Family of Christ Ukraine

"Ya Tam (I am there)"

Family of Christ Ukraine | June 2023

"I want to have this feeling after the war"

Sasha brings me a worn plastic bag filled with shrapnel. He holds it out as a gift. It’s heavier than I expect. I’m not sure if I should smile. I thank him and give him a soccer toy in exchange. A plaything in exchange for a deaththing. I tell myself I’ll make sense of this later, knowing full well this shouldn’t make sense ever.

Natasha approaches circuitously and shyly, with a smile she tries hard to hold back. She’s eleven with thick, dark hair in a low ponytail, eyes brimming with questions. With the help of a slightly older boy who seems to have done well in English class, we charades our way through school and what she’s learning — fractions, I gather. She pats my leg and eagerly directs the translator boy to explain that the bomb that landed just hours earlier and only a couple houses away had sent shrapnel in every direction. Her grandmother, she says, was saved — shielded by a tree. I say hallelujah solemnly and tighten my grip on the jagged, heavy edges in my hand. I wonder if the shrapnel Sasha brought me was today’s collection.

A missile is launched and my body shudders with the boom. “It’s okay,” the kids assure me. “It’s ours.” They can tell the difference. It’s not the booms you need to worry about, but the hisses — those aren’t launching, they’re landing.

Few areas have seen more fighting than Kherson. This southern city has been under siege since the beginning of the Russian invasion and was occupied for eight months until Ukraine won it back in November 2022. Pastor Yiray Kolesnir grew up here and for 16 years has been shepherding the church whose steps we’re sitting on. He’d thought of retiring, but then war came and he couldn’t leave the sheep. Or he could but wouldn’t. Like a shepherd.

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Pastor Yiray Kolesnir receiving the humanitarian aid brought by the Family of Christ team.

David Schmidgall

“This war has taught us that all these things in our life are temporary,” says Pastor Yiray. “When you hear the sound of the missile, in your mind you're getting closer and closer to God, because you don't know where it will land. I want to have this feeling after the war — to be close with God all the time.”

While the Ukrainian forces have pushed Russian troops to the other side of the Dnipro River, only a kilometer separates them. The nearby areas and buildings have been decimated yet continue to be pounded by an estimated 300 missiles and bombs daily.

With food in shorter and shorter supply, Pastor Yiray recently invested in a giant stand mixer and two commercial bread ovens which he uses to bake 600 loaves for the community a couple times each month. On this particular day, the humanitarian aid team I’m traveling with brought custom-made grills and 360 pieces of chicken to serve the congregation after their evening service. With a loaf of fresh bread tucked under their arm and a small plate of chicken and salad, Pastor Yiray says this is the nicest meal they’ve had in a year.

Slideshow / Jim, Gary, Nikita, and Erik prepare and work the grills.

David Schmidgall

As the sun set and the grills cooled, soldiers arrived to usher us out. We’d thought about staying overnight, given that Pastor Yiray had invited us to. He was proud that the church had recently completed the renovation of ‘missionary quarters’ — an apartment next door to the church, set aside mainly for evacuation teams when they come. It was our drivers Erik and Nikita who made the decision for us to leave. And we did, promptly, though we knew not why.

It wasn’t until weeks later when I was back in DC that I learned the full story — the soldiers had intel. Russia knew Americans were in Kherson and were mobilizing to drop phosphorous bombs in just a few hours, as they had done previously in Kherson and elsewhere. Ignorant of this, we began the 20-hour drive back to Uzhhorod, stopping for a night’s rest at the nearest ‘safe’ zone, the city of Uman, though that has since been devastated by the bombing of an apartment building.

On the way we stop to gather the van we’d abandoned at dawn — the one whose engine blew, leaving a blackened scar on the asphalt 100 kilometers from Uman. Last time the Family of Christ team made this trip they had to change three tires. The time before that they had to get towed by a tank after their clutch gave out near occupied territory. Every pothole deepens my appreciation for Savkin, the lead mechanic keeping these vans on the road. After several years working with A21 Campaign in Kyiv, the war drove Savkin and his young family to resettle in western Ukraine — finally opening the auto repair shop he had always wanted to. He’s had no trouble finding customers.

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Savkin's Auto Repair, a startup small business with no shortage of customers.

David Schmidgall

"It's our reality"

In the months since Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, Family of Christ has grown from a dozen faithful people caring for orphans, elderly, and at-risk families to become one of the largest, most agile Ukrainian-led NGO’s serving more than two million people and traversing as many kilometers to do so. Where larger international NGO’s are restricted by risk policies, Family of Christ maintains a fleet of ten vans ready to deliver aid anywhere, anytime — it’s their fathers, brothers, friends on the frontlines and in vulnerable places. There’s nowhere they won’t — or haven’t — gone, and virtually nothing it seems they can’t — or won’t — do.

Like Rima. At a second career moment in life, as millions of Ukrainians began fleeing westward, Rima set about making a home for internally displaced people in her small town of Velykyi Bereznyi. Partnering with Family of Christ, she converted a vacant military office building into temporary housing, taking in 90 people at a time and welcoming 3,500 since opening the doors. Before heat or electricity there were eight bunkbeds and 16 people to a room — a lone student trying to finish his studies, a set of grandparents suddenly raising their grandchildren after losing their son and daughter-in-law, independent women who call their single mattresses in a shared room “a little piece of heaven” while Russian soldiers live in their houses back home.

“Please, please, thank Mr. Rudolf for everything he has given for us — shelter, food, clothes, everything we need,” they say, not realizing he’s standing right in front of them. Rudolf smiles and tries to avoid translating this for us.

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Rima seated in the kitchen of the home she's created for people displaced by war.

David Schmidgall

Down the road from Rima’s, the smaller of Family of Christ’s two warehouses receives another vanload of non-perishable food stuffs — pasta, preserved vegetables, rice, tea — which is unloaded into one of the few remaining open floor spaces. The other 10,000 square feet of floorspace is filled with home items and clothing donated by concerned and caring people from around the world, all of which needs to be cleaned, sorted, and organized for distribution. A box of firefighting equipment — boots and jackets — is found and loaded into the van for immediate delivery. God bless the person who sinks their feet into those boots and plunges arms through those sleeves, trying to calm the blaze of a country on fire.

Until now, Ira Popova had lived in Kyiv her entire life. In search of an idyllic small town with good schools and lots of parks, she and her husband, Vova, moved to Irpin on Kyiv’s western edge just before the pandemic. Bucha, Irpin’s slightly smaller sister town and the infamous site of Russia’s most horrific war crimes, sits just across the river, a stone’s throw away.

Since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 there had been war and rumors of war, but even as Russian soldiers amassed on the Ukrainian border, Ira found it all very hard to believe. “We live in Kyiv! It’s the 21st century! War? Like Second World War with weapons and soldiers? No, it can’t be. We have Wi-Fi and diplomacy. It couldn’t happen.”

Ira and Vova Popova (left) and a soldier walks with his children (right).

David Schmidgall

Still, the Popova’s had discussed plans rather incredulously and half-joking with their friends at a small gathering on the evening of February 23rd. “Everyone was asking each other, ‘What will you do?’ But I didn’t believe, really. I just thought, ‘No way, it can’t be.’” The overall feeling was one of nonchalance and disbelief, Ira remembers. People said, “Everything is okay, maybe we’ll leave, but later, not now with the traffic.”

But the next morning, before dawn, the Popova’s were shaken awake by explosions at the nearby military airport and a harrowing flurry of nationwide texts, “WAR BEGINS.” Still not panicked, Ira and Vova decided to go stay with Ira’s grandparents in southern Kyiv, packing overnight bags, a small amount of cash, food, personal documents, and play clothes for their children, Salamia and Leo, then ages seven and two.

“It was like for three, four days. We didn't expect that we were going for a long time,” says Ira. “We close the door. I said bye-bye to all my plants and we just go away. Thank God that we did it on the first day, because on the second day the nearest city to Irpin was occupied.”

On the third day, the M06 — the main route out of western Kyiv — made international headlines as ‘The Highway of Death,’ as thousands of families packed into sedans were massacred by Russian military, shelling them as they sat in gridlock.

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A family sedan riddled with bullet holes.

David Schmidgall

The war hit even closer to home when a rocket hit her childhood school. “When you see pictures of your city bombed, when the park where you were just yesterday playing with your kids is destroyed—for me, it was a big shock.” As the frontline grew closer day-by-day, the Popova’s decided to flee further—this time going to stay with friends in western Ukraine. The overnight bags they’d packed turned out to be the beginning of a very different life.

Those early days of the war turned into months and the Popova’s had to begin finding housing, schools, and jobs in a part of the country flooded by millions of other internally displaced people fleeing violence in the east. When an invitation from friends in Austria came, they decided to go. Only women and children were allowed to leave the country though; Vova had to stay behind.

Ira found herself navigating and negotiating life in Vienna on behalf of her kids, mother, cousin, and her cousin’s kids. Soon they found an apartment in Germany and moved again. “We didn't see Vova for six-months,” she remembers. “It was mind-blowing that we can't be together. Salamia, she knew that her father is in Ukraine and there is war in Ukraine. Every night she was praying, ‘Please God, make my dad alive. Let him be alive. I don't want him to be dead.’"

Just before Salamia entered second grade, the Popova family decided they’d rather be together in a war zone than safer but separated. So, Ira and the kids joined Vova in Uzhhorod, the capital city of Ukraine’s westernmost province, bordering Slovakia and nestled at the base of the Carpathian Mountains.

“You try to be happy in the circumstances that you have in your life, but deep in your heart you have this fear—you are mostly prepared that maybe in 20-minutes a rocket will hit your house and you will be dead,” says Ira. “You constantly live with this. All Ukrainians, I think, now live in this state of mind. It's our reality.”

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Trees pass like scratches on the window.

David Schmidgall

"We just channel the love"

Within weeks of his family departing for Austria, Vova met Rudolf — “Rudy” — Balazhinec, founder of Family of Christ Foundation. Rudy is intrepid and winsome. He tells the story of his life as a string of near-death experiences, but laughs as he does. A native son of Uzhhorod, he seems to know everyone, which is at least part of the reason he ended up managing a 20,000 square foot warehouse just as semi-trucks full of humanitarian aid began arriving from every corner of the world.

“Everything we get for free and everything we deliver for free because God gave it to us and we just channel the love, delivering all that is needed,” says Rudy.

Up to this point, Family of Christ was a small group of faithful people whose weekly activities centered on caring for orphans, widows, and refugees, as well as the poor, sick, hungry, lonely, disadvantaged, and vulnerable. For 11 years, they’ve made weekly visits to orphanages, nursing homes, hospitals, and to families living in remote areas of abject poverty. All the donations of food, clothes, and medical equipment they would bring with them was stored in a tiny 2nd floor storage closet that Rudy describes as a miracle. The perfect timing of upgrading to a warehouse the size of a soccer field cannot be overstated.

Walking up and down the inventoried aisles, Rudy points out: “Antiseptics, we just got from Holland. Mattresses, tomorrow you will help us to deliver. Diapers, this is the smallest but biggest need. Shampoo, soap, toilet paper. Food, this is kasha (porridge) and here’s honey. Here’s tires — our babies,” he laughs. Tires are premium because they’re so often punctured by shrapnel, shredded by tank-ridden roads, or simply worn out by the thousands of kilometers and tough terrain driven each week.

This 20,000 sf warehouse is routinely stocked and emptied, receiving the world's care and distributing as thoroughly and quickly as the team is able.

David Schmidgall

700 tons of aid and supplies have flowed through the warehouse over the past 14 months, passing through the hands of multiple volunteers who drive to the border to pick up supplies, unload into the warehouse, inventory, document, then reload into vans and trailers for distribution. The needs and requests similarly pour in all day, every day — calls from service providers, soldiers, or churches in frontline areas, or calls from caregiving institutions like orphanages, nursing homes, hospitals, and schools in every corner of the country.

“We support churches because they need to be a light where they are,” explains Rudy. “And we go to the front line where nobody else will go because there are still people, there are still kids, there are still families, and they still need food, they still need hope.”

This team has crisscrossed the country many times over, adding pins to the map every time they distribute aid or facilitate evacuations. To date, they’ve driven more than two million kilometers, burnt through nine engines, delivered aid to 272 cities and villages and evacuated 1,600 people. “Can you imagine 1,600 people—family, kids—have a life? If we had not evacuated them, maybe all of them will be dead…maybe more,” says Rudy.

Rudy explains the map showing everywhere Family of Christ delivered aid or evacuated people.

David Schmidgall

Erik Grechka has been Rudy’s right-hand man for nearly five years, or “since the beginning,” he says, meaning since the group formalized as a nonprofit in 2018. He was the first to volunteer as a driver. During the first several months of the war, the team loaded the vans full of supplies almost daily — one and a half tons of food, baby diapers, medicines — and headed east two or three times per week, often driving 15 to 25 hours one way. They would bring the supplies in, stay the night, then evacuate people to safe zones on the return leg.

“Mostly we went to Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv, Kherson,” says Erik. “One time they call us to evacuate the orphanages in Mariupol — they had been sitting in the [bomb] shelter for two months. Think — all these orphanages [children and staff] were hiding in the basement. We started driving away to the safe zones and they started throwing up. I ask, ‘Why, what's wrong?’ They said, ‘We haven't seen sun for two months.’” Of course, medicine didn’t help. This was the body beginning to process the unimaginable stress, fear, and trauma of war and life in hiding. “Mostly they didn’t speak for the first eight hours of the drive,” says Erik. “Not to ask for food, water, nothing.”

The team regularly receives calls to evacuate wounded soldiers. “One military guy called us, ‘Hey guys, I'm in the Bakhmut. I need to be evacuated, I'm wounded,’” says Erik. He couldn’t sit upright, so they pulled all the seats out of the van and put down several mattresses so he could lay flat. Erik drove to Bakhmut, spent the night amidst the sounds and tremors of explosion, picked the soldier up in the morning, and delivered him dutifully to a local military hospital. “The man lost half his feet,” Erik pauses and takes a deeper breath.

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Erik Grechka (left) and Nikita Shutov (right) make weekly supply runs to the front lines.

David Schmidgall

Erik is resolute and unbreaking as he recounts these evacuation stories, yet it’s painfully obvious how much trauma is soaking into this generation of caregivers — both in Ukraine and for those like Ira who sought refuge abroad, enduring separation and disciplining fear. Life will not return to what it was before the war, this they know. “We had built our life. We had church, a lot of friends, we had a really great life. Then in one moment we lost everything — lost job, lost our plans, and so on. Sometimes you think, ‘God, why?’” says Ira. “It’s the biggest trouble to forgot about old life, to let it go.”

“We sacrifice our time doing — risking — because it's worthy,” says Erik. “When you evacuate people, when they are in the safe zone they say to you, ‘Thank you,’ and they start to cry. And that's worthy. That’s how we do what Jesus will do, no matter how much it will cost.”

It’s a conviction the team embodies not just for their own country and people. When the earthquake hit Turkey on February 6th, 2023, Rudy was contacted by a friend who knew a team of Korean doctors traveling there to serve. They needed drivers. Family of Christ sent four of their best — Erik, Nikita, Artem and Yulia — to serve for a week, driving and hauling supplies and equipment, whatever was needed to support the rescue efforts. I can imagine few things more poignant than a Ukrainian team, flags on their sleeves, traveling during wartime to serve their neighbors — Turkish and Syrian survivors, first responders, and the watching world.

“Ya tam (I am there)”

“When war began — February 24, the full war — I remember I woke up and a lot our friends began to text, ‘War began. We need a place where we can stay. We will be there soon,’” says Katya Balazhinec, Rudy’s wife. But soon it was not possible. A journey that should have taken just one day took three. People were increasingly angry, scared, and stranded.

The mobilization of the Army’s First Reserves was immediate and Katya’s father, an experienced soldier, was among the first deployed. “I didn’t sleep for four days. All my emotions died. It was so hard,” she says. But Family of Christ’s core group quickly galvanized and even grew. Soon they were managing the two massive warehouses, running weekly evacuations and aid distributions, and meeting more formally as a church community. They held their first service in the warehouse on March 13th, and a month later moved into a beautiful, rented space in the city center.

Slideshow / The church congregation with Pastor Vadim Klobas and his wife, Nelia, center, followed by Rudy with his wife, Katya, and their two kids.

David Schmidgall

“When everything began, I just prayed, ‘God we need people because if we do not have a big team, I will not see Rudy.” 14-months later, Katya can’t recall the last time they had an evening free. “Last year maybe it never happened,” she says. “When war begin, we see how people need the time. They want to ask questions; they want to share. They want somebody to have time for them, asking, ‘How are you?’”

It seems everyone in Ukraine has frontline experience of some kind. Katya’s is, in part, serving as a deep and compassionate listener to many people navigating complex trauma. For some, emotion sits just below the surface and rushes up easily. Others hold it all much, much deeper down. Either way, it’s a lot to carry and a lot to hear. “After, you just pray and say, ‘God, I give you these feelings because if it'll be mine, I will not survive it all.’ Everyday emotions are so down, up, down,” she says.

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David Schmidgall

One recent call was from an old friend from university. He was now living in the Czech Republic but his sister, Anya, and mother were back in Bucha. Katya offered to send a team to evacuate them, but her friend felt sure he could soon bring them to join him outside the country. “A week later, he again call me, ‘Okay, she [Anya] needs psychology. She's so quiet. My mom saw three Russia soldiers sexually abuse her and her friend in one moment. She doesn't want to talk."

Three months later, Anya learned she’s pregnant. “What we can do? What you do, Katya?” Katya responded, “I cannot tell you answer because it's your life.” Anya said, “I now understand I hate this baby, because I will see this face, the soldiers, and everything, in her.” Anya made the profound choice to deliver the baby but doesn’t know yet if she will raise it or hope for an adoptive family. “It's just one story from thousands of families,” says Katya. “Now life for a lot of people is changed and this will be never again come back like it was before February 24. A lot of life just broke. A lot of mothers never will see their kids. A lot of wives never will see their husbands.”

“That’s a lot to reconcile in your heart,” I say. And we sit silently. When I then ask how she trusts God and how she keeps going, Katya tells the story of her young son, Emmanuel, who at the start of the war was just shy of 3-years-old. He hadn’t started speaking yet, only smiling and demanding things at all hours of the night. One particular morning Katya was deep in lament and grief, begging God for a word or something to hold onto. It was then Emmanuel spoke his first words, straight to his mother: “Ya tam (I am there).”

“I’m sorry—again?” Katya replies.

“Ya tam,” Emmanuel says a second time.

Sometimes it seems that’s all we can hope for. I wonder that it’s enough.

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David Schmidgall

The Blueberry Fields of Yarok

Standing on a peaceful rural hillside just ten miles northeast of Uzhhorod, I feel a long way from the church steps in Kherson but think of Sasha and Natasha nonetheless. How to rebuild and when to start? With the sun nearing the horizon, Rudy tells me they’ve already begun. “With blueberries. Here, in Yarok.”

Yarok is a very small town of 800 people. With Jim Sliz, a long-time blueberry grower and Rudy’s mentor, Family of Christ has been growing and selling blueberries for nine years on a quarter acre of land. In 2022, the team produced one ton of blueberries and sold everything they grew at local markets. We’re standing on this hillside because it’s part of a 17-acre property they recently signed a 50-year lease on to begin producing on a larger scale.

Included in the acreage is a stunning 100-year-old, 3,000 square foot warehouse that will be renovated into a production and storage facility. During the Second World War, it was used as a munitions depot and the hillside served as tank trenches. What a poetic redemption this would be. Depending on the variety, blueberry bushes take three to five years to mature. What’s more hopeful than planting a blueberry farm in wartime?

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David Schmidgall

“Hope,” Katya sighs. “I know how people say it never will be like it was before February 24 — it's true. But I hope it'll be better. I know God prepare us some future for Ukraine and we will rebuild. Just take a new breath. A lot of people will come back. A lot of people will see parents, a lot of people will see husbands. I don't know yet how exactly, but we will see. We will see. It's lovely, Ukraine.”

While the air raid sirens are still sending children to the bunkers, the elderly are still calling for help evacuating as the front line shifts and reshapes, and soldiers are still calling daily requesting bulletproof vests, boots, and MRE's (meals in a package, ready to eat), hope is everything. It's not easy to maintain but Family of Christ is doing it. These are those spending their lives in the service of others, not forgetting the orphan, the widow, or the vulnerable and displaced even while their own well-being and security is threatened. Rarely have I seen such fuller faith and radical self-giving. "They will know you are mine by your love," says Jesus. And here, in Ukraine, in flesh and blood and daily life, I see what he must've meant.

“I believe that Family of Christ will be involved in many different countries where there is war,” says Rudy. “With our experience, we could help with logistics, evacuations, and as advisors. That’s one of the horrible things in war — it's chaos. When there’s chaos, you lose many kids and many families and many soldiers. So in the chaos, logistics could help save many lives. And we want to help. We want to bless people and save lives.”

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Rudy stands in the future blueberry fields of Yarok.

David Schmidgall

“The war will end soon. There are a lot of people feeling this. No matter that we have a lot of missiles [landing here every day], we have this feeling that we'll get a victory soon,” says Pastor Yiray. Lord, have mercy.

The kids and congregation in Kherson; the orphans waiting to be found by forever families; the little boy whose sock foot I squeezed as we said ‘rock, paper, scissors’ for the hundredth time; the elderly still calling out blessings with their fewer and fewer breaths; Rima and her revolving door home for those rebuilding; Savkin and his growing auto repair business; Erik and Nikita — protectors, heroes — for who knows how long in which van going where, why. The warehouse, the church, the blueberry farm, Rudy, Katya, Vadim, Nelia, Ira, Vova, and the dozens of faithful people loving like life depends on it. May God bless you and keep you; make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; and may He give you peace.

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David Schmidgall

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Editor's Note

Though I've read about and listened to reports on the war in Ukraine over the past 15 months, I think there is something unique that Kate and David have captured in this piece about the spirit of compassion and community that abounds in the midst of the apparent conflict and its destruction. We are grateful to Family of Christ, not only for their work as an NGO and opening their doors to our team to capture their individual and collective stories, but for ensuring the safety of David and Kate at the same time.

So, we offer a tremendous thank you to Rudy, Katia, Ira, Vova, Pastor Yiray, Jim, Gary, Nikita, Rima and Erik and everyone who allowed us to capture their faces and stories. Our hearts, minds and prayers are with them daily. Slava Ukraïni!

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