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Mission co-worker delivers a compassionate update during Synod School on Ukrainian refugee work

Ellen Smith says a key to the massive response has been effective and extensive partnerships

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

A map of Central and Eastern Europe shows the close proximity of nations aiding Ukrainian refugees. (Map courtesy of Nations Online Project).

STORM LAKE, Iowa — Ellen Smith, World Mission’s regional liaison for Central and Eastern Europe, led a packed and thought-provoking mini-course last week during Synod School on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s mission in Ukraine.

“Ukraine is a complicated country. It is divided linguistically, by faith and by culture, certainly,” Smith told a lecture hall full of Synod School attendees. More than 500 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, PC(USA) partners in neighboring countries — Moldova, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland among them — have set up refugee centers to care for the many people fleeing the fighting, including children and people with special needs. To date, Presbyterians have contributed millions of dollars to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which together with Presbyterian World Mission has many partners in the region.

Among the partners is Sant’Egidio, an organization that works in 70 countries including Ukraine, and International Orthodox Christian Charities. Another partner, the ACT Alliance, coordinates response for groups including Hungarian Interchurch Aid, Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. Of the nearly 6 million refugees in Europe, more than 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine have registered for temporary protection, ACT Alliance said in its most recent report.

Smith, who spends much of her time in Moldova just south of Ukraine, said 70 churches with the Transcarpathian Reformed Church in Ukraine “have been responding to refugees with great courage. All their pastors have remained, and all are engaged in housing people, feeding people, getting people to the border and carrying on ministry.”

The Sant’Egidio director says “it doesn’t matter what church they belong to. We do ministry together for marginalized people,” especially the Roma people, Smith said, adding Sant’Egidio also ministers to elderly people and those without homes.

“The elderly are often abandoned by their children or never had children. The [Sant’Egidio] community has befriended them, taken them on excursions and cared for them. They’ve set up four refugee centers,” Smith said, despite the situation getting “worse and worse.”

International Orthodox Christian Charities is rehabbing a former vacation camp to house special-needs adults, she said. It’s also started a women’s empowering project to help women develop micro businesses.

Smith has found herself traveling throughout Eastern Europe for the past 18 months, including Poland, which has taken in millions of displaced Ukrainians.

“After World War II, Ukrainians massacred Poles, and yet [the Poles] have welcomed them with open arms,” Smith said. “They house people in their homes,” even though “it’s a bit of a risk. The churches in Poland have found ways to welcome people and get resources into Ukraine.”

In January, Smith worked with the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren in the Czech Republic. “Prague was full, so [Czech Brethren] went to the smaller places,” she said. She learned that Ukrainian children are attending Czech schools without speaking the language. “You get layers of issues, but I was deeply impressed with the Czech Brethren,” Smith said. “A woman invited refugees to be tour guides, so one day a month they didn’t feel like refugees.”

Ellen Smith is World Mission’s regional liaison for Central and Eastern Europe.

Two weeks before Synod School, Smith was in Budapest, Hungary, to attend the Ukraine Future Conference initiated by the Reformed Church in Hungary in cooperation with the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia (Ukraine).

“In addition to condemning the violence, the consultation acted as a unique forum, gathering diverse perspectives to generate a productive discussion on the churches’ role in pursuing peacebuilding efforts in Ukraine,” according to a release following the two-day conference.

The first panel outlined ongoing ecumenical efforts throughout Europe toward just peace and reconciliation, she said. The second panel included voices from the Middle East and South Korea, “highlighting valuable insights into how a Christian vision for just peace should guide us even during war and crisis,” the release stated. “Presenters from the Middle East reminded us that the path to reconciliation demands we respect the dignity of all human beings.”

In the third section, panelists from various churches in Ukraine discussed the obstacles to dialogue and peacebuilding within Ukraine. “Participants emphasized the need to listen to the experiences and expectations of the people of Ukraine, knowing that reconciliation cannot be imposed from the outside,” according to the release.

Participants prayed together with churches in Ukraine for the future of the country, then had the opportunity to visit western Ukraine. They worshiped together with the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia and learned about its ministry in response to the outbreak of the war.

Church organizations involved in the conference included the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe and the Conference of European Churches.

In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, the Hope Center had been built for people without housing in that community. It was dedicated in February 2022, a week before the Russian invasion. Refugees “flooded into Vilnius,” Smith said, and the homeless shelter was quickly converted into a refugee center.

A Christian college in Vilnius now has a student body that’s one-third Ukrainians. It also has students from Russia and Belarus. “They are working with their students on healing from trauma,” Smith said. “They are not planting seeds for reconciliation — they are just preparing the soil.”

There’s trauma as well in Moldova, Smith’s home base and one of the poorest countries in Europe. “There is trauma there, too, and yet the Ukrainians came because it’s close to Odesa,” Smith said. One project seeks to distribute chickens widely. “People laugh because it’s chickens, but they are culturally appropriate,” Smith said. “When the war ends, they can take them back as chickens or as dinner.”

Smith speaks Russian, but she hasn’t spoken it much since the war began. “It’s the language of the aggressor, and I try more and more not to use it,” she said. “I watch the news, but I have to be careful how much time I spend watching it … What I worry about the most is the anger and the hatred [among Ukrainians]. In a country filled with rage and hatred, peacemaking is so far away. Our partners are saying, ‘We need to start thinking about this.’”

Many Russian people are also traumatized, Smith said — and they’re mostly silent about their trauma.

“I understand the silence. I have seen what happens when they protest in the streets,” she said. “They are praying, the Ukrainians are praying and I hope you’re praying too. It’s heartbreaking.”

“What we can do is lament, because we can’t fix the situation,” Smith said. “I hope to get back to Ukraine and Belarus, where we have partners caught up in a vicious situation. It’s a very difficult part of the world.”

“We are grateful we can gather to talk about a place the breaks our hearts,” Smith prayed to close the one-hour session. “May we hold Ukraine in prayer, and the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers in Russia in prayer. May we remember to prepare good soil all around us, so we might plant good seeds when the time is right.”

Contribute to international refugee programs supported by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance here.

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