russia had taken over Crimea. It was a common scare tactic meant to get a feel for how the world would react. We spoke to many of our Ukrainian friends, kept an eye out on our trusted, reliable new sources, and continued our preparations to leave. Many thought us foolish. But God made it clear to us that we were still supposed to go. So, on January 25th, after a complicated few travel days that included cancelled flights and a combined $1,000 in covid tests (4 each in 48 hours) we finally landed in our beloved Ukraine once again.
Galya found us an apartment only days before. We went and signed the lease with the landlady. We learned how to pay the rent, and went shopping at Epicenter to get what we needed to live. We loved that old apartment, even though it was a little rough in places and needed some TLC. It was home. We were home.
Vladimir introduced me to the youth group ministry Galya had started. Most of the kids were from the Eastern districts that had been affected by the war. They had fled with their families in 2014, refugees in their own country (Aka displaced persons). Many had lost their fathers to the violence of the conflict. Once we joined, there were 7 adults leading the youth group: Galya, who had started the project in 2014 and her husband Dennis; Max and his wife Dasha, who we had met during our DTS in 2017; and our friend Raffi, who had grown up in the youth group and now was leading it as a young adult; and the 2 of us. We met once a week with the main group, once a week for an evening Bible study, and once a week we would accompany some of the older ones to the main city to visit another church’s youth group. Every week for our main gathering, the leaders would make little sandwhiches and bring cookies for the kids to eat before the lesson. At our first meeting, we talked a little bit about our journey to Ukraine. They scarfed them down hungrily and asked how we knew God had told us to come to Ukraine. Like most Ukrainians we met, they were filled with both disbelief that we loved their country and still come despite the danger, and hope that not all was lost, and people outside were still supporting them. Just us being there, even if we weren’t doing a lot, meant so much to them.
On the tram ride home, we both had the same ideas. We wanted to bring them a hot meal, and teach about prayer since they had asked. Each of us had our own idea about a lesson that we wanted to teach. We went back to the store to get some big pots to make soup. We started a list of things we wanted to make, and started preparing our lessons.
We met up with a friend of a friend through the Orthodox church who just so happened to be in Ukraine at the same time as us. We became quick friends with Misha as he showed us around several of the churches in Kyiv and introduced us to some local people he knew. We would have lunch together after the services and talk at length about Ukraine and Orthodoxy. It was amazing to be able to attend these ancient churches and see the history and rich traditions that still existed. We were welcomed immediately, and started getting connected to the church. Again, it felt like coming home.
Emily made contact with a local ministry that helped orphans and kids with special needs. We got a tour of one of their facilities, met some of the staff, and made plans to start visiting and helping more often in the coming weeks.
Thanks to the ex-pat Facebook page, we found a good Russian/Ukrainian teacher and started attending lessons right away, on only our 2nd week there. We decided to continue learning Russian since that’s what the kids primarily spoke. Yulia taught us so much in a short amount of time. She really helped us unlock the key to the language. Our skills came back and we started diving deeper. We were barely conversational, but we could generally get the point across. We started making friends with the baristas at the little coffee stand outside our apartment, and the waiters at Cafe Lito, both of which we frequented often. We were slowly becoming part of the community.
Three weeks in, Emily got an incredible job opportunity teaching science in English for private schools. It was a subject she loved to teach, part time so we could still do our evening ministries, and would pay all of our basic bills so that most of our financial support, gifts, and fundraising could go directly into ministry. The position was open because the teacher had left the country, fearing war.
“How long are you planning to stay in Ukraine?” the interviewers asked.
“Until the bombs start falling from the sky.”
We laughed nervously, knowing the possibility was true but not fully believing it. We all lived in a strange dichotomy, believing in the best while preparing for the worst. The two of us wanted to make the most of our time in Ukraine, knowing it could be the last time in awhile, and that it would be different if something happened and we had to leave and then come back. We tried to visit all of our favorite places in Kyiv and eat all of our favorite foods. We started making plans to travel to Vinnitsa, where we first met. We wanted to go soon, but we also couldn’t blow through all of our hard-earned savings at once. The unexpected extra travel expenses had hit our savings hard, and we were starting to run out of funds faster than we had planned. We at least needed to wait until Emily started getting paid for her job.
At youth group, we started talking to the kids more frankly about the war. We told them to ask their parents if they had a plan. If they didn’t have transportation they should let us know. Galya had a basement we could stay in if necessary; we could meet at her house. Vladimir taught his lesson on… Emily spoke about how our identity in Christ follows us everywhere we go, and that Jesus was also a refugee in Egypt. For the first time, we split the youth group into 2 age groups now that we had enough leaders. Things were going really well.
Everything had been normal up until that point. At times we even forgot what the news was saying, because the Ukrainian news wasn’t doing the same thing American media was. Zelensky publicly told our government if they knew something was going to happen, they actually had to share it. But that last week, when Emily started working, things started changing. Reports started getting more serious, and it wasn’t necessarily the normal procedures anymore. The U.S. finally shared information with Zelensky and the Ukrainian government. The threat remained in the back of our minds at all time. Every plane that went overhead warranted a quick look around, even if it was just to make sure nobody else was panicking. Every loud sound gave us pause; we were always alert to our surroundings.
On February 21st, 2022, exactly one year ago today, Russia declared that the Ukrainian oblasts Donetsk and Luhansk were independent republics, separate from Ukraine. This, according to Putin’s twisted mind, meant that Ukraine was “invading” the regions, and therefore Russia could come to their “aid” and attack Ukraine. That was the true turning point.
Escalation of war was no longer a theoretical matter. Now, it was only a matter of time.