(This post first appeared on Assist News Service in September 2014.)
It’s early morning, my favorite time of day, and almost the only time when my mind is alert enough and our home calm enough for me to write. Unfortunately, years of late-night studying in college, over a decade of being married to a night owl, and the last seven years of breastfeeding our four children have so altered my sleep patterns that until recently, if I managed to see the sunrise, it was most likely because a small child’s unwelcome interruption had me stumbling around groggily at that hour than because I got up early enough to greet the new day. Or it was the dead of winter when the sun doesn’t rise until about 8 a.m. at our latitude anyway.
We live in Ukraine. Until recent events brought Ukraine to the forefront of international news, I wouldn’t have expected many people to be able to find the country on a map. Even though I have always loved geography, I had to get a map out myself and look for Ukraine after I met the man I was going to marry, an American who had been living in Ukraine since the age of 16 when he moved here with his missionary parents. All I knew then was that it had been part of the former Soviet Union, but I wasn’t very familiar with all the republics that had splintered off with the break-up of that regime.
Fast-forward thirteen years, and my outlook and experience are much different. I’ve lived in Ukraine long enough to feel a sense of loyalty, fierce indignation, and sadness over the Russian aggression that to date has stolen a large portion of this country and is attempting to take another, has killed or wounded several thousand, created hundreds of thousands or refugees, and wreaked havoc with the Ukrainian economy. And my awareness now includes much more of this region that comprised the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries. I have been to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Kyrgyzstan; I dream of visiting the Czech Republic and Croatia; my husband has a brother-in-law from Uzbekistan; and we have family living in Hungary, in a remote region of northern Siberia, and in Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state). On a given day, I am probably much more in touch with what is going on in this part of the world than back “home” in the United States.
That being said, I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on current events in the region. Far from it. I’m just a mom doing my best to raise my kids in the midst of a culture that is not my own while operating in a language that I am still mastering. With four children ranging in age from 7 years to 17 months, much of the time, I don’t have the leisure to follow the news. I’m much too busy intervening in sibling squabbles, cleaning up little kid messes, trying to keep everyone’s tummies full, and doing the hundred and one other things that go into keeping a home running.
However, in the first weeks after the protests in Kyiv turned bloody last winter and later after the Russians invaded and annexed Crimea, my husband and I would sit on the couch with our laptop scanning the latest happenings every night after the kids were in bed, and we somehow found time to check the news several times during the day as well. If anything major took place that we had missed, someone from our church was sure to call and tell us. We developed an evacuation Plan A and Plan B in case the whole country erupted in violence. It seemed like we were all living from hour to hour, hanging on the news and praying for a miracle. We even set up a prayer tent on the main square of our city, where a group of like-minded believers would pray every hour on the hour for the country and spent the rest of the time encouraging, counseling, and praying with passersby.
But such heightened excitement is exhausting, and you really can’t live that way for any length of time. I think I speak for most people whom I know when I say that after a month or two, we largely returned to life as usual. We did things to aid the military effort, like collecting money and canned goods to send to the Ukrainian soldiers who had been deployed to fight separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine, and we collaborated with other churches in our city to collect money and used clothing to distribute to refugee families who had fled to our region. The situation in the east was never far from our thoughts and prayers, but we resumed our day-to-day activities even with the threat of open war looming over our heads.
Now, suddenly, the crisis is back at the forefront of everyone’s minds. For months the fighting in the eastern part of the country has been between the Ukrainian army and nationalist volunteers on one side and separatist forces on the other. Though rumors and evidence abounded that the separatists were Russian-backed and even had Russian soldiers fighting in their midst, there was no official Russian involvement in the conflict. All that changed last week when Russian tanks and soldiers crossed the border into eastern Ukraine.
What we have been dreading has happened. Ukraine is in a state of de facto war with Russia. Suddenly, all our contingency plans for possible evacuation are back on the table, as this development could drastically change the nature of the conflict. My life feels surreal. On the one hand, I’m in the middle of back-to-school preparations as if nothing unusual is happening; on the other hand, I’m taking mental stock of what I need to do to make our family evacuation-ready. And all the while, my husband is not at home.
My husband and brother-in-law recently joined up with a Christian rock band and are in the middle of a three-week tour of the country. They have been visiting military bases, outposts, hospitals, and refugee camps, giving concerts in an effort to lift morale and introduce the soldiers and refugees to Jesus, who is the only hope for Ukraine and the world.
In the conversations we’ve had while my husband has been on the road, a recurring theme has been his admiration for the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers, ordinary men with an extraordinary readiness to defend home and country in the face of increasingly impossible odds. In a recent post on Facebook, he said, “It’s hard to take in the events that are happening in Ukraine. I just read that about 100 Ukrainian soldiers were treacherously killed by Russian forces after being promised they would not be fired upon while they retreated to safety. We did a concert at a training camp today for a volunteer battalion and paratroopers. It was quite sobering watching as the guys are preparing to deploy to the front, knowing that many will not return alive. It was quite an honor to perform for them and get to pray for them. Being able to bring a little joy to them and being heartily thanked by these men I so admire brought me to tears several times. May God watch over them, and may each one be prepared for eternity.”
That’s what it all comes down to, helping people prepare for eternity. When people here find out that we’re Americans, most are puzzled about why we’ve chosen to live in Ukraine, since many of them would like to emigrate to the West. This confusion has been especially pronounced in light of the violence and uncertainty of recent months. We get questions ranging from, “Do you have Ukrainian roots?” (we don’t) to, “Where is it better to live, here or in America?” to, “Wouldn’t life be easier in the United States?” Fielding these kinds of questions is always a ticklish business, because on many levels, life is better and would be easier in the States, but coming right out and saying so would seem rude. Besides, we believe that pursuing ease and comfort would ultimately be unfulfilling. For us, life really is better here, because this is where God has called us to be. This is where we come truly alive as we live each day and each week investing in the eternal destiny of the people around us.
Of course, we could follow this philosophy no matter where we lived in the world, but God has given us a special opportunity in Ukraine right now. Most people in our region of the country believe in God, respect the Bible, and know the Gospel message, but they don’t make any of it a part of their daily lives. In this respect, it’s probably similar to the American “Bible Belt” states. But the similarity ends when you consider the difficulties and fears facing the Ukrainian people today. The current crisis is causing many to look to God for hope, and we want to be here to help them meet Jesus in the process.
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