Just beyond the destroyed Ukrainian cities – past the air sirens, streets made of rubble, little fires, and chaos – lies the country of Poland. When the war in Ukraine broke out, Poland chose to become a refuge for those forced out of houses and cities in their neighboring country. Four months after the start of the war, millions of refugees have made their way into and through Poland, seeking refuge and help from their neighboring countries in Europe.
One small Christian retreat center is situated in the city of Ruptawa, close to the Czech border. When Ukrainian families began moving through Poland earlier in the year, the owner of the retreat center, who also pastors a small church, volunteered to house those he could.
The idea for a camp that could minister to Ukrainian children, as well as a few local Polish children, came about through the church’s desire to offer a refuge for kids. They knew that they could offer these children the only thing strong enough to combat a war: Yahweh.
Gathering on a Monday morning, mostly as total strangers, volunteers hail from their homes in Poland, Czech Republic, Ukraine and the United States. Most of the Ukrainian children, ages ranging from four to fourteen, were in Ukraine when Russia invaded and have since been living with their mothers in Poland for several months.
At first glance, these cute kids behave like typical kids. So, it’s easy to forget they carry significant trauma with them.
Innocent eyes have witnessed war, hands have parted from their mothers and fathers, feet have traveled far from home, and ears have faced confusion upon hearing a foreign language.
While they play and laugh, these children do their best to keep fear and sadness from seeping through their expressions when their mothers aren’t there to tuck them in each night or when their dads can’t come home at the end of the day. In fact, most of their fathers, older brothers and grandfathers are still in Ukraine due to the military ban.
These children do their best to rock their homesickness to sleep each time they are given instructions in a language they do not understand. Confusion floods their faces when they’re told to put their pajamas on, eventually leading to a tear of frustration slipping down their cheeks when they try to explain to the English speakers that their pajamas are back in Ukraine.
For some, it is simply a miracle they are alive.
Other factors have contributed to the miraculous gift of these lives as well. Each child lived and breathed before the invasion, all with unique stories – some of joy and love, others with heartache and loss, and many with both. More than refugees of war, some of the children are victims of abuse, forced family separation and homesickness.
One girl’s life in particular hung in the balance before she was even born. Her mother, Viktoria, a translator at the camp, recounts the story of her pregnancy.
“When I was about nineteen, there was a man who was much older than me. We fell in love. He wasn’t a believer, but we married anyway and we wanted a child very much.”
“When I was three months pregnant,” Viktoria continues, “the doctors told us the child would be ill, that the child would never move or talk. So, they told us to abort the baby. My husband insisted, ‘you must choose: me or this child.’
So, I chose my child, and her name is Veronika.”
Not a flicker of doubt flashes on Viktoria’s face as she declares this. Confidence and joy dance across her face despite the weighty grief this decision must have brought her. A faithless husband opened the door to a life of redemption.
Defying the odds, Veronika was miraculously born healthy and happy thirteen years ago. And she was one of the beautiful teenagers attending the camp!
Years later, Viktoria met her new husband at the church she joined upon becoming a Christian. He loves God above all and grew to love Viktoria and her daughter as well. Now, he is in Ukraine as a chaplain, sharing God with refugees in hospitals. Viktoria and her daughter both long to see him but they must be content with phone calls for the moment.
“I want to go back but I can’t take my daughter to Ukraine again because I’m afraid for her safety,” Viktoria shares.
At the start of the camp, Veronika shows signs of depression and cries many tears for home and her father. By the end of camp, however, she introduces a shy smile to her lips and befriends others her age. Her sadness doesn’t dissipate completely, but a remnant of hope shows through by the end of the week.
While the grief certainly is not forgotten by the end of the week, a noticeable glimmer of hope replaces an overall state of hopelessness – hope that God genuinely cares for them, hope that God loves them and hope that God is greater than the war that is wrecking their lives.
Viktoria beams as she watches the kids play. “I’m sure God is here. I can see what the Spirit is doing in this world. I really can
see it. And I have peace in my heart. I have
Anna Grace Mixon is a Ten2 Storyteller with Greater Europe Mission serving in Brno, Czech Republic.
Alona Semenova is a Ukrainian photographer serving with refugee camps in Poland.