The Shock of War
No one believed that Russia would attack Ukraine, and when they did, everyone, including the Ukrainians, were shocked. I have friends all over Ukraine, and they started sharing with me harrowing stories of bombings, constant fear, confusion, and food and water shortages. I was in shock that this could be happening in Europe today.
A Great Desire to Help
Day after day, as I followed news of the war, I felt an intense need to help but had no idea how. So, I began asking God to send me an opportunity to help. I immigrated to Israel from Latvia when I was a little girl and grew up speaking both Russian and Hebrew. With my language skills, I felt that I could offer practical help with the refugees who were beginning to stream into Poland and Germany.
Within a week, God sent me an opportunity through a Beit Sar Shalom (Chosen People Ministries—Israel). I was chosen to put together and lead a team of Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking Israelis to volunteer for a week at a refugee intake center in Berlin, Germany. Financial and practical support for the refugees was pouring in from all over the world, but there was still a great need for Russian-speaking volunteers.
Choose Your Team Wisely
While I was choosing my team of volunteers, the team we would be replacing debriefed me. The hours are long, the work intense and emotional. I knew that I had to choose the volunteers who would join us carefully and prayerfully. They needed to be strong believers, able to withstand the challenging physical conditions, and also have the emotional maturity to be able to offer the refugees spiritual and emotional support. The eight individuals who joined my team are amazing people, ranging in age from twenty-two to sixty. Each one was willing to put their lives on hold and invest their time and energies in this important undertaking. We spent a lot of time in prayer together before we left—we knew that we would need God’s grace, protection, strength, and wisdom to be able to do what He had called us to do.
Overwhelming and Overwhelmed
Our team arrived in Berlin and were brought to the central train station where refugee transports arrived all day long. We went through an orderly briefing, were cleared as volunteers, and received a special orange vest indicating that we were qualified to volunteer (orange meant we spoke Russian or Ukrainian). At first, we were overwhelmed by the size of the train station—it is enormous, more like a city. But very quickly, we learned our way around and, within a day or two, knew it like the back of our hands.
As we were receiving our orientation at the train station, we came to a platform on which a train of refugees had just arrived, and I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by the sight of all those refugees, mostly women with children, exhausted, confused and broken. I was not sure how I was going keep it together to be able to help them. But amazingly, God gave us all a certain numbness to our emotional shock so that we could do the work He had called us to do.
A Very Special Team
There were many volunteers from Germany and from all over Europe, but Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking volunteers were few. We got along amazingly well with all the different volunteers and were blessed by the cooperation and teamwork there was between us. All the local volunteers and the refugees knew that we were from Israel. They also came to know that we were Israeli followers of Jesus who were there to share the love and hope of God with them.
Trains arrived every couple of hours throughout the day with anywhere from 300 to 1,000 refugees per transport. Our job was to help the people off the train and direct them to their connecting trains, or to buses going to temporary housing, or to various rest areas in the train station for food, medical help, diapers, or hygiene products.
Sometimes, we only had a short time bringing them from one train to another in which to share a few words of encouragement. If there was time, we always asked if we could pray for them: everyone wanted prayer. No one refused.
Predators and Human Traffickers
One of the disturbing things we discovered was that human traffickers were there at the train station trying to exploit the vulnerable women and children. Quite a few times, there were warnings sent out among the volunteers that predators were spotted trying to take young women and children. This sad reality is something that my friend and colleague Moti Cohen at Tiferet Yeshua knows through our outreach ministry on the streets of Tel Aviv where he has seen an alarming number of young teenage girls from Ukraine showing up on the streets. Each time the volunteers received a message about human traffickers, our team came together and prayed: each time, praise God, the perpetrators were caught, and the children returned.
What Was Special about the Refugees?
Ruth, a volunteer from Tiferet Yeshua who joined our team, shared that she was struck by how kind and thankful the refugees were. We never heard anyone complaining or angry at their situation. Every single one expressed their sincerest gratitude and thanks, which is amazing considering that these were mostly women with children who had left their husbands behind in a war zone. All they had in the world was packed into a couple of bags, arriving in a place where they do not know the language and have no idea where they will be staying.
We were amazed by how much love we received in return from the people we were serving. We felt that God directed us to those who needed our help the most. Countless times, we were able to pray with people, and many opened their hearts to ask God to come into their lives.
Some Very Special Connections
Every connection was special, but there were a few instances that were extraordinary or that left a powerful impression on me. One afternoon, I arrived on a train platform, and a German volunteer who saw my orange vest indicating that I was a Russian- or Ukrainian-speaker motioned for me to come help her. She was trying, unsuccessfully, to communicate with an elderly woman in a wheelchair. I started speaking with the woman and quickly discovered that she has a son living in Israel—many of the refugees arriving did not have cell phones or cell phone service. This woman gave me her son’s number and I immediately contacted him in Israel on WhatsApp to let him know that his mother was okay and sent him a picture of her. He was so incredibly thankful! It had been many days since he had last heard from her and did not know whether she was alive or dead.
One day, I approached a thin, pale young woman with one small bag in her hands who looked completely lost. She did not know English or German and asked me to accompany her to the next train she needed to take. She told me that she had escaped her city in a hurry on a bread truck and that all along the way out of the area they were exposed to intense bombardment from Russian tanks. I could see that the experience had greatly traumatized her. I prayed for her and encouraged her that God is close to her: all she needs to do is to call out to Him in Jesus’ name and He will be there to help her through every situation. She thanked me with tears in her eyes before she got into her next train.
A Lost Teen
Before I left Israel, I posted on social media that I would be in Berlin helping with refugee transports. In Berlin, I started receiving calls from people in Israel asking me to meet their relatives who were on their way to Berlin from Ukraine and had lost contact along the way. One family asked me to look for a seventeen-year-old girl who had been on the road for a few days by herself with no internet and no possibility to call. Her family sent me a picture and, amazingly, we were able to find her, let her talk to her family in Israel, and help her on to her next destination.
I cannot begin to even scratch the surface of all the stories we heard, all the connections we made, how God put us in the right place at the right time to help people in distressing situations, and how many opportunities God gave us to simply show these precious people His light and love and to sow seeds of hope and faith in their hearts.
Please do not forget about what is happening in Ukraine, even though the headlines might be losing their impact after several months of war.
Please pray that, through all this difficulty and suffering, the Ukrainian people would find comfort in God and draw closer to Him!