How a Russian immigrant came to serve Ukrainian refugees
HOUSTON — On a blue-sky afternoon in this diverse Texas…
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Don’t expect to see Vladimir Putin here anytime soon.
The Russian president has a standing invitation to visit this coastal city on the North Sea, known for its sandy beaches, museum-lined streets and the International Criminal Court. In March, the multinational tribunal issued an arrest warrant for Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, accusing them of forcibly taking Ukrainian youths from their homeland.
But four months after the warrant, only refugees from Putin’s war with Ukraine can be found in “Den Haag,” as it’s called in Dutch. Among them are two families living in the meeting place of a Church of Christ.
“We like to think we are here preparing a place for him,” Sasha Nikolaienko said, wryly, when asked about the Russian leader. On a sun-drenched Monday morning, he welcomed church members from across the Netherlands and Belgium to his temporary home. The Christians gathered at the yellow brick church building to sing, eat and play games on a national holiday celebrating “Pinksteren,” Pentecost.
Nikolaienko, who once lived in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, and his wife, Nastia, left their homeland with their two young children shortly after the fighting began on Feb. 24 last year.
When asked if he planned to return to Ukraine, he answered, “It’s hard to say. At one point we wanted to say yes.” But after more than a year of war, he’s not as sure.
His time in The Hague hasn’t been a prison sentence. He serves as a youth minister for the church and organizes games and camps for refugee children, teaching them the Bible.
“I’m here doing what I can do,” Nikolaienko said. “I have to settle.”
As the Netherlands celebrated a day 2,000-plus years ago when people of many nations became the first Christian church, the Ukrainian Christian joined a multinational, multiethnic mix of believers from his home country, from Western Europe, from Africa — even from Russia — to praise God.
In the auditorium, minister Luk Brazle from Ghent, Belgium, led hymns in Flemish and Dutch, including “Jij Bent de Heilige” (“You Are the Holy One”). Brazle’s son, Gideon, read verses from Acts 2 about the birth of the church at Pentecost, when fiery tongues descended on Jesus’ disciples and gave them the ability to be understood by a multinational audience — regardless of language.
Then Artyom Kirilenko stood up to lead “Trust and Obey” in English. Although not fluent in the language, he flowed easily through John H. Sammis’ 1887 hymn.
@christianchronicle Artyom, a Ukrainian who survived the seige of Mariupol, leads the classic 1887 hymn “Trust and Obey” in English during a celebration of Pentecost at the Gemeente von Christus Den Haag (Church of Christ in The Hague). Christians from the Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa participated. #TheHague #netherlands🇳🇱 #belgium🇧🇪 #ukraine🇺🇦 #mariupol #ukrainianrefugees #churchofchrist #gemeentevanchristus #denhaag #warinukraine #pentecost #pinksteren ♬ original sound – The Christian Chronicle
“Not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross, but is blest if we trust and obey.”
Grief and loss are no strangers to Kirilenko, who once worshiped with a Church of Christ in Mariupol, Ukraine. He first spoke to The Christian Chronicle during a singing festival in Irpin, near the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in 2015. Even then his city was under attack by pro-Russian separatists.
After war broke out last year, he and his family endured night after night of bombs and explosions as Russian forces laid siege to Mariupol. Between bouts of gunfire, Kirilenko scavenged for food. He dreamed about tasting bread. Finally, an evacuation corridor opened, and the family headed west.
His wife and son crossed the border into the European Union while he stayed in Ukraine to join Volunteer Brothers, a group of Christians who shuttled supplies to towns near the front lines of the war and ferried back women and children. In May 2022 the Chronicle caught up with him in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where he talked about his newfound sense of mission.
Eventually, however, the tearful phone calls from his wife became too much, Kirilenko said. He resolved to join her. Ukrainian border guards weren’t allowing men of military age to leave, so getting out meant a painful return journey to Mariupol, now occupied by the Russians.
He traded out his cell phone and deleted photos from social media. After he crossed the battle lines, Russian soldiers directed him to what he called a “filtration camp.” The Russians fingerprinted him and searched his phone before putting him on a bus to Russia. Slowly, he made his way north and crossed into the Baltic nations.
“Because of God, I am here,” he said in Russian as Nikolaienko translated.
The Hague Church of Christ, recovering in attendance after the pandemic, converted classrooms into kitchens and added showers. It’s strained the humble congregation’s utility bills, said Ruben Brugman, one of six men who preach for the church. But members have sacrificed to support their guests. And now the Ukrainians are contributing. Kirilenko has found work as a mechanic, similar to what he did in Mariupol. In his spare time, he studies English and song leading.
“When I was evacuating, going through Russia, I felt God’s hand,” Kirilenko said. The words of another English hymn, “He Leadeth Me,” ran through his mind as he received aid from Christians “in every country — in Lithuania, Poland, everywhere.”
As the Pentecost celebration continued, the Christians read more verses from Acts 2, describing the way the early believers shared possessions and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
After lunch, they competed in a Bible quiz written by Martin Cerneus, a member of the Haarlem Church of Christ in the Netherlands.
Benázir Chotia and her teammates pored over their Bibles as they searched for the names of Old Testament patriarchs and churches named in the Book of Revelation. Chotia moved to the Netherlands a few months ago from South Africa, where she worshiped with the Bellville Church of Christ in Cape Town.
“I thought I would have to rely on livestream,” she said. But instead of watching her home congregation online, she worships with the small Church of Christ in Maastricht, Netherlands.
“It’s real intimate,” she said, adding that she loves seeing the same faces every Sunday.
Nearby, Evgeny Voronkin also was on a search for answers.
He moved to Europe from Tomsk, Russia, about 14 years ago. He and his wife, Tatiana, worship with the Haarlem congregation. They organize volleyball games and table tennis matches for the Ukrainian refugees in their community. Tatiana Voronkin teaches them Dutch.
Nikolaienko said that he and his fellow Ukrainians are thankful to the church members who have sheltered and supported them during these difficult days.
“Today, not supporting the war is not enough. The Ukrainian people and each of us pay too high of a price.”
Many of his fellow Christians, including Russians, have voiced opposition to the war. But “today, not supporting the war is not enough,” he added. “The Ukrainian people and each of us pay too high of a price.
“We have not heard words of support from our brothers and sisters (in Russia) for a year and a half and have not seen concrete actions. As the Russians are silent, not fighting against the regime in their country, worrying about their homes and families, our people are dying every day from their missiles.”
After more hymns, updates from the various churches and a closing prayer, the believers hugged and made their way to their cars.
As he watched them depart, Artyom Kirilenko stood on the church steps as his son, Nazar, kicked a soccer ball down the sidewalk.
He doesn’t know if he’ll ever return to Mariupol. As long as Putin is there — and not here — he plans to stay put.
For now, he said, The Hague is home.
As Nazar ran by, a reporter called after him, “How old are you, young man?”
“Zeven!” he yelled back.
That’s 7 — in Dutch.
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