Refugees Take on Responsibilities in Western Ukraine
Story by Kathy Symborski
Photos courtesy of Joel Brown
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pastor Joel Brown’s church of 65 parishioners became a 500-person refugee center almost overnight. The Calvary Chapel in Western Ukraine is located near the borders of four neighboring countries, making it a prime location for evacuees to rest and recuperate before journeying on. Yet some are choosing to stay.
Men help to sort medicines at the home of Joel Brown, a Calvary Chapel Pastor in Western Ukraine. His church of 65 members became a refugee center almost overnight when the Russo-Ukrainian War began. While most move on to other countries, some refugees have chosen to stay in this location and help.
Shortly after the start of the war, Joel anticipated the need to increase their refugee capacity, as the church was almost full. Partnering with a local evangelical church elder, they began renovating other buildings—and now have five centers, four houses, and a personal dormitory house. As of early April, they have housed over 6,000 people, half the city’s total refugee count.
Taras, a Ukrainian, uses this van to regularly rescue people leaving the hot zones in Ukraine. He can fit up to nine in the vehicle.
Three Days to Rest
While many refugees intend to only stay a day, some take advantage of the three-day limit to figure out what to do next, what border to cross, and who is across that border to help. Joel explained, “Anyone who stays beyond the three days has to register with the local government so that they know who is coming into the city. There is a fear of saboteurs. About a week and a half ago, Chechen infiltrators were found in a village not far from us. They were captured before they could do anything, but their mandate was to go kill civilians and cause terror.”
Most men between the ages of 18-60 are not permitted to leave the country unless they meet certain criteria. Some, not having a home to return to or not qualified to join the Ukrainian Army, have chosen to remain at the shelter to help.
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Late one evening, Joel’s wife Katya got a call from her brother, Yura, asking for help as he prepared to flee Eastern Ukraine with his family. Katya and Yura have had a very distant relationship, only speaking on holidays or birthdays, but she was Yura’s first thought. Bringing his wife, his newborn son, and two women with their children, they arrived at 2 a.m. and slept on the floor of Joel’s already crowded house.
Andriy makes trips to Eastern Ukraine, drops off supplies, brings back refugees, then has his car examined by the local mechanic to make sure it’s still good to drive. After grabbing a few hours’ sleep, he makes the trip again.
“Ukrainian life has been trending toward a middle class, of sorts. Now all of a sudden there are rockets outside their doors and they are uprooted. They leave with only the clothes on their backs or the pajamas they were wearing, holding their iPhones because that is the only thing of value they have left; the children are exhausted and don’t know what to do or think.” Joel continued, “They often stay the full three days. This gives the adults time to think through plans and the kids time to catch their breath.”
A man helps stack 200 mattresses that were delivered for five refugee shelters, four dorm houses, and many homes supported by this Calvary Chapel. It’s a united effort with other believers in the city.
Yura, not able to leave, sent his wife and son with the two women and their children to Hungary and finally, Italy. The army will not use him at this time due to his lack of military experience, so he is required to register with the Territorial Defense, similar to a local militia. As there is no fighting in this region, he is not needed but must remain nearby should attacks occur.
Joel and Katya Brown rest after a long day of work
Refugees Taking Responsibility
“These men are stuck in a unique position where they can’t leave but can’t be put to use in the military. Without purpose, they become aimless. A man without a purpose can be a dangerous thing,” cautioned Joel. Men who choose to stay at the center are put to work and continue to help renovate the centers, act as security, and help unload aid, among other tasks. Yura was placed at one of those centers and is now one of the main volunteers.
“He could be irresponsible even though he was married with a baby (as are many men here post-World War 2) but in a few weeks’ time, he is making decisions, taking charge, and being responsible for things. He has grown up 10 years in two weeks, and, while not yet born-again, he is getting there,” Joel confidently remarked.
Even in wartime, children enjoy playing outside.
Andriy, whom Joel has known for 17 years, makes trips to Eastern Ukraine, drops off supplies, brings back refugees, then has his car examined by the local mechanic to make sure it’s still good to drive. After grabbing a few hours’ sleep, he makes the trip again.
Joel said, “Andriy sent his family across the border, because he can’t do his job if they are here, and he would worry about them. We have a nine-month pregnant woman in the house whose spouse said the same thing. He brought her to us and went back to join the fight because he wanted her to have a house to come home to.”
Refugees choosing to stay in Western Ukraine help to renovate a garage.
Other couples, along with their children, have also decided to stay with Joel and Katya and are serving as volunteers in various roles.
Another couple there has three children, one of whom is disabled; the husband has the legal right to leave, yet they chose to stay.
Two other families that didn’t leave now serve as skillful drivers.
A photographer and his wife decided to remain and are using their skills; he has been taking pictures, driving, and making trips while she has been managing Joel’s household.
“Male culture is not always known for its fraternity in modern society. We are taught to be solo creatures and have a certain attitude or machismo. As these men work together in this crisis, we see a level of fraternity and community where men call on other men for help. It’s been an answer to prayer,” Joel observed.
Several children took the initiative to help raise money for the refugee work being done by the Calvary Chapel, working with area believers.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Psalm 133:1
Enjoying the Chaos
Joel’s home has become “utter chaos” with all the adults and children under his roof—and he is enjoying it! “I’m the kind of guy who likes order, everything in its place. I like to sit down at night to relax and listen to music; now in the area where I usually sit, there are now 10 kids playing games! But it is something beautiful in this time of crisis.”
Valya, one of the refugees living with the Brown family, feeds the 30 people staying there. She supports Joel’s wife Katya and brings order to the busy home. Her husband uses his IT skills to help Ukraine.
He continued, “There’s life, laughter, kids running through the house. God is revealing extraordinary beauty in the life of community that doesn’t stop at your doorstep. It spills into your own home, the way the body of Christ was supposed to function. We have 30 families who opened their homes to people who were strangers and are now family. I imagine when the war is over—we will see greater levels of community, fellowship, brotherhood, and love within the church than we ever have before.”
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Heart-wrenching and lonely—crossing the border with only what you can carry in suitcases, not knowing when or if you’ll return.
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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