Refugees from Ukraine find comfort, community in Romania

By Emily Sollie

“SAVA REMEMBERS,” SAYS KATERYNA, a mother of three. She fled her hometown of Kharkiv with her husband and children in the first days of the war. “We were hoping maybe he wouldn’t. But he told me just the other day that he remembers.”

Sava, 4, remembers the bombs. He remembers his father’s tight grip on his small body as he carried him downstairs into the basement for safety. He remembers how the sky lit up above them as they ran.

Kateryna’s family is safe now. They have been at Wolkendorf Home since April 7. It has also helped that Kateryna no longer gets news alerts about the war on her phone.

“He was very scared,” she says of Sava, her youngest son. “Every time he would hear the alert go off on my phone, he would panic. So I deleted them.” Wolkendorf, a guest house near the town of Vulcan, Romania, is run by an ELCA partner—the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania (ECACR). House manager Daniela Turcu says the 32 refugees staying at Wolkendorf have built a community here. Although they come from different parts of Ukraine, and none of them knew each other before they arrived, they have created an ad-hoc family—one that has been brought together by devastating circumstance. That sense of community also extends to their neighborhood, as the children from Ukraine enjoy playing with other kids in the neighborhood, even though they don’t speak the same language.

Kateryna feels safe here, but adds, “My thoughts stay in Ukraine.” She worries about friends and family who stayed behind. She wants to be able to go home.

“I’m an accountant, and my husband is a business owner,” Katernya says. “But his business…” Her voice trails off. “I can show you,” she adds, searching for something on her phone. After a pause, she holds out her phone and plays a video of buildings reduced to embers after a Russian attack.

“We just want peace,” she says.

Women and children comprise the vast majority—approximately 90 percent—of the more than 7 million refugees who have poured into Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Most men between the ages of 18 and 60 were required to remain in Ukraine, anticipating that they would be called upon to fight. As mothers and children continue to find safety and shelter in neighboring countries, they face a new set of challenges: finding jobs, educating their children, and trying to create a sense of normalcy for their families.

On a small playground at a Lutheran guesthouse in Cisnadiaora, Romania, Ukrainian children run, slide, swing and laugh. They are among 20 refugees living here at Elimheim House. Fittingly, this guesthouse ministry is named after Elim, a desert oasis where according to Scripture, the Israelites rested after escaping Egypt (Exodus 15:27).

Pastor Bettina Kenst heads up the programming for Elimheim House. She began her job in February 2022. Previously, she served for 17 years in a parish setting.

“My first guests here in the house were the Ukrainian refugees,” she says. “They don’t know how long it will take until they can go back home, and this uncertainty … it’s preoccupying them, their soul[s], their minds.”

The ECACR decided early in the war to use the two houses exclusively for hosting refugees. Instead of earning income from hosting tourists and conferences, they have chosen to welcome neighbors in need. In addition to meeting the refugees’ basic needs for food and shelter, Pastor Kenst tries to find ways to minister to the guests’ spiritual and psychosocial needs.

This can be seen in the halls of Elimheim, which are decorated with paintings the mothers and children made during an art therapy session. Each week, a psychologist comes to the house to offer group and individual counseling. Other efforts to help guests adjust include language lessons and social outings. For example, a group from the house attended a Baroque concert at a local church and enjoyed refreshments afterward in the church courtyard.

Like the guests at Wolkendorf, those at Elimheim have also bonded with one another. Nataliya left her hometown of Kherson after it fell to the Russians, leaving behind her sister and her housebound mother. It was a difficult decision, she says, but first, she needed to ensure the safety of her 6-year-old son Tymofii. Second, she had been working remotely as a translator, but when the Russian forces cut off Internet access, she lost her ability to earn a living. She was able to leave under the protection of a Red Cross convoy, making her way to Elimheim based on the advice of a friend.

“I was surprised that the Romanian people are so friendly and open. Wherever I go, mostly what I see are smiles,” she says. “I understand that they care. I can see it in their eyes.”

She has become close friends with another mom, Elena, who came to Elimheim with her parents and her two children, 7-year-old Kateryna and 4-year-old Dmytro. The five of them fled Kiev as soon as the bombing began.

Elena talks and texts daily with her husband, who stayed behind. Just before the war broke out, Elena says, her family had just begun construction on their dream house. She hopes they will have the opportunity to return home and live in the house they designed. In the meantime, she says, it is comforting to live in the company of other Ukrainians. She helps in the kitchen at Elimheim, and recently took great joy in preparing a Ukrainian meal for her fellow guests, giving them a taste of home.

Elena’s children participated in a summer camp hosted by the ECACR, she says. So that her children would not be alone and unable to communicate during that week, Elena worked in the camp kitchen. Her children enjoyed the experience, despite the language barrier, she says.

The church’s ministry with refugees from Ukraine has made a difference for Nataliya too. With regular Internet access here, Nataliya was able to keep her translation job. While she is working, she appreciates that other guests at Elimheim can help look after Tymofii. Due to Internet and phone connection issues, she has been able to speak with her mother and sister only once since leaving Kherson. Yet Nataliya remains hopeful. She has seen how Ukrainians have come together in crisis.

“We will win,” she says confidently. “That’s not a hope. I know for sure.”

Asked if she has any prayer requests, Nataylia offers a Christ-like response: “I know people are praying for us. I would also like to pray for the Russians, for those who are ordinary people,” she says. “Please pray for them, to give them understanding, to open their eyes and their minds, and [that] if they can do something, [they will] please do [it]

Emily Sollie is a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant. She lives with her husband and 4-year-old son, and is a member of Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington D.C.

This article  appears in the November/December 2022 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather