9 March, 2022
At night, Victoria falls asleep in a room crowded with people, mattresses, and luggage. When she wakes up, she calls her husband in Khmelnitsky, 320 kilometres across the Ukraine border, to see if he is still alive.
Her seven-year-old daughter sleeps beside her. Across the room, alongside several other relatives, Victoria’s brother-in-law, Artem, stirs fitfully. She says the seventeen-year-old is still traumatised by his recent experiences in Kyiv, where he lived as a student before joining the rest of the family in their desperate escape to Romania.
On the phone, Victoria’s husband tells her that he is still okay. Teary-eyed, Victoria admits that if not for her daughter, she would have stayed behind with him.
“My daughter has panic attacks and allergies,” she says. “Where we would hide in the basement there was a lot of dust. She couldn’t breathe well, so after fifteen minutes we would have to go outside for fresh air.”
As the situation in Ukraine continued to deteriorate, Victoria’s husband insisted she take their daughter and flee across the border. Because of current restrictions, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving, but at least his wife and daughter would be safe.
Now, Victoria has no idea what the future holds for any of them.
“I have a brother in America and in-laws in Canada,” she says, “but we don’t have visas now and they can’t take all of us. All we can do is just wait.”
Biserica Adventista, a Seventh-day Adventist church almost 50 kilometres from the border of Ukraine, is one of many Adventist churches in Romania to become a refuge for people like Victoria and her family. It can hold up to 60 people at a time, and provides free meals, drinks, clothes, bedding, and access to shower pods, which were recently installed in the church basement bathrooms to accommodate the hygiene needs of the incoming refugees.
“Some of them haven’t slept for four days, and haven’t showered,” says Vasile Copot, an ADRA volunteer at the church. “This is very important for them.”
A former lawyer, Vasile is now a seminary student at Andrews University. He listens to class lectures online while offering bottles of water, organising volunteer receptionists at the 24-hour intake desk in the lobby of the church, carrying boxes of food donations and — in nearly every waking moment — talking on the phone.
“I think I’ve made about 3,000 phone calls in the last week,” he says. “I’ve never been so tired in my life.”
His fatigue doesn’t show. If it is there, it is buried beneath his passion for the work.
“When a representative from ADRA called us and said, ‘we have to convert the church into a refugee camp,’ we immediately made the decision, voted it in, and converted the church,” Vasile says. “We love Jesus so much and we wanted to be his hands and his feet for these people.”
Vasile is one of more than a thousand ADRA volunteers across Romania who have offered their services to the incoming Ukrainians. They welcome refugees the moment they cross the border; they offer hot tea and food and medicine at the ADRA tent just down the road; they coordinate shuttle services for those who need a ride and shelter for those who have nowhere to sleep; they open their own homes to strangers.
Maria is another of those volunteers. A full-time communication coordinator for a medical company in Bucharest, Maria decided to spend her weekend volunteering with friends for ADRA at the border with Ukraine. Because she is fluent in Russian, Romanian, and English, she served as a critical link between Ukrainian refugees and ADRA volunteers.
“I didn’t sleep at all last night,” she said, just before heading back to Bucharest Sunday afternoon. “But I feel alive and refreshed.”
The ADRA tent where Maria served as a volunteer is open 24 hours a day, every day. Hundreds of refugees stream past each hour, desperate for food, water, hot tea, blankets, warm clothes and more. The ADRA tent has it all. In addition, volunteers work to provide refugees with shelter, transportation, and migration support.
And Maria offers one more thing: free hugs.
“I was so excited to offer free hugs,” she said. “Our common language is the language of kindness. This is the language the refugees want from first sight. They want to see that they are treated with dignity.”
Victoria is overcome with gratitude for volunteers like Maria and Vasile.
“We are grateful for everything people do,” she says. “I want to hug everyone who cares about us.”
Despite the trauma of the past several days, Victoria’s daughter is starting to become comfortable at the church. She runs over to her mother to ask if she can have a cookie, then she runs to the snack table.
Victoria watches her daughter run around. Her eyes fill with tears. “My daughter didn’t deserve to leave her life like this,” she says. “She’s still a child. She wants to play and watch her favourite movies. She asks, ‘why can’t we go to grandma’s house?’”
Victoria has no easy answers. All she knows is that she hopes to reach Canada or the United States. But for now, at least, she and her daughter are safe. It’s not much, but it is something she clings to.
“It’s a warm feeling in my heart,” she says. “Every chance I have to say, ‘thank you’, I say it.”
To support ADRA’s response to the Ukraine Crisis, donate at adra.org.au/donate.