Natalya (40)

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‘You should know that I’m from the town of Avdiivka and that I have witnessed the most tragic time in the Eastern Ukrainian conflict.’

Our city was targeted with bullets and rockets. Electricity, communications and water supplies were cut. Jobs disappeared. There was a food shortage. So people fled – an exodus from the city. But as you can imagine, not everybody could leave. The elderly, the poor… they weren’t able to leave and for some it was simply too difficult to say goodbye. A church in town offered help to those people, and my husband and I felt it was the right thing to stay behind and work alongside the church. We believe in God. We felt like God was encouraging us to do that.

Eventually people started ringing our doorbell at night and asked if they could spend the night. ‘We know that your God will protect you’, they would say, ‘and if I stay under your roof, that will keep me safe.’

I believe that God wants to care for people directly, not through us necessarily. I lost my older sister at a young age; she left a baby behind, so I know that a Christian is faced with adversity and grief just like anyone else. I would tell visitors this, but they insisted on staying with us. And so we opened our doors. We worked during the day and received visitors at night.

One day in the winter of 2015 I suddenly heard gunfire. Very close! I ran outside to see what was happening and to see if my cell phone signal was working, so I could find out what was going on. I held my phone in the air. No signal.

Above me I saw a large object whizzing through the sky toward the city. I turned to run inside. Before I reached the door I felt a blow. It was a mortar that landed in our neighborhood. More mortars came. The loudest explosions you’ve ever heard, everywhere around us.

My husband, our two sons and I tried to find cover in our apartment. The clamor grew closer and louder – until night fell. We were lying in the hall. Our kids on the bottom, me on top of them, my husband on top of me, and a blanket covering us.

It was January, pitch dark and freezing. There was no electricity. We didn’t think we were going to make it through the night. We asked each other forgiveness for things. My youngest son wept. He shivered and had diarrhea. My oldest son recited Psalm 23:

‘Even though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’

It still moves me to repeat that aloud. At one point it felt as if someone grabbed hold of our apartment building and shook it violently. I realized a rocket had hit our structure. There was an elderly couple living on our floor. My husband tried to reach them to help them to the basement so they wouldn’t suffocate from the smoke or a gas leak. He managed to do it.

While he was away I let the children grab their warmest clothes and some water. We also climbed down into the basement. But my husband wanted to go outside to help neighbors who might be trapped. I prayed through the night, fearing for his life. Morning came and my husband returned. He had a thermos of hot tea for us!

We had 15 minutes to collect our clothes and documents while my husband went and got the car. As our youngest son was climbing into the car and my husband was locking our house, a mortar hit the school building adjacent to our apartment. It was our boys’ school.

I screamed: ‘We need to get back into the basement!’ But my husband yelled that we needed to leave now.

Our ride out of the city was like something out of a movie. All around us buildings were on fire, explosions everywhere. Sometimes we were bent over on account of bullets flying around us. Avdiivka was ablaze.

I don’t know how this sounds to someone else’s ears, but we felt like God was using that awful night to bring our family to a new place, where – in hindsight – where we could have more impact.

We found temporary shelter in Myrnograd. We finally felt safe, but we ran into tremendous problems. Ukraine has a 1.5 million homegrown refugee civilians at present. In Myrnograd there were many displaced people and hardly any facilities. So homelessness, unemployment, food shortages and clothing shortages were rampant. There was no school for the kids, there was no water, no electricity. All this translated into hopelessness and apathy.

One day I was standing in line for a Red Cross food package, when the woman in front of me turned around and wondered out loud: ‘Can’t we, as refugees, take some initiative ourselves?’ I couldn’t agree with her more, and the next day she and I met up with four other mothers at a playground.

As our children played, we discussed our plan: We would set up a refugee collective and write to aid organizations with one voice, calling attention to our problems and mobilizing help. That same day we started a Facebook group where refugees could sign up. The response was overwhelming. On behalf of this collective we wrote letters to all the organizations we could find and told them of our predicament.

While my husband travelled back and forth to Avdiivka to assist the aid work of the church, the five other mothers and I represented 2,000 refugees. And help arrived. Our efforts even led to a position for me with Dorcas Aid International.

Now I help families get their life back on track. My first task was to select 100 families for an aid program. I remember spreading out all the letters on the floor, reading one heart-rending story after another, and just sitting there, crying. ‘God, You must give me wisdom. I don’t want to mess up these choices.’

Our life has a normal rhythm now. But we’re not building anything. We’re living in a vacuum, waiting to be able to go home. All we can do is try to use our time effectively while we wait.

I feel like this is the place God gave us at this point as a family. I remember the first time my husband went back to Avdiivka to offer help in the same area where we had come under fire. I was so scared. So scared. We couldn’t use our phones, I could only wait and hope that he would return. I prayed for him.

I opened my Bible. And there I read what was said to queen Esther when she risked her life for the sake of her people: “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?"

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