As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, the task of feeding, caring for, and sheltering more than 1.5 million people fleeing the country becomes more and more daunting.
Which is why Gateway Christian Life Pastor Shaun Romano and parishioner Chris Reid of Trail travelled to Poland on March 16 in a humanitarian effort to help those impacted by the war and forced from their homes, while providing assistance for those who remain.
The pair returned early last month, yet their humanitarian cause continues.
“The experience was emotional, not only because of my personal connection with Ukrainians and their families over the last 16 years but listening to the stories of individuals who had made the escape at the start of the war into Poland,” said Romano. “At times it felt that we were only a small drop in a bucket, doing very little to help alleviate a massive problem.”
Reid and Romano joined volunteers from multiple organizations and churches from across Europe and North America as part of the Mission Partner International effort.
Romano has made more than a dozen trips to the Ukraine through Gateway, the first one to Crimea in 1999, but says this one to Krakow was especially difficult.
“Mind boggling,” said Romano. “Listening to the stories of my friends whose families and friends couldn’t make it out in time, or to know that nowhere in Ukraine is safe.
“On the last Sunday we were in Poland there was a missile strike in L’viv where many of my friends and their families have escaped to.”
For Reid, a FortisBC worker, this was his first humanitarian mission in Eastern Europe.
“I had no idea what to expect,” said Reid. “I had never been to Poland, it was a completely blank slate for me.”
The Slavic Mission is located in central Krakow and is well known to Ukrainian immigrants. The mission director is from Eastern Ukraine and had moved to Poland six years earlier.
“His life was in danger, so he moved his family to Poland and founded this church,” Reid explained. “He felt strongly that his reasoning for doing so became clear when this war came up.”
With the onset of the Russian invasion, the director transformed the church into a shipping and receiving depot, and the rooms above the church into a hostel.
A steady stream of people fleeing Ukraine use the mission hostel which houses up to 80 individuals, and also offers food, clothing, medication, bedding, and other supplies.
Reid recalls unloading boxes and boxes of diapers as many fleeing Ukraine were young mothers with babies and toddlers, whose husbands remained in Ukraine to fight.
Four different organizations cooperated in the effort including Gateway, The Tab (a Lethbridge church), Mission Partners International and Life Water Canada.
“Each organization was able to bring funding,” said Romano. “Overall, we were able to purchase food, medicine, water as well as get funds into Ukraine and the occupied territory.”
Through their coordinated efforts the groups raised $44,500 USD. Life Water Canada also secured 4,000 Life Straws that have now been shipped into Ukraine through the Slavic Mission. The straws are used to purify water in seconds, and are in demand in areas where the infrastructure has been devastated by Russian bombs.
Local business, Ferraro Foods and their distributors, also shipped 22 pallets of Italian food from Italy into Krakow and from there into L’viv about 300 km away.
The Trail men worked into the evening in the shipping and receiving area, as donated supplies rolled in unabated.
Outgoing supplies were also common, as a network of volunteers set up transport resources and shuttled people from active fighting zones throughout Ukraine.
Language was often a barrier, but the pair had access to a translator, Alexa, whom they originally planned to meet prior to the Russian invasion in her hometown of Mariupol for a father/daughter exchange.
Alexa’s own experience in Mariupol was devastating. She was forced to leave the city after her family home and her own apartment had been obliterated by Russian missiles, leaving her newly-wed husband and father behind.
“She didn’t know whether they were dead or had been taken to Russia like many others from that city,” said Romano. “She said that her grandpa had chosen to stay behind, when the other family members left, because he had thought that Russia was going to bring some stability to the region and that it wasn’t going to be as bad as it was being portrayed.”
Even members of Alexa’s family who live in Russia believed that Ukraine’s version of the invasion was propaganda.
“They wouldn’t even believe personal videos or pictures,” said Romano.
Ukrainian officials have described the detention camps in Mariupol as facilities where Russian forces detain captured citizens before sending them to remote Russian locations, which President Volodymyr Zelensky compared to Nazi concentration camps.
After three weeks of silence, Alexa heard from her grandparents and that they were able to escape and travel over many days to western Ukraine.
“She showed us video of them with her dad and husband. It was an emotional experience,” said Romano. “She let us know that her grandpa had his worldview shaken after being trapped in shelters for weeks and having the city bombed beyond recognition, yet, her other family members in Russia had still not changed their views.”
Yet, amid the unthinkable came the unexpected, and at times reason for hope.
Reid met up with a cousin from Norway whom he had never met, until he arrived in Krakow with a bus loaded with supplies two days after Reid arrived. His plan: to bring Ukraine citizens back to Norway, where they would be provided with housing, funds, food and health care, in addition to employment and language skills training.
The men met disenfranchised students who continued their studies online undeterred, a lawyer who processed visas and immigration papers, while searching for available living quarters and delivering food to dispossessed families.
Many who fled Ukraine volunteered and worked tirelessly at the mission. Meanwhile, the Trail men helped others look for careers in Germany, or pursue possible employment with the UK or NATO.
Reid also brought his well-used tenor sax along and practiced on the balcony of his hostel room, earning applause and giving respite to nearby listeners. But his personal highlight — performing with the Mission choir at Sunday Service.
“They were singing in Russian, but it’s church music that I’ve heard in English, so thankfully I knew much of the music,” said Reid. “It’s all universal to me, if I know what key you’re playing in, I’m just going to play my saxophone along with it.”
The experience made them more aware of the difficulty people have processing the politicized terms and actions that have been heard over and over again.
“The term refugee means something completely different for me now,” said Reid. “The term doesn’t apply anymore, these are our friends neighbours, colleagues, coworkers, they are people.
“I can’t think of them as refugees because I saw a person, someone I cared about, and that is what changed for me. Refugee is a political entity, but these are people and they need our help.”
So far Putin’s invasion is one of complete destruction, a war of attrition which Russia may indeed win, but claim nothing but devastation and death.
When asked how he helped those who endure such atrocities preserve their faith in God and humanity, Pastor Romano replied: “Sometimes all we could do was to weep and mourn with people. We could serve them and love them, but words fell short. It wasn’t the place for cliche answers.”
While the war rages on, both Romano and Reid continue their commitment to helping the people of Ukraine.
“We spent time meeting with different leaders and people at the mission to build trust and partnerships for supply lines once back in Canada,” said Romano.
Reid also has contacts in the U.S. that will help send non-lethal equipment like body armour and night-vision goggles to Ukraine soldiers.
Residents can lend support locally by contacting the Trail and Rossland Rotaries, or go to Gateway and make donations through Mission Partners International. The funds will be forwarded to their partners in Ukraine and Poland where they will be put into action to help those who have suffered and endured.
“We can trust these guys, we know that the aid is going to the people that need it most in Poland and the Ukraine,” added Romano. “So we have that connection now where it is secure.”
Gateway is planning another trip to Poland next year, and possibly Ukraine depending on the war.
In addition, anyone interested in hearing their story is welcome to join the Trail Rotary on Wednesday, May 18 in the VISAC Gallery at noon.
For more info go to www.gatewayclc.com.