By Rick Wolcott*
Twenty minutes. That’s all the time Olga Loiko had. One bag. That’s all she could take. In what seemed like both an eternity – and a blink of an eye – a widowed mother of two young boys had to make impossible decisions.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Loiko and her sons left their homeland. They weren’t alone. More than seven million Ukrainians became refugees seeking new starts in countries around the world – the most refugees from a single event since World War II.
Imagine leaving behind your army chaplain husband – not knowing if you will ever see him again – so that he could serve your country, the country you are fleeing to keep your children safe. That’s what Natalia Glotova had to do.
There is no playbook in the race for freedom. Just pray and go.
Oleg and Valentyna Tiurkin packed one bag of personal belongings, got in their car, and drove for 48 hours with virtually no sleep, stopping only for fuel at deserted gas stations as they headed for the Romanian border.
Eight people fleeing their beloved homeland – not sure if they will ever return – and knowing if they do that it will never be the same. Eight strangers at once separating from biological family but about to become an extended family in a new land.
Lorain County, Ohio – Home Away from Home
All three refugee families have found temporary homes in Lorain County, Ohio thanks to the generosity of the ownership, staff, and residents of Wesleyan Senior Living – and support offered by East Ohio Conference United Methodist churches and several Lorain County organizations.
Tammy Bertrand, director of the Wesleyan Senior Living Foundation, explains how that came to be.
“Rev. Bill McFadden, a retired United Methodist pastor who is a resident and also a member of the Wesleyan Senior Living Foundation, is a member of the local group LC4Ukraine, which stands for Lorain County for Ukraine. He told me, ‘there are people and families from Ukraine fleeing the country and coming to Lorain, but they can’t do anything for them until they have a place to live.’ We talked to our ownership, and they allowed us to use an empty apartment here at Wesleyan Village and a patio home, which is a little bit bigger than an apartment, here, and also a patio home at Wesleyan Meadows,” Bertrand said. “We also have a partnership with Good Knights of Lorain County, which builds beds for children who don’t have them, and they came in within 24 hours of being called and built the beds and gave us the mattresses, the sheets, and the pillows and pillowcases we needed for the kids.”
LaPorte UMC (Firelands District) in Elyria and Avon UMC (Firelands District) also responded to McFadden’s request to help and are each supporting Ukrainian families now living in Lorain County – more than 5,000 miles from Ukraine.
LaPorte is assisting Oleg and Valentyna, who are being housed in the Wesleyan Village apartment.
“We often talk about making disciples for Christ and think it means ‘out there somewhere.’ However, this time we are reaching those that have found their way into our own community. We will continue to support our Ukrainian family as long as they need our help,” said LaPorte UMC pastor the Rev. William Baker.
The congregation of Avon UMC is housing and supporting another family who fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion: Victor Ordin, his wife Kateryna, their two sons, and Victor’s mother Luibov.
“We have committed to sponsoring the family for about six months to a year. Each family is different, just like here in the U.S. and we are planning on assisting them to get on their feet and become self-supportive,” said the Rev. Micah Holland, pastor of Avon UMC. “We are meeting their needs right now, which means helping out with everything from taking them to the grocery store, to helping them with the government paperwork. A team of six people has stepped up to be the primary contacts for the family and they have been great at transporting them to where they need to go. A lot of people and organizations have been extremely helpful in the wider Lorain County to assist with this process.”
And what a process it is. The proud families are learning to accept help, relying on the kindness of strangers who don’t speak their language. Congregations and organizations that are welcoming the strangers among them have to be careful how much they assist so they don’t jeopardize the Ukrainian families’ ability to stay in the U.S.
“It’s been a difficult adjustment for us and for the families because with the visas they got from the U.S. government they’re not allowed to work, so someone has to take care of them but none of them want that, they all want to go back to doing what they were doing in Ukraine,” Bertrand stated. “We’ve been working a lot with El Centro and Catholic Charities getting legal help with getting them work permits, getting them food stamps, and assistance because they won’t be able to live here forever, and they don’t want to.”
East Ohio Conference Executive Director of Connectional Ministries the Rev. Ed Fashbaugh offered, “I am saddened, that once again, people are displaced from their homeland by the madness of war. Even so, my heart is filled with joy for the compassion and love so generously showed by those who welcome these displaced persons in Christ’s name.”
The Kobyakova Family
The first refugee family to live at Wesleyan would be the Kobyakovas. Residents were excited to help the family of five start a new life in the States.
“We met with the residents before the families moved in and they were all very generous and onboard with driving them places and we had people sign up to help them with things like taking them to the grocery store and doctors’ appointments, haircuts, and stuff like that. So, it’s been a real group effort by everybody here,” Bertrand shared.
“We were expecting to house the families for a year but the first family that was here after just two months was offered a four-bedroom house with a yard in Amherst and they quickly took it because they have three boys ages four to 18. The house was a former rectory for a church that is no longer a church. They don’t live here anymore but we keep in touch because all the Ukrainian families that are here are intertwined with each other through church,” she continued.
Hiding in Basements and Freezing in Tent Cities: The Path Traveled by Olga Loiko and Her Sons
Bertrand has become very close with the new Ukrainian residents of Wesleyan Senior Living and has helped to chronicle their stories to share with their communities of support. Here she speaks about the life of Olga Loiko:
“Olga was raised in Turnopil, Ukraine. After graduating from college, she got married in her early 20’s. Six months later the couple learned that Olga’s new husband had a brain tumor. He was treated and the cancer went into remission but two years later it returned. Sadly, he passed away and Olga was widowed with two young sons.
“She had a good job at a realty company and supported her family. They had a good life until the Russians invaded their country. As the city was bombed, the women and children were hiding out in the basement of the apartment complex where they lived. The pastor from the church came to the basement and told everyone they had 20 minutes to get to the bus outside and they could only take one bag. She had to leave her elderly mother and father behind to get her boys to safety. She had to leave everything she had worked for behind, grab her children and go. The three-day bus ride to Poland was terrifying as they passed burned-out homes, buildings, and cars, and saw bodies lining the streets. They finished the final miles on foot. Once they got to Poland they joined thousands of other refugees in a tent city, spending six weeks there in freezing temperatures because the world was not prepared to take in so many refugees at one time.
“Once she was given a spot to go to Sacramento, CA to live with a host named Vita, a Ukrainian who had come to America many years before. She was the perfect person to be Olga’s friend because they speak the same language and Vita could guide her on her next steps. Unfortunately, affordable housing options are very limited in California so assistance through LC4Ukraine became her best option to come to the United States. Olga and her sons now live in a patio home at Wesleyan Village.”
Forced to Leave Her Husband Behind: Natalia Glotova Shares Her Family’s Story in Her Own Words
“I hope you are doing well. I also hope this message will not upset you but inspire. This is its purpose.
“A few months ago, our lives were turned upside down. Someone says that it turned 360-degrees, but I would say no because 360-degrees is something real, something that can be imagined. But in Ukraine, things happened that were impossible to imagine even in the worst nightmare. An enemy has not come to our land, but an evil that has neither honor nor soul.
“Like millions of other Ukrainians, we had to leave our home. Fleeing from the war, we ended up here. It was hard to get through but, to be honest, it’s far from easy right now. My husband and my family members are still there now … under a sky filled with deadly rockets and bombs.
“Last fall, my husband and I planted junipers and arborvitae on our site. The trees weren’t tall yet, but I was so glad to have them. I imagined what they would be like when they grew up. For now, I don’t know what the point was. What was the meaning of everything we did, created, and planned for? When all your efforts are left there and can be destroyed at any moment.
“However, what I know for sure is that God brought me here with my children. I arrived first through LC4Ukraine in Lorain County and ended up here in Sheffield Village. Before leaving, I knew very little, only that there is some kind of organization of volunteers who want to help Ukrainians. I could not imagine that I would receive so much help and support, both material and moral. Today, I want to thank all the kind people who are involved in this help. All caring and wonderful people with big hearts. Those with whom I am already close and those with whom I have not yet met. I want you to know that your care is incredibly important. Your help has been invaluable for us. You bring light and fight evil in your own way. I thank God and pray for you. May God bless you and your families.”
Bertrand reports that Natalia’s son and daughter and Olga’s sons are enrolled together at Westwood Middle School in the Elyria City School District, where the school could get a translator to help them all at one place.
“Before school started, I went over to Elyria High School and bought them a bunch of spirit wear so that when classes began, they could blend in with the other students,” she shared.
A Two-Day Race for the Border – and Freedom: The Story of Oleg and Valentyna Tiurkin
“We are from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which is now totally destroyed,” Oleg shares.
“Before the war, we lived a happy life in our beloved city and did not think that one day we would have to leave it. In Ukraine, Valentyna worked as a manager in a chain of stores. She managed five stores, recruited staff, worked with documents, concluded lease agreements, and so on. She also worked in the field of media marketing. She created photos and videos for online advertising for local businesses. I am a videographer. I was engaged in all types of video filming: advertising, wedding, image, and others. I was one of the best in the business in a city of over 500,000 people. We had happy life, love it very much and had many plans for it!
“On the very first day of the war, we left our home. We were very scared and didn’t know where to go. For the first two days we just drove west. In those days, Russia attacked all the big cities, and we could not feel safe anywhere. We just moved west and prayed that God would spare our lives and lead us to a place where we would feel safe. We drove for two days with almost no sleep. Until we stopped in a small Ukrainian town on the border with Romania. We stayed there for three weeks. We watched what was happening with our Mariupol and gradually realized that we had nowhere to return. In a matter of days, our city turned into ruins. Meanwhile, people continued to leave Mariupol and other hotspots, finding it increasingly difficult to find a place to stay. The entire western part of Ukraine was filled with refugees from the east.
Photos provided by Oleg Tiurkin.
“Then we decided to move on. We had acquaintances in Germany who could take us for a short time, and we went to them. We spent three weeks in Germany. There we rested a little from the state of constant danger and were able to gather our thoughts. At the same time, we learned that the United States was letting in refugees from Ukraine.”
Bertrand reports that LaPorte UMC is caring for Valentyna and Oleg but because they didn’t have a place to house them, the couple is living at Wesleyan Village in Elyria.
“They are enrolled in English classes through Lorain County Community College (LCCC), which provided them with Chromebooks so they can take their classes virtually,” said Erin George, a member of LaPorte UMC and part of the care team ministering to and with Valentyna and Oleg.
She adds to the couple’s story sharing that Oleg, who hopes to get a driver’s license in the United States, took front line photos during the Ukraine war in 2014 and even had a photo published in The New York Times.
“Mission work at a church-run orphanage brought these two together, and they are hopeful that their faith and missions will help them along their journey in America,” George said.
Speaking Hardly Any English Three Generations of One Family Flee to America: The Ordin Family
LC4Ukraine connected Avon UMC with the Ordin family: Victor, his wife Kateryna, their two sons, and Victor’s mother Luibov. Lorain County is the agency sponsoring the family and the church is serving as its host in the United States, renting them an apartment, furnishing it with donated items, and utilizing food pantries and clothing shelters to assist them in purchasing what they need to start over in the United States.
“Given the challenging circumstances this family has been through and the needs they have, it is hard for just one family or a group of families to support a refugee family. As a church, we are utilizing our faith community to support them. As a church, we can leverage our gifts and numbers to ease this process. I believe this endeavor not only falls into the Matthew 25 command of Jesus, but also helps us be an example to the wider community. This is one, direct and obvious way for us to be the light of Christ,” said the Rev. Micah Holland.
“For me as a pastor, this ministry was a no-brainer. Of course, we should help out a refugee family running from war. Yes, we have given out a lot of time and money, but this is what Jesus calls us to. And I have already seen a renewed energy in the congregation through our efforts to assist this family,” he added. “The Ordin family has attended our church every week that they have been here, and they have brought energy to our church. They chose to worship with us and are not only worshipping with us but giving back by doing yard maintenance at our church. They wanted to give back because we have been able to give them so much. Their service to us brings dignity and we honor this the best we can.”
East Ohio Conference Connectional Ministries Office Missions & Community Engagement Director the Rev. Kathy Dickriede is encouraged by the love and grace shown by churches and organizations eager to help those in need.
“I am excited that the work that began at Wesleyan Meadows and Wesleyan Village has inspired others to connect and partner in meaningful ways. This is a time and an opportunity for the Church to be the Church to have faith with feet on and to welcome people with radical hospitality,” she said.
“It can also wake us up to the reality of housing insecurity that exists in all our communities. Housing has been the biggest challenge, affordable and safe housing for these newcomers. The reality is that affordable and safe housing is a challenge for our neighbors who already live in or are houseless in our communities,” Dickriede continued “Reaching out to Ukrainian refugees can also make us aware of other refugees in our communities who need our help, folks from the Congo and Afghanistan who have been in need of our radical hospitality and are waiting for more faith communities to be informed and inspired to be the church with the hands and feet and heart of Jesus in the world.”
*Rick Wolcott is executive director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.