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Ukraine’s refugees share stories of loss, hope, new life

Refugees from the bloody conflict in east Ukraine speak about their journeys and the Church of Christ that serves them

KIEV, Ukraine — They’re not refugees. 

To members of the Vinograder Church of Christ in Ukraine’s capital, the people who inhabit the former school buildings and public offices in their neighborhood are friends with stories of loss, survival and hope in the midst of adversity.

A few of them have become brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hearing their stories is an important part of ministering to souls from war-torn eastern Ukraine, said Marina Noyes, a member of the Vinograder church. Recently, Noyes translated as a small group of easterners who spoke with The Christian Chronicle.
‘CHILDREN MISS THEIR GRANDMOTHERS’
“We had a wonderful life,” said Lena Reshetnyak, who lived with her family in the town of Kirovsk. 
Lena Reshetnyak (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Then “the so-called ‘defenders’ came to so-called ‘protect’ us,” she said. Those “defenders” were members of pro-Russian militias who clashed with Ukrainian soldiers. 

Eight months pregnant with their second child, Reshetnyak and her husband left for Kiev so that their oldest daughter could have life-saving heart surgery. 

By then, the banks in Kirovsk had closed and the mail had stopped. After the surgery and the birth of their second daughter, the couple made the painful decision to stay in Kiev.

“Of course, we want a corner of our own,” Reshetnyak said. “But now, over there, it’s impossible.”

The couple’s parents refuse to leave. In phone calls they describe the situation as “horrible, horrible,” she said. “They tell us not to come back because there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Meanwhile, “the children are missing their grandmothers,” Reshetnyak said. And the grandmothers haven’t gotten to hold their newest granddaughter.

Members of the Vinograder church have helped, she added, by playing with the children.

“Whatever is needed, they are always ready to help,” she said.

Lena Reshetnyak and her family live in a former social services facility in Kiev, Ukraine. They share the space with other families who fled eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
HERE ‘WE ARE JUST A NORMAL FAMILY’
Anya declined to give her last name, for security reasons. She’s a Muslim of Russian descent and her husband is an Arab. 

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Unlike the refugees she lives with in a former social services office, she’s from Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine annexed by Russia months prior to the uprising in the east.

The couple and their children lived among the Tatar people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Crimea. The Tatars’ distrust of Russia dates back to the Soviet Union, when Joseph Stalin had their entire population of 180,000 deported to central Asia. Almost half died of hunger, and the Tatars weren’t allowed to return to Crimea until the 1990s.  

After the Russians took Crimea in February 2014, soldiers began interrogating Anya and her husband, asking if they had ties to terrorist groups. After a few unsuccessful attempts to leave, they finally reached Kiev.

In Crimea, they felt like there were watched constantly, Anya said. But “in Ukraine, we are just a normal family. No one has ever touched us.”

Church members visit them almost every other day, Anya said, and are ready to help when there’s any sickness or need. 

“They are very noble people with pure hearts,” she said. 

Jim Noyes, a minister for the Vinograder Church of Christ, talks to refugees who live in a former social services building in Kiev, Ukraine. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
WORSHIP WITH NO DISTRACTIONS
Years before the Ukrainian conflict, Maxim Dotsenko was fighting battles. 

“I used to be a drug addict, on and off of drugs,” said Dotsenko, a factory worker in Luhansk. He once robbed a drunken police officer because “I needed a dose.”

Finally, in a rehab center, “I came to the understanding that I should not live only for myself,” he said. His father was a believer in Christ, so Maxim Dotsenko prayed for healing.

Sophia Dotsenko, age 5, is in need of treatment in Germany. (PHOTO PROVIDED)
He watched the militants in his city become louder, more aggressive, breaking windows and decrying the Ukrainian government. Criminals and drug addicts — people like the man he once was — began taking over, he said. He opposed them and they threatened to kill him. 

He feared for his wife, Olga, and their daughter, Sophia, born with multiple health issues, including deafness and blindness. They fled to Kiev.

“All the way we heard shooting and shelling,” he said.

Here, members of the church have assisted the family.

“I like the fellowship here. There are no distractions,” Maxim Dotsenko said of the Vinograder congregation. “I like worship. I like that there is no loud music. I do not like that, in some (churches), people put others down. We don’t have that here.”

He was baptized and is studying at the Ukrainian Bible Institute, a ministry training school that recently relocated from Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, to Kiev.

Now he prays again for healing — for his daughter, who suffers from seizures. Only a hospital in Germany offers surgery and therapy that can help Sophia, but the price tag is tens of thousands of Euros. 

Sitting next to his wife after Sunday worship, Maxim Dotsenko said that he also prays for her. She has not yet made the decision to be baptized.

With a smile, Olga Dotsenko replied, “I am coming, I am coming, little by little.”

After Sunday worship and a fellowship meal at the Vinograder Church of Christ, Maxim Dotsenko talks about his journey from eastern Ukraine and his baptism in Kiev. His wife, Olga, listens. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
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