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Julia, right, holds her son Mark as she visits with Ukrainian refugee Aleksandra Hmyria and daughter Milana at the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston.
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Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

How a Russian immigrant came to serve Ukrainian refugees

A Houston church develops a thriving outreach to families fleeing the war.

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HOUSTON — On a blue-sky afternoon in this diverse Texas metropolis, about 50 Ukrainian refugees enjoy pizza, cupcakes and fellowship at the Memorial Church of Christ.

All of the families seem to know Julia, a friendly woman with an engaging smile, a long blond braid that trails over her shoulder and a yellow T-shirt with the word “faith” scripted in the shape of a cross.

A 36-year-old mother of three young boys, Julia is a Russian immigrant who works full time as a nurse practitioner. A devoted Christian since giving her life to Jesus a decade ago, she didn’t set out to start a thriving ministry to those fleeing the war.

Julia, a Russian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2013, makes a point during a Bible class at the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston.

Julia, a Russian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2013, makes a point during a Bible class at the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston.

The outreach developed suddenly — and providentially, church leaders believe — after Memorial preaching minister David Duncan asked Julia to study the Bible with Russian refugee Aleksei Kozhevnikov and his wife, Milana.

“God placed Aleksei in a community where all the Ukrainians live,” Julia said of the Russian, who left his home country after speaking out against the war. 

Baptized at the Jersey Village Church of Christ in Houston earlier this year, Kozhevnikov welcomed the opportunity to delve deeper into the Scriptures in Russian.

Julia helped him learn more about the Bible.

And she jumped into action when Kozhevnikov mentioned that neighbors — Ukrainian refugees in his apartment building — needed furniture.

“I said, ‘I can find something,’” Julia recalled. “And that’s how it all started snowballing.”

A U.S. citizen since 2013, she asked to be identified only by her American first name because close relatives remain in Russia. She fears reprisal against them.

Duncan chuckles when describing how quickly the outreach by Julia and other Memorial members developed.

“The next thing I know, we have a full-fledged ministry to help Ukrainian refugees with furniture, food and Bible study,” he said.

Julia, right, holds her son Mark as she visits with Ukrainian refugee Oleksandra Hmyria. Also pictured are Hmyria's 3-year-old daughter, Milana, and her husband, Pavlo Hadzhviev.

Julia, right, holds her son Mark as she visits with Ukrainian refugee Aleksandra Hmyria. Also pictured are Hmyria’s husband, Pavlo Hadzhviev, and her almost 3-year-old daughter, Milana.

Caring on a personal level

Victoriia Sercuk, 44, escaped Ukraine with two of her sons, Vladyslav, 15, and Artem, 12. 

Tears well in Sercuk’s eyes — and she softly pats her own heart — as she reflects on the love and compassion displayed by Julia.


United Nations of Faith: Read all the stories in the series


“There are no issues in her mind. There are no issues she’s not able to resolve,” Sercuk said, speaking through an interpreter.

Victoriia Sercuk, 44, with two of her sons, Vladyslav, 15, and Artem, 12.

Victoriia Sercuk, 44, with two of her sons, Vladyslav, 15, and Artem, 12.

“She made a resume for me,” explained the refugee, who worked as a counselor for orphans in Kyiv. “She goes to job place with me. She brought some things, some groceries. She signed children up for medical purposes. I know that she is a person who will always help.”

While a resettlement program has provided a free apartment, Sercuk said, the charity has not related to her distraught family on an individual level.

“With Julia and this church,” Sercuk said, “there is a feeling that somebody cares for you personally.”

Aleksandra Hmyria, 35, who relocated to Houston with her husband, Pavlo Hadzhviev, and daughter, Milana, almost 3, echoed that sentiment.

“We are very pleased that Americans are so open to us and that they are ready to help without taking anything back, with no strings attached,” said Hmyria, who hopes to start a bakery. 

Yana Peremetna was excited to find a Ukrainian children’s Bible at the church’s recent event, which featured a bounce house and water games for the kids.

Peremetna said her 7-year-old daughter, Miia, lacks reading materials in her native language.

“So this was a nice surprise,” she said of the Bible provided by the Eastern European Mission.

Yana Peremetna was excited to find a Ukrainian children’s Bible for her 7-year-old daughter, Miia.

Yana Peremetna was excited to find a Ukrainian children’s Bible for her 7-year-old daughter, Miia.

Marina Noyes, a Ukrainian, served with her missionary husband, Jim, an American, in Ukraine’s capital before the war. They helped plant the Vinograder Church of Christ about 20 years ago. The couple happened to be in Houston for cancer treatments for Jim, and Marina served as a Ukrainian translator for The Christian Chronicle.

“I just thank the Lord,” Jim Noyes said of Memorial’s ministry to refugees. His cancer is in remission.

Kozhevnikov, the Russian refugee, said he identifies closely with the Ukrainian refugees because he — like them — must start life from scratch in a new country.

“Most of the people understand that war is just politics, so don’t transfer it to personal,” said Kozhevnikov, who has a background as a statistician. “We all need moral and spiritual support.

“We are so grateful to the church members for helping us,” he stressed. “But sometimes we feel so discouraged because it’s a different country, a different language, and we cannot use our diploma here.” 

Terry Montgomery, a Memorial church elder who had made several mission trips to Ukraine, talks to Marina Noyes and Oleksandra Hmyria.

Terry Montgomery, a Memorial church elder who has made several mission trips to Ukraine, talks to Marina Noyes and Aleksandra Hmyria.

A diverse city and church

Most of the 800 souls who gather for worship at Memorial each week trace their roots to the Republic of Texas, the preacher jokes. 

Memorial preaching minister David Duncan wears a shirt celebrating the 2022 World Series champion Houston Astros.

Memorial preaching minister David Duncan wears a shirt celebrating the 2022 World Series champion Houston Astros.

But in the pews on a typical Sunday, nearly 30 other native countries are represented — from Nigeria to Japan to Venezuela.

While the church remains predominantly White, its leaders aim to reflect the diversity of Houston. In the city of 2.3 million, roughly three out of 10 residents are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census.

In his 17 years in Space City, Duncan has cultivated racial unity efforts with sister congregations such as the predominantly Hispanic Hidden Valley Church of Christ and the predominantly Black Fifth Ward Church of Christ (the home congregation of DeMeco Ryans, head coach of the NFL’s Texans).

“If we’re going to be in Houston, which is considered the most diverse city in the United States, we should look like our city,” said Duncan, who speaks English and Portuguese after spending a decade as a missionary to Brazil.


Related: War in Ukraine: Links to The Christian Chronicle’s coverage


Just off Interstate 10, the Memorial church building is about 12 miles west of downtown Houston. Duncan likes to take new staff members and interns to the nearby Memorial City Mall and let them witness the diversity up close.

“We sit and eat in the mall,” he said. “And we say, ‘Look at these people. This is our community.’”

Ukrainian and Russian refugees meet for Bible class at the Memorial church.

Ukrainian and Russian refugees meet for Bible class at the Memorial church.

Physical — and spiritual — needs

During the Sunday school hour at Memorial, adults study the Bible in English, Chinese, Spanish — and now Russian.

About 40 Ukrainian refugees and a few Russians attend the class taught by Julia’s husband, Robert Merchant, a Memorial deacon. She translates his English words into Russian — a language understood by most of the Ukrainians.

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Julia, a Russian immigrant, reads from Luke 6 in a Bible study at the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston. #Ukraine #Russia #refugees #churchesofchrist #christiantiktok

♬ original sound – The Christian Chronicle

The church has two Sunday morning worship assemblies. Julia attends the first service with her family, including her sons Luke, 6; David, 3; and Mark, 1½. Then in the second assembly, she uses Zoom to translate Duncan’s English sermon into Russian for the refugees, who listen via earphones.

Julia said she feels a calling to share the hope that she received through Jesus.

“I never hide anything about my past,” she said. “I lived a very sinful life before I was baptized. … And I felt so dirty. I really needed to be saved.”

She praises God for her fellow Christians who help shuttle the refugees to worship and regular food distributions organized by the Impact Houston Church of Christ, an inner-city congregation known for serving the needy.

Refugees, including new Christian Aleksei Kozhevnikov, second from left, pray during a Russian-speaking Bible class at the Memorial church.

Refugees, including new Christian Aleksei Kozhevnikov and his wife, Milana, at far left, pray during a Russian-speaking Bible class at the Memorial church.

Julia prays that the refugees’ new physical life in America might lead, too, to a new spiritual life.

“This is like, ‘We’re helping you temporarily with worldly treasures,’” she said. “‘Let’s talk about what God can give you, like actual real treasures.’”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

“This is like, ‘We’re helping you temporarily with worldly treasures. Let’s talk about what God can give you, like actual real treasures.’”


How to help

Donations to help the refugee ministry may be made on the Memorial church’s website. Choose the benevolence fund, and add a note marking the contribution for Ukrainian outreach.

Julia helps a little boy who has a bleeding nose after a minor mishap at the church outreach event.

Julia helps a little boy who has a bleeding nose after a minor mishap at the church outreach event.

Filed under: Features Houston Impact Houston Church of Christ International Memorial Church of Christ National People refugees Russia Russian refugees Top Stories Ukraine Ukrainian refugees War in Ukraine

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