between the border and the sea: some notes from Gdynia

By John Donegan

The Christ For Nations School rises suddenly on a weekday. Water is boiled and vegetables are chopped. Plates are stacked at the end of a long table. Silverware is rolled cigarette tight in napkins. Out through the dining room windows that overlook Gdynia’s northeastern harbor to the batlic sea, woodsmoke bellows from homes and laymen drudge from their doors toward their cars. The doorbell rings, the first of many times each day. Otherwise, the morning is silent, save the sound of boiling water, the swish of a broom along the floor and a knife clapping down against the cutting board. 

Amidst the undulating hills of this neighborhood, it is called Falista, a quiet community of evangelists in the northern Polish port town of Gdynia have sent their staff home and welcome a tiny congregation from Bila Tserkva, a Ukrainian town ravaged by war.

Mykola Artemov, 34, and his family, Julia and their one-year-old son Mark, became refugees the moment they arrived at the airport and learned their return ticket had been voided. They were stuck in Egypt, after a week of vacation. Wearing board shorts and sandals, they watched the invasion from their hotel television and social media. Their airport was among the first locations to get bombed. 

“We didn’t know what to do, where to go, we basically knew nothing,” he said. “All the while, we received terrible news from home.”

The Artemovs are from Bila Tserkva, a town 50 miles south of the nation’s capital, Kyiv. Before the war, Mykola was a trader of building supplies and a local pastor. 

A week later, they were connected by a church friend to free flights to Budapest. From there, they began calling anyone and everyone they could. On a whim, they decided on Gdansk, Poland after looking at it on google maps. “Our whole story started with a screenshot,” Artemov said. They had no friends there, no connections. Being a religious man, Mykolai explained it as a moment of faith, a nudging by God. 

“My friend sent me a screenshot of a map of the city Gdansk,” Mykola said. “And I felt in myself a revelation that we needed to go to this city. Nothing special. But for me it was special.”

In the early morning of Feb. 24, after a formal recognizing of the separatists state of Donetsk, troops poured over the border. Russian planes and missile launchers shelled cities and airports. Within hours, Russian officials announced their intentions of liberation. In a statement to the press, President Biden said it was an invasion “without provocation, without justification, without necessity.”

An estimated 10 million people have fled into neighboring nations, nearly one million people evacuating Ukraine every week– the largest exodus since the end of World War II. 

Already, the flow of refugees from Ukraine is far greater than the number from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq who fled to Europe in 2015. Families are splintered across the globe, keeping in touch through video chat and prayers. Many have entered into a country unfamiliar to them, with a language they don’t speak and rules they now have to follow. 

“Since the start of the war, Ukraine has canceled all the flights,” Mykola said. “We couldn’t come back at all.”

Mykola and his family, six in total, arrived in Gdansk on March 3. Like many, the Artemovs arrived as they left: exhausted and confused, wondering at what point was their home stripped from them and whether they did the right thing in leaving it behind. He received word his business had since shut down, which left them short on money. 

Upon the promise of a local pastor, they left for Gdnyia, a northern Polish port city that faces the Baltic Sea, where they had found a place to stay. Being a pastor, Nykola kept tabs on his congregation. Despite shelling in and around Bila Tserkva, their church still stood. Those that stayed behind still attended, including the other pastor. When some of those that left needed a place, he sent the address, and said they were welcome in Gdynia. 

Sasha Koual, 24,  Evgemya Savkiv, 20, Polina Koshman, 22, and Katia Hrysiuk, 22, arrived at the Gdynia Train Station on Mar. 12. Unlike Artemov’s family, the four stayed in Ukraine for the first two weeks of the war, sheltering within Mykola’s home basement in Bila Tserkva.

“It was hard and it was scary, because we had lots of shellings, bombings,” Koual said. “But it was a nice basement, nicer than what most Ukranians have.”

The group planned their days by the hour, and never strayed too far from the shelter should the sirens begin to sound. Over time, the sirens became more frequent, and the shelling got closer. Then a hospital exploded less than a kilometer away. The shockwave from the blast shook the house.

“Once that happened, Mykola told us that we should seriously consider leaving,” Koual said. “But we didn’t see any sense in going to Western Ukraine- it wasn’t much safer.” 

They left on a Saturday. In their exit, they joined the more than 10 million Ukrainians who have fled their homes because of Russia’s invasion, leaving behind their church, their families and crossing hundreds of miles to find refuge with few vestiges- save what they could carry- of the lives they left. 

Within two days of their exit from Bila, Tserkva, the four made it to Warsaw.  “The road here was very easy for us, though it is not like that for most Ukrainians,” Koual said. “People spend up to three days to go abroad. We got across the border within an hour.” 

“Some of our friends we contacted said they all stayed on average 24 hours,” Savkiv said. “We just happened to be some of the first people at the border that morning, not early but like 9 a.m., and within a half hour, maybe 20 minutes, we saw behind us a long queue. It was a miracle.”

“I don’t like to tell this story to other Ukrainians who came here,” Koual added. “It is hard to listen to their stories when for us it was very easy.” 

But they didn’t stay long in Warsaw. Warsaw, a city of about 1.6 million people, is now hosting more than 300,000 Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are sleeping in hastily set up welcome centers. Much like many of the major cities in Poland and Germany, the city has suffered from overcrowding, with limited resources to provide incoming refugees. 

“(Ukranians) are staying in big cities because they believe it will be easier for them to find jobs or a place to stay,” Savkiv said. “It’s this mindset that a bigger city means more help and more opportunity but in Warsaw that is not the case.”

Koual said they first went to a site at an indoor stadium, which hosted thousands of refugees. “It was an awful place, we couldn’t stay,” Koual said. “One big room of people sleeping on mattresses- a true refugee camp.” 

“Before we sort of thought of the war as unreal, but when we saw this camp, we asked ourselves, ‘are we refugees?, are we running away from war?’” Savkiv said. We looked at this place and called a taxi and left.” 

They immediately left for the train station and rode to Gdansk that night. A friend of Josh’s arranged for them a place to stay that night. The next day, they arrived at the school.  

“At some point, of course, we all were worried about the next step,” Savkiv said. “We understand that God has prepared the next step and that everything will be good, but honestly, I was worried about what I was going to do next. Like, okay we have food and a place today, but what about tomorrow.”

“For some of us it was easy, but for me and (Savkiv), it wasn’t,” Koual said. “It was hysterical for us; we were crying because we didn’t want to leave. This situation felt and still feels like all your life had been stolen from you– you just lost control. Basically somebody just came and stole your life.”

By profession, Koual and Savkiv are English teachers, though all but Hrytsiuk speak fluent English and Ukrainian. Though the responsibility is often shared, Koual handles most of the translating for the group, something she accepts graciously as another challenge presented to her.

“Interpreting and speaking at the same time that somebody else speaks- sometimes I feel like my brain just turns off,” she said, laughing. “And I don’t know what I’m saying but I have to keep going.”

“I feel really bad sometimes when I mess up,” she added. “Because I know how to say it right but you don’t have time to think of what to say, you just have to keep going.”

Koual and her friends also came from the same congregation as Artemov. Before the war, they were roommates and volunteered together for the church’s worship team, mentoring teenagers. “The worst of being in that basement is that we had nothing to do,” Koual said, describing the decision she and many of her neighbors were forced to take. “We lost our jobs, our ministry, we lost everything just sitting in that house together.”

Currently, another family is staying in Mykola’s basement. Like many, each girl’s parents and grandparents remain in Ukraine. When I asked if they missed their families, they said it depends on the person. Koala said yes, but not necessarily because she is afraid of living away from them; she left home at 16 and has had time to adjust to living on her own. Instead, she said, it is the thought of never seeing them again that scares them. 

“It’s a hard decision,” Koual said. “I cried a lot when talking to my mom about it, because I really don’t know if I’ll see them ever again.”

“I finally convinced my mom and siblings to leave,” Savkiv said. “They were in Kyiv and didn’t want to leave, but they arrived in Ireland two days ago.” 

Her father and grandparents remain in Kyiv. “They can’t leave,” she added. “They are stuck there.”

The two groups reunited at the Christ for the Nations Bible School in Gdynia, a quaint port city four hours by train from Warsaw and docked on Poland’s north coast. It faces out at the Baltic sea and its Scandinavian neighbors. To the untrained eye, Gydnia breeds the essence of Poland. Meat and egg Kanapki for breakfast, instant coffee always brewing and meatloaf for dessert. 

Josh Cagle, the school’s director, said this new tradition began days after the Artemovs arrived and has continued to this day, a month later. The Ukranians group handles almost all the cooking and preparation with a silent complacency. “They adapted very quickly,” he said. “Part of that is a coping mechanism, but part of that is ‘we’re blessed and we’re going to bless,’ which is inspiring. I mean, these are individuals who do not want to take charity.”

At 11:00 a.m., every morning, the group, 14 in all, have breakfast together. Josh’s parents and fellow missionaries, Paul and Kathy Cagle, greet each student and often lead the morning prayer. 

With it being a difficult time, Cagle said it’s important to implement a system of normalcy. He gave examples as simple as leaving groceries in the fridge so people can cook their own meals, on their own schedules. “We don’t want to create a cafeteria style setting where they always feel like a guest,” he said. “We wanted to make sure no one feels forced to eat at the same time everyone else does.”

That said, the group eats at the same time, every night. 

The Cagle family, as well as the refugees staying with them, are almost all Pentecostal. They are very uncommon. According to Pew Research, the Cagles are among the 4.6% of the U.S. population that identifies as Pentecostal, 1.4% of the world’s religious population and hardly more common in Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Yet in Ukraine, they are almost twice as common, adding up to nearly 9% of the population. 

During this hour long session, everyone gathers around and takes a seat on the couch or a kitchen chair. The morning I attended, Monica, the sole student of the school, played the piano and Artemov took the guitar. They went through some basic hymns before Artemov sang a few words from his heart. Koual, of course, translates. 

“Maybe we are not the people in stories in books and magazines but we are here and have a special story,” Artemov said during the opening prayer.

“We all have lives that we must keep on leading, because our lives are journeys that not only we need, but other generations that come after will need to learn from our stories,” Koual translated. “Those are the (history) books that we can correct, by the things that we do. We don’t know what awaits us in the future, we don’t know what awaits the future generations, but God knows everything.”

And then they go their separate ways: Paul and Kathy, Josh’s parents, begin their lessons with Monica Fuqowska, their sole student this year. Some begin doing the dishes, another one mops. Mykola chops the wood. His mother-in-law plays with the kids.

“It’s hard to say exactly what we do here– we mostly help around the house and in the yard,” Artemov said. “But the time just flies by.”

Before the prayer time began, just after breakfast, Josh said his goodbyes and left. His day had just begun. 

Josh spends most of his day with his hands on his phone or on the steering wheel, making meetings, setting up a living situation for newcomers coming in, or providing them proper passage out of the country. “My thumbs hurt,” he said. “Thank God I’ve learned how to (speech to text). I’ve had to stop the car several times, just to type.” He is the first person the families meet and the main reason they have a place to stay. He was the one who eventually made contact with Nykolai and encouraged them to come to the school. He also connected with Koual’s group and all the others who eventually made their way there. 

The school, a 501-c nonprofit, has since COVID relied on donations to supply food and shelter to their guests. Normally, they take on 7-12 students who pay tuition. This year, they have one student and several empty beds. But as the students dwindled, so did the staff. Only one full time member remains at the school, though Cagle’s parents, also missionaries, both teach, stock the pantries and engage with the refugees during the day. 

Though from East Texas like his parents, Cagle has made a second home in Poland. He speaks Polish, is married to a Polish woman and enrolls his daughter in a Polish school. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Josh came to rescue and support refugees just like many other Poles. For many refugees entering into their circle, Josh is the first person they see, the first who assures them everything is going to be alright. And if he isn’t he arranges who does.  

“My mom and dad keep things going at the school while I’m constantly out,” Josh said. “They’re not going to quit until they kick the bucket.”

Cagle said he was unsure of the decision to let them in until he first met Mykola and his family at the train station. Cagle is a devout man, a missionary by trade, and believes that this was his calling. He believed it was his calling.

“I was asking what (Artemov) needed and he simply said he wanted to bless me. So that sounds very altruistic and beautiful, and I’m thankful, but it took me a while to get it out of him if he needed something. Because sometimes that’s church talk for ‘it’s hard for me to get this out.’ But in his case, he was not going to be a victim.”

Poland has been the main destination for those fleeing Ukraine, with 2.7 million people crossing its border since the start of the war. Most have subsequently headed for the largest cities, including the capital, which has seen its population rise 17% with the arrival of around 300,000 refugees. 

Whereas other parts of Poland have been hit with swathes of refugees, Cagle said that Gdynia has absorbed ukranians into the population with some ease. 

“This year we had space,” Paul said. “And most of them are coming in with little or nothing.”

“We heard there was a need,” Paul Cagle added. “And if you’re god’s people, and you have an opportunity, you take that opportunity.”

The European Union has also identified roughly 17 billion euros in funds for pandemic recovery and programs to promote social and economic cohesion that could be immediately spent on urgent needs, including housing, education, health care and child care. An E.U. proposal to address the current crisis would distribute more of those funds to countries hosting large numbers of refugees. Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia would receive 45 percent more funding than they would have gotten. Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Estonia — member states that have received the highest number of Ukrainians in proportion to their national populations — would get that increase as well. (integrate)

“I want to emphasize that the help we’ve received from other charity organizations and the government is little compared to what Josh and the Bible School have given us,” Artemov said. 

The Ukrainians here adapt to their new surroundings — whether in their country or elsewhere — while keeping an anxious eye on home. They sing along to every song and pray with a purpose. They partake in board games and never skip a meal or chore. But in the idle hours of the day, they sit around, eyes fixed on their phone. Some are reading the news. Some wait anxiously for a call. 

Since February, the EU has granted temporary protected status to Ukrainian nationals and certain legal permanent residents of Ukraine for up to one year. Most Ukrainians already had the right to travel without visas to European Union countries for 90 days, so the new measure extends to rights to live, work and attend school in the E.U. countries, without having to go through the official process of seeking asylum. 

And as the war continues with no end in sight, those that have sought refuge in other countries now face the reality that they may have to find a new home. Many have taken menial jobs, begun to learn a new language, or taken up long, brooding walks. For some, it has meant splintering their family across Europe, leaving their beloved behind to fight in Ukraine. For others, the transition has been relatively easy and somewhat emotionless.  

Lydia is a small, quiet woman with a tuft of gray hair and ocean blue eyes. While the rest like to sit and chat, she stays busy, cleaning the kitchen or prepping for the next meal. She also takes the water pail and thoroughly waters the seeds that border between the undulating backyard and the brick wall bordered, cement patio. She rarely is seen idle inside the school. 

Lydia is a nurse by trade. She worked at a children’s hospital before the war, and as of a few days, joined the emergency ward at a hospital downtown. She joins the 7:15 a.m. bus everyday, a mosaic of faces, staring out blankly through the foggy glass pane windows. She arrived here with her daughter and granddaughter on March 3. Unlike the others, her family comes from a Jewish Messianic church.  

To say Lydia is devout would be an understatement. Everything in her life is a product of God’s will. Her belief in god and her reliance on modern medicine at times blend and blur. When her son underwent surgery, the doctor said that “something guided his hands.” And like modern medicine, she believes that for every horror the world may face, there is a miracle lying in wait. 

Like many, she awoke to the bombs that rang in the war. But she didn’t flee. She stayed, and watched every day from her windows bombs fall on her community, some within a few hundred meters of her home. She noted how the smoke billows from the military base and airport a few kilometers away widened and blackened more each day. Neighbors fled the area, screenshotting photos of shattered windows and ravaged yards and telling her it is a sign they should leave. 

“I understood the war started, but I didn’t want to believe it, you know,” Lydia said. 

Like many, she reported to work that first day, at a nearby hospital, unsure of whether to carry on as usual or to shelter in place. On the way to the hospital, located near the Kiev city center, Lydia saw hordes of people clamoring in and out of grocery stores. For the days until they left, Lydia and her family lived by candlelight and talked in whispers. All the while, planes flew overhead and bullets whizzed by. They didn’t have a basement. When sirens sounded, they knelt on the bathroom floor. 

After two weeks, it became too much. So she left. Lydia stays here at the bible school with her daughter and granddaughter. Her husband and three sons, one of whom is 14, stayed behind to fight. Her four-year-old granddaughter has night terrors nearly every night. 

“After what we experienced in the war in Ukraine, here is like heaven,” Lydia said. “And we try to calm her down, try to tell her she’s in a safe place, but it doesn’t work,” Lydia said. “And my daughter is 30 with graying hair.”

Lydia said her husband and youngest son are part of the same platoon. Due to their age, they’re tasked with clearing mines and making fireside armaments, like molotov cocktails. They spend their days sweeping fields and roads for explosives. They call irregularly. On numerous occasions, she’s had trouble getting ahold of them. She often sits in the dining area on days that she’s off, hunched over and staring into her phone. 

“I worry a lot, I miss them a lot and I’m always praying,” Lydia said. “But he has to make decisions for himself. He had an opportunity to leave with us, but he wanted to stay home.”

Her other two sons work as transporters. They drive into the worst areas of Ukraine and shuttle people out. Lydia’s proud of them but worries constantly. One of them was in a motor accident in 2018 and suffered apparent brain damage. The other suffered a concussion from an explosion at a nearby military base in Zhytomyr. 

Their routes take them through war zones from Kharkiv to Lviv, the closest major city to the Polish border. They call Lydia when they can and tell her the things they see. The streets littered with bodies. The tank carcasses smoldering. The fog that frosts over the eyes of the dead. Lydia assured me it doesn’t deter them. And it doesn’t call into question her faith in God’s plan.   

“My sons say they are going to stick it (out) until the end,” Lydia said. “I think it’s their mission from god to do this.”

When the war ends, Lydia and her family want, like many families, to go back to Ukraine and rebuild.

“It’s hard when my family is spread across Europe like this,” Lydia said. “I don’t know if we will ever meet again. When you’re away from them for so long, you start valuing every moment you can spend together.”

For now, she continues to chop vegetables and sweep the floor. She makes it to her bus stop on time and is starting to learn Polish. 

She’s grateful to work in her field and earn some money, but was frank about the obstacles with the job. “I can understand Polish, but I can’t speak it,” she said. 

She continues to worry about her granddaughter’s nightmares. She continues to worry about her husband, her sons and their future. With the surge of Ukranians in the area, Lydia said there is a need for nurses who can speak the language. She likes to feel needed, to feel like she is serving a purpose. 

“People from around the world need to know the whole truth of what is happening in Ukraine,” Lydia said.

Ilja’s birthday was April 9. It was his 18th, the one that makes every boy a man. His passage was a surprise, held by the clergy of a church in Sopot, 10 km to the south. They gave him shampoo, a couple t-shirts and a toothbrush. 

“I forgot I actually had my birthday recently,” Ilja said, chuckling. “I guess I think the most important thing is that people pay attention to you. 

Ilja is a Ukrainian teen from a suburb just outside Kharkov.

He’s lanky, too tall for his body to fill in and a boyish cut atop his head. His nails are long, yet chipped, and his hands are calloused. His teeth are crooked, yet white and make for an undeveloped smile. He doesn’t smile often; when he does, it’s usually because he’s embarrassed. 

Before the war, Ilja worked in construction. Teens in Ukraine generally graduate high school by 16, but Ilja dropped out after 9th grade and went straight to college. He wanted to be a chef, but then his parents divorced. “My mom was broke, so I dropped out and started working,” Ilja said. “And I liked cooking and I like it now but I realized it wasn’t my thing.”

Ilja left Ukraine on March 5. He stayed in Lviv for two weeks, at a friend’s place. He agreed that he felt some pressure, at least at first, to stay behind and fight.  “My parents told me to do so because I was turning 18 soon and I wouldn’t be able to leave,” he said. 

“It was (also) difficult coming here since I didn’t know anybody and it was my first time abroad,” he added.

His initial days in Poland were not easy. Before arriving in Gdynia, Ilja stayed in different shelters across Krakow. He bounced from shelter to shelter and site to site, experiencing worker discrimination and bullying.

At one point, Ilja began working at a site in Rumia, a town about 7 miles Northwest of Gydnia. Many other Ukranians worked there, so it made sense. But after three days, he left. He said the foreman of the site refused to pay him. So Ilja took his assigned worker uniform with him. 

“He told us he couldn’t pay us any money for those days and that there was no more work,” Ilja said. “So I took the uniform from that place.” 

A baptist church in Rumia then hosted Ilja and several others from the site. That didn’t go well either.

“The four guys I stayed with didn’t treat me too well,” Ilja said. “They bullied me and provoked me into conflicts.”

Ilja said that the school here in Gdynia has been his favorite so far, but that doesn’t mean he’s warmed up to it. He is one of the more reserved ones of the group. He rarely speaks up during discussion and isn’t as openly religious as the others during prayer periods. And when he’s not at work, he usually stays in his room or goes out, claiming he is meeting up with friends, though no one has seen or met them. The only time he’s seen smiling is when plays ping pong, or when someone includes him in conversation. 

His room is barren. Four naked walls save a window and a rectangle pinboard with a sticker pinned, ‘In Jesus We Trust.’ His bed is fitted with sheets and blankets from storage. Most of his clothes are donated and a tad baggy. A new pair of Air Force One’s, a recent gift from passing missionaries, sit at the foot of his desk. 

He says his family comes from a conservative area and attends a conservative church. He distinguishes that he was born a Christian, but not necessarily a religious person. 

“It’s easy to say you believe in God, but when a difficult situation comes into your life, that’s the time where your faith is challenged and you can see where it is weak or strong,” Ilja said. 

He’s spent the past few days filling out employment paperwork. Ukrainians are required to fill out identification forms to open a bank account, qualify for insurance and stable work hours. “What I have right now is not a stable job,” Ilja said. “If they call me, then I can report to work.” Once he finishes the paperwork, he can look for a safer job. He currently repairs the sides of buildings, something his parents constantly express worry to him about over the phone. 

“And I’m not working officially right now, so there’s no insurance for the job,” Ilja said. “I just focus on getting the paperwork done, because no one is going to do it for me.”

Despite his age and distance from family, Ilja has adjusted quickly to Poland. He says he doesn’t miss anything about Ukraine except his parents. He never had too many friends and isn’t very sentimental about his home. 

“I’ll probably stay here in Poland for a while and get a job,” Ilja said. “If that doesn’t work out, I’ll just go to Germany. My sister is staying there.”

He worries about his mom, who is in Lviv and his dad, who stayed nearby Kharkiv. But he doesn’t feel too worried. 

“I don’t even feel like I’ve lost control of my life,” Ilja explained. “Because I wasn’t that attached to my life in Ukraine because of my family situation. I didn’t have anything to hold onto.”

Savkiv and (Paulina) continue to teach online classes to children, some of which are still in Ukraine. But since they’re paid in Hryvnias, the work is practically pro bono. Due to the circumstances, their school voided any grade system and requirement for attendance. Simply put, if you’re able to join, we’d love to have you. 

“Sometimes, I start the zoom and there are like no students because nobody could join,” Savkiv said. “One has sirens, another is on the way to a different place. Sometimes we have a lot of students, when it is a good time.”

Savkiv in particular teaches Science, but in English. So she has more flexibility in the topics chosen. She translates entire lesson plans into english. Since the war, she has changed her topics to practical ones, such as heating your home and how to mitigate garbage. “Something useful for life, something interesting,” Savkiv said. “It’s useful information, because we’re in a war, but something they need, they understand and they can talk about.”

“Okay, you’re thirty minutes late, we don’t care because it’s important that they have some part of their normal life that they can join and listen or talk about anything in general.”

Artemov and the others all keep constant contact with their church clergy, friends and family to stay updated on what’s happening. One or two people cried the first day. Spirits seemed high amongst the group until last week, when reports from Bucha first came out. 

That said, since many came here with so little, and the church can only provide so much, many are looking for work. The bible school covers almost everything, from food to diapers. But Artemov and his family came from a warm vacation in Egypt- they brought shorts and shirts to a cold Polish spring that sees temperatures drop below zero. 

“It’s not out of boredom,” Artemov explained. “We simply need the money.”

European Union member nations like Poland and Romania — the two neighboring countries to have received the most refugees from Ukraine — have launched programs to help them integrate. (Talk about IDs + rewrite)

Due to the language barrier, many are unable to work the occupation they had before. Instead, they find menial jobs cleaning cars and homes. 

“Some girls are (starting) to clean houses because it’s the easiest to find a job for,” Savkiv said. “You don’t need (polish) language, you don’t need a diploma, you don’t need anything.”

“You just go, clean the house, take the money, no commitment,” Koual said.

Most ride public buses, which is free for all Ukrainians. Many jobs offer free mobile sim cards. 

Whereas Ilja is content with either staying in Poland or joining his sister in Germany, Lydia yearns to return home, even if it’s not the same. “I’ll just let God decide my plans from here on,” Ilja said. “Because whenever I make plans, it doesn’t happen.”

“I don’t know if I would’ve been able to handle this if I wasn’t a believer,” Artemov said. “I feel this pressure, which comes from a lot of responsibilities and circumstances.” 

Each of the refugees interviewed noted faith as what keeps them grounded and helps them cope with otherwise senseless tragedy. 

“Maybe god brought us here for a reason, I don’t know,” Koual said. “When we were in Ukraine, we thought,’ okay, even if a rocket just falls into our house, we will die and go to heaven.’ What’s the matter with that? God warned us– it’s all in the bible.”

It’s buzzing inside the Pente Post, a church in southern eastern Gdynia. The drone of children echoes from the backroom. In the auditorium, pencils scribble across paper and instant coffee steeps in Styrofoam. 

Twice a week, here at church, Pastor Arek Rachwalski and his wife offer free Polish lessons to Ukrainians. The lessons run for two hours, Monday through Thursday, and cover necessary topics like grocery shopping, directions, and medicine. 

Cities in Poland, Moldova and Romania have been transformed, putting pressure on schools, housing, hospitals and government assistance programs. Many church leaders have stepped up to fill in the gaps. 

Reality is people want to go home but a lot of people are going to be displaced here for a while. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the infrastructure will not be there. Knowing the language helps with employment, grocery shopping, navigating around town and getting medicine. But also to feel like they fit in. Most of the women here will find work cleaning in homes, tending gardens or childcare.

The coursework is intense, indicative of an eastern European work ethic. Two week, four days a week, two hours a day. It’s an intensive course, though the lessons are practical, straightforward and cover subject matter that they will need in their day to day. 

“We saw this need when people started coming to Poland,” Rachwalski said. “People here are now looking for apartments and clothes. So we figured the next need for mothers would be polish lessons. With the language barrier here, they won’t be able to find (many) jobs without it.”

“They’re likely to be lost otherwise,” he added. “They need to learn how to communicate.”

Rachwalksi said he and the members of the church contacted local officials and requested funding for classes. But not because they don’t support them, they simply don’t have the powers in place to create quick legislation. Rachwalksi said enrollment at the school was at capacity almost immediately. They estimate another 100 people are waiting on the reserved list. 

“There’s a big need right now,” he said. “We need a bigger place. In two weeks, we’re going to rent it upstairs.”

They plan to buy the upstairs section of the building and renovate it into a second, larger auditorium. In there, they’ll be able to hold larger lessons and perhaps multiple programs. They also need teachers. 

Easter sunday: Green and white lilies and palms; Big hats and bonnets. This is a time of forgiveness and mercy. The pinnacle moment of God’s grace. Why Christians are Christians. Easter in Poland, and much of Eastern Europe, is the equivalent to Christmas in the United States. Yet its understanding of the teachings of Easter, of things like forgiveness are different from their western counterparts. 

“There’s a major difference here in the east,” Cagle said. “And I’m a pastor and I’m going to have a hard time with forgiveness right now, I can’t lie to you.”

Each person said it was hard to imagine forgiveness at a time like this. 

“It’s easier to forgive when it’s not personally touching you,” Savkiv said. “It’s easier for me to talk about forgiveness than people who have dead families, have been raped… honestly it’s hard to say anything.”

Artemov heads the weekly Friday service for Ukranians at the bible school. His Easter message has reflected their situation, what they’re going through- job insecurity, loss of control, families and friends that are still in Ukraine, the anxieties of watching their brethren fight for their freedom, at a distance. Some have seen the fighting from TV or phone videos sent to them; some, especially two teen siblings from Kharkiv, have seen the shelling firsthand. Artemov is unsure what his message will be for this coming Friday, their Good Friday. 

“I’m really bothered, because I don’t know what to say,” Artemov said. “Ukranians across the globe are going through a different situation. There are some who are safe and some who are under constant shelling. It’s hard to deliver one message to all these groups.”

“Logically, it’s impossible to forgive the people who’ve invaded your country,” he added. “There is no forgiveness we can give in this situation; only God can give you strength to do that.”

“In the context of Easter, we see Jesus’ example,” Artemov said. “He forgave those who crucified him. So this bitterness in me, it will only bother me and prevent me from leading a good life. So when you realize that you need freedom from this bitterness, it’s the first step to forgive somebody.”

Whereas Poland is largely catholic, Ukraine has a mixture of different religions. It has many Orthodox denominations, Evangelists, Greco Catholic and the largest Jewish population in continental Europe. 

“There are some protestant churches in Russia, who we’ve been friends with and they’re like, ‘it’s okay, we love you and we pray for you and peace,” Koual said. “That’s their position: we pray for peace. Yet, at the same time, there are Ukranians forced by soldiers to go to Russia. And those churches help them.” (VERIFY)

“In the bible, it says it’s okay to have hatred when the enemy comes into your country and kills your people,” Koual said. “I don’t think at this time it’s appropriate to say that I love Russians.” 

“It’s hard to imagine how (Russians) live in such an informational vacuum,” Savkiv said. 

“They definitely don’t care about people,” Koual said. “They don’t care about people in Ukraine and they don’t care about people in their own country.”

Koual pointed out videos of Russian soldiers reportedly amazed that Ukranians have simple things like athletic shoes and name brand clothes. 

“They say things like, ‘oh wow, they are so rich, oh they wear new balance shoes,’ and new balance is… nothing special about that,” Koual said. “‘Oh they have iphones,’ or ‘every house in the village has a laptop or computer.’ They are shocked by that, which means their conditions are way worse. So I feel sorry for these people, but that’s not a reason to come here.”

“I sometimes tell myself how I need to bless my enemy, but then you open the news and then you see Russians online saying how we all need to die,” Lydia said. “I don’t think it’s okay for anyone to say that.”

“My soul hurts when I see that, because that girl could’ve been me,” Koual said. “I could’ve been that girl that was raped. So how can I think about forgiveness right now.”

“I think we will forgive the Russians in the end,” Koual said. “A few years, maybe ten years will go by, but in the end, christians and nonchristians, we will forgive. But at this moment, it’s hard to talk about.”

“Because there is a difference between forgiveness and love,” Savkiv added. “Forgiveness is letting go of feeling like I want to kill all of those Russians and thinking they’re bad with a mindset of hateness towards them. I choose not to live with these feelings forever but to let go and continue living my life. Because above all, there is God.”

Cagle remembers having to explain rape and murder of a child when the reports from Bucha came on the Tuesday morning news and depicted the rape and murder of a three year old girl. 

“My daughter hears it and she starts crying,” Cagle said. “And I tell her those children are safe with Jesus, I mean what do you say– you say what you believe, right? Their suffering is over.”

“I really did not want my little girl to learn theology this way,” he added.

Lydia can remember when the USSR banned church. She can relive in her head the night authorities arrested her uncle over a bible found on his nightstand. To her, Russia is no more than a bully. 

“I was bullied a lot in school for being a believer,” Lydia said. “Some teachers encouraged the other kids to bully me. But I don’t have any bitterness against them.”

I need to love my enemies,” she added. “We have to follow Jesus’ example and understand that he has something better planned for us.”

Josh sees forgiveness as releasing the fate of the accused to the courts or to a higher power. “Don’t take vengeance into your own hands,” he added. “Situations like this make me really believe in law and a court system. When you hear the horrors of what’s going on, I want them to be tried first and then executed.”

“I think we as Americans have not had to experience these things since way back. The most recent experiences are those who experienced segregation or abuse– those are the cases we see. The lynching or murder, because of race. Those are the only things that come close to this. I don’t think that right now is the moment to ask about forgiveness. There’s just no room for that right now. ”

“There is no statute of limitations on murder,” Cagle said. “That’s why going after Nazis when they’re in their nineties is important. Because it has to be dealt with.”

One Ukranian woman approached Rachwalski about the Russian invasion. “She said she has a huge anger in her heart and I said, ‘You are totally entitled to it.’” he said. “Right now we are not even able to think about forgiveness. 

“One day we may be able to talk about forgiveness, one day god may heal those emotions,” he added. “But right now, I can’t tell anyone what to do or how to feel– their whole world just collapsed and it’s senseless.”

They announced, amid prayers for Ukraine, that they neared completion of an upstairs classroom.

But despite having a job, clothes and a place to stay, they know this isn’t their home. Their communities were ripped from them overnight. Only in moments of brief vulnerability, such as during their prayer time or when opening up about their feelings, do many of them describe a total loss of control. 

We are constantly thinking of what we should do next,’do we want to stay here for a longer time or move back home,’ and then we think about the things going on back home,” Artemov said. 

Like many men that have left Ukraine, a small part of Artemov wants to go back and defend his home. But once inside Ukraine, he  will not be allowed to leave. “I feel that pressure, but with another pastor there to look over things, I feel better,” he said. 

“He’s more worried about being in this unknown, not knowing what to do next and if he goes back to Ukraine, he will have to leave his family here,” Koual translated. “It’s a one-way ticket.”

Artemov said he keeps in regular contact with the alternate pastor back in Bila, Tserkva, who oversees his church back home. Apparently, despite some shelling in the area, the church is in good condition. Half of his congregation has either fled to western Ukraine or abroad. 

Resettling in a new country and building a new life are usually the last options most refugees want to consider, according to Wooksoo Kim, an associate professor of social work at the University at Buffalo who studies immigration and refugee resettlement.

Europe’s initial reaction to the flight from Ukraine has been an impressive show of solidarity, given how suddenly the crisis exploded. Refugees, most of whom are women and children, because most men are required to stay behind in Ukraine to fight, have been welcomed and housed even as their numbers swell. This doesn’t mean it has been easy for those making this transition. 

The scale of this crisis is staggering, and it is still in its early stages. In the city of Warsaw alone, an estimated $12.7 million has been spent to support incoming refugees, according to its mayor. A long term reality, where refugees become temporary citizens of their second nation, will demand a new level of coordination, imagination and money.

Since the start of the war, the National Bank of Ukraine has suspended the exchange of hryvnias into foreign cash, which protects the country’s foreign exchange reserves, but also limits European banks’ ability to convert the currency into dollars or euros. Swapping hryvnias for Euros means risking big financial losses. In short, their money is increasingly worthless.

Over time, resentment of Ukrainian refugees may grow. People who started off welcoming the refugees could turn against them, putting pressure on their governments to force Ukraine to end the war on Russia’s terms. Easing this pressure, by supporting the countries that are hosting refugees, makes this tactic of trying to weaponize refugees less effective.

“I guess we learned, through the spirit of war, that we don’t make plans beyond the next hour,” Savkiv jokes. “We make plans for 2-3 days ahead, maybe for the week, but not longer. At the beginning of the war, we made a plan for the next five minutes. Because within a minute, everything can change.”

At the end of my discussion with Artemov, I asked him what is the goal right now. “I don’t know,” he said, shrugging and glancing over to his son. “I wait. There is no goal right now.”

“So far, we stay here, we try to work or find part time work, because it’s hard to find full time work. But it depends on a lot of things. Maybe the war will end tomorrow. Maybe it will end in three years.”

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