From Horror to Hope

21st March 2022

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A Ukrainian family on a journey between fear and faith

By Ruth Rainer (Samaritan’s Purse Germany)

“We want to tell you our story. To share a message of hope in the midst of chaos and war.”
Sergiy tells me emphatically when I ask him if we can write down his experiences from the first weeks of the war.

Sergiy is the director of Operation Christmas Child, a Samaritan’s Purse operation in Ukraine. He leads 23 regional teams in the large Eastern European country with a total of 125 team members, who in turn are in contact with distribution partners across the country. The shoeboxes now reach one in ten children in Ukraine every year. Once upon a time, Sergiy himself was one of these children and received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. At the time, he could never have dreamed what it would lead to.

Sergiy has been married to his childhood sweetheart Zhenya for 16 years and together they have two children, Evelina (10) and Sergiy (3). Until recently they lived in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. But then the war started and there lives were completely disrupted.

  • Sergiy, Zhenya and the children in January 2022
    Sergiy, Zhenya and the children in January 2022

They spoke very openly about their lives before and the effects of recent events.

ZHENYA:

“God has blessed me with many things in my life, most notably my loving husband Sergiy and my two wonderful children. A few years ago we moved from the capital Kyiv to Irpin, which is only seven kilometres away. Here we built a beautiful, quiet and tranquil home. We were part of a vibrant community, my husband had a good job that he loved, my daughter went to school and I was home with my son. Like everyone else, we had goals and dreams for the future.”

SERGIY:

“Although there were repeated warnings of impending war, we thought it unlikely. After all, we live in the 21st century, in the middle of Europe. We feared that the fighting in the east would intensify again. But it was unimaginable for us that the war would reach us in central Ukraine. So we went on with our lives normally. We made plans, worked, Evelina went to school and I bought plane tickets to Paris. I wanted to surprise my wife with this for her birthday in early March.”

  • Zhenya & Sergiy on their wedding day 16 years ago
    Zhenya & Sergiy on their wedding day 16 years ago

ZHENYA:

“In the past few months, people have started talking about an impending war. In our church we began to pray for peace and against war. I didn’t believe until the end that it would really come to that.

On the night of February 23-24, I didn’t sleep well. I had a dream in which I heard a voice saying: “Escape to the mountains.” I woke up in a sweat, woke up Sergiy and told him about it.

JUST A FEW MINUTES LATER WE HEARD A ROCKET FLY OVER OUR HOUSE, FOLLOWED BY A LOUD EXPLOSION.

The same thing was repeated a few more times while we were still sitting in our bed in complete disbelief. And then I got really scared. I started shaking all over and panicked. After five minutes I was able to calm down a bit and together we made the decision to follow the voice in my dream. We would flee as soon as possible. I started hurrying to pack up some things, especially the important documents. But I was in such a panic that I couldn’t think straight. I forgot many things that would have been useful later and took unnecessary things with me.”

SERGIY:

“Our children didn’t understand what was going on as we carried them to our car, all drowsy. We tried to drive west as fast as possible, but it was harder than we thought. The city was already in panic mode, the lines at gas stations and supermarkets were long and we were stuck in traffic for hours. Zhenya and the children were terrified for the entire 12-hour drive to Lviv. Added to this was a heaviness that we had never experienced before:

WE LEFT HOME NOT KNOWING IF WE WOULD EVER SEE IT AGAIN.

  • Pictures from the flight
    Pictures from the flight

ZHENYA:

It was all like something out of a horror movie. The congested streets, the long queues in front of shops and the fear and panic on people’s faces. We were glad when we finally arrived in Lviv. We slept in the car for the first two nights, then we could shower and rest a little at a family friend’s house.

Friends and family members from Germany wrote to us and offered to stay with them. I knew right away that I had to get the kids to safety, but I didn’t want to leave without Sergiy. But like all other men between the ages of 18 and 60, he too had to stay in the country. So we made the difficult decision together to separate. The children and I would travel to Sergiy’s cousin in Berlin and he would stay in Lviv.” 

SERGIY:

“I knew crossing the border to safety was the right thing for my family to do, but it wasn’t easy. After all, we didn’t know if and when we would see each other again. After we said goodbye, I sat in my car and cried my heart out for 15 minutes. There were a lot more questions than answers in my head.

BUT THEN I DECIDED TO GET UP AND MOVE ON BECAUSE THERE WAS A LOT TO DO AND I WAS NEEDED.

In the past I had gained experience in receiving and distributing relief supplies, which was particularly useful now. In a parish in Lviv, we set up a logistics centre for humanitarian goods, which were shipped from there across the country. I was also involved in housing and caring for refugees who poured into Lviv from all over Ukraine. My international colleagues from Samaritan’s Purse also contacted me very early on to hear how I was doing and to find out how they could get involved and help in Ukraine. Among other things, I was involved in finding a suitable place for the emergency hospital in Lviv.”

  • construction of the Lviv Emergency Hospital
    construction of the Lviv Emergency Hospital

ZHENYA:

All we could take with us was a bag with things for the three of us. I carried my son in one arm (because we didn’t have a stroller and he was very tired) and the bag in the other. The Ukrainian-Polish border was packed with people and it was freezing cold. Thank goodness we got across the border safely, where friends were already waiting for us with a heated car and hot food. From there we travelled to Germany, where we stayed with Sergiy’s cousin.

The first days were very difficult. We didn’t sleep well and I was always worried about my husband, who was relatively safe in Lviv, but his life could be in danger at any time. I also worried about the future and about where and how we would live.”

SERGIY:

“ War is unbelievably bad. It’s terrible to see people dying, to be surrounded by enemies and to see pictures of our hometown, part of which has already been destroyed. It’s not nice to fall asleep alone in someone else’s bed every night, not knowing if you’ll ever be in your own again.

We all have a role that we can and must play at a time like this. For some, the place is in the army, others evacuate people from burning houses, and still others care for refugees. Our freedom is very important to us Ukrainians and we see it as a God-given right that no one can take away from us.

But as a believing Christian, I have decided that every time I see pictures of my homeland, I thank God for the good times I was able to experience there with my family.

I HOPE FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART THAT ONE DAY, REUNITED WITH MY FAMILY, I WILL LIVE AGAIN IN A PEACEFUL COUNTRY.”

  • Irpin before the war
    Irpin before the war

ZHENYA:

“My biggest wish is to see my husband again and stay together. I pray every day for his protection and that of my family and friends. I also pray that Ukraine will win and that one day we will have peace in our country again.

In all of this, I am so thankful that our lives were spared and we are safe. I am grateful for the people who welcomed and cared for us during such a difficult time. We have never been alone and feel carried by God.”

Zhenya, Evelina and little Sergiy are currently staying with relatives in Berlin. They celebrated Zhenya’s birthday separately in early March, she abroad in Germany and he in the war zone in Ukraine.

Sergiy is still in Lviv, where Samaritan’s Purse has now opened an emergency hospital . He works there together with parishes and Samaritan’s Purse and is still in contact with all team coordinators of “Operations Christmas Child” in Ukraine. He and his team ensure that the distribution partners in the various regions can help children and their families with whatever they need. This is sometimes food, safe accommodation and sometimes help with their journey.


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