Churches near Ukraine's border shelter refugees as 1 million flee Russian invasion
Churches in countries neighboring Ukraine have opened their doors to shelter and aid refugees as the United Nations refugee agency estimated Thursday that 1 million people have fled the Eastern European nation since the beginning of Russia's invasion last week.
"In just seven days, 1 million people have fled Ukraine, uprooted by this senseless war," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement. "I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one."
Russia began its invasion last Thursday, targeting military installations in Kyiv and other major cities nationwide. Reports have indicated that the Russian military has also targeted areas with civilian populations, and hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed.
Many of the displaced have fled to neighboring countries such as Poland, Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary, while many more remain in Ukraine.
Grandi said people are fleeing the violence "hour by hour" and "minute by minute" as "countless" people have also been displaced internally inside Ukraine. The U.N. official warned that "millions more are likely to be forced to flee" unless the conflict reaches an "immediate end."
Churches in neighboring countries are among community centers and camps sheltering refugees who've fled from the violence, with some seeing hundreds of Ukrainians coming and going in recent days.
As Poland has taken the brunt of the Ukrainian refugees, one church that has served as many as 400 refugees is a Baptist church in Chelm. According to the Baptist Federation of Europe, the church is "filled with life" as it has pushed its pews out of the way to make room for beds.
"It is not tension that you feel as you enter the building but life, peace and joy," a statement from the federation reads. "Children laugh and play while mothers prepare for onward journeys. The church piano plays a variety of tunes, none of the hymns, as the children practice their piano lessons."
"Pews are in the pulpit and beds fill the sanctuary, the balcony and every available space," the statement adds. "Ukrainian and Polish families work side by side, making food, receiving donations and cleaning the toilets. The laundry vibrates as the three new washing machines continue their endless 24-hour cycle. The supply rooms are full of children excitedly selecting new clothes and discovering new toys that have been donated."
The church's kitchen has supplied soup, snacks and hot meals for the refugees arriving while packing lunches for the refugees that depart. The church receives help from local hotels that provide clean linen for the beds.
The Polish Baptist Union hopes to house as many as 1,000 refugees.
According to the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, Polish Baptists have established 40 shelter camps. The PBU provides the camps with bedding items, food and hygiene items, while Send Relief, IMB's relief arm, provides funds to assist in the relief efforts.
First Baptist Church of Gdasnk, Poland, will host one of the refugee centers, according to IMB missionary Ken Brownd.
"It's just cool to see Polish Baptists stepping up and taking care of their neighbors. They've done that for a long time now, but this is a different level," Brownd was quoted as saying in an IMB report. "Our team is trying to organize the Send Relief help … but really, this is mostly driven by Polish Baptists, so we're not the main players in this at all. We're helpers, and so it's amazing."
A church in Poland about an hour from the border affiliated with the Shoreline Church in Austin, Texas, has put beds "in every possible place they can put one." Shoreline Church has raised over $110,000 to support the refugees through its Caleb Foundation.
"Your generosity is astounding, thank you for being the church in the world. It is imperative that we continue to pray and fight in the spirit," the church told its members in a Facebook post.
Shoreline Pastor Rob Koke has preached in Kyiv numerous times. Koke told KXAN the church he and his wife, Laura, started 15 years ago in Czestochowa, Poland, has taken in over 100 refugees. Koke said that the church's members have brought food to the border and brought refugees back to their church.
"They were freezing cold and standing for five days," Laura Koke told the news outlet about the refugees. "They were hungry. One little boy said, 'I don't have a home.' One of the church members said, 'this is your home' it's so touching."
In Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Methodists are providing shelter to refugees in a former hotel that has been rented out and turned into a community center, according to United Methodist Church in Romania Superintendent the Rev. Rares Calugar.
"The UMC has built a network in Cluj-Napoca and has access to numerous apartments and houses where those leaving the community center can stay to make room for new arrivals," Calugar told UMC's official news agency UM News.
Church members have also traveled to the border to help refugees as they cross the border.
UMC churches in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland have also provided shelter to refugees. In Slovakia, Pastor Svetlana Komives Francisti from a UMC church in Michalovce transported six African students who fled while studying in Kyiv to her church for shelter until they can reunite with families or other students, according to UM News.
Experts say the invasion is the most significant attack by a European country on another since World War II. World leaders have called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to put an end to the war, and the global community has issued targeted sanctions to cut off Russia from western financing and technology.
Earlier this week, the United Nations reported that at least 227 civilians had been killed in Ukraine and over 525 injured.
A European Union executive warned Sunday that as many as 4 million Ukrainians could flee the country and as many as 7 million could be displaced internally by the conflict.
"Inside Ukraine, our staff — and other humanitarians — are working where and when they can in frightening conditions. Our staff stay, even at great risk, because we know the needs in the country are huge," Grandi said.
"Despite the extraordinary pace and challenges, the response from governments and local communities in receiving these 1 million refugees has been remarkable. UNHCR staff have already moved in throughout the region and are scaling up our protection and assistance programs for refugees, in support of host governments."
U.S.-based Christian disaster relief organizations such as World Help and Samaritan's Purse, as well as American churches, have also sprung into action to help those displaced by the war.
Samaritan's Purse, which evangelist Franklin Graham heads, has deployed members of its Disaster Assistance Response Team to surrounding countries to help meet the needs of Ukrainian refugees.
Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, has sent a team of volunteers and its senior pastor to Poland to provide care and shelter to orphaned refugees from Ukraine, arriving on Thursday morning. Another team is expected to leave in two weeks, according to the church.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden accused Russia of targeting civilians but said it's too early to tell if Russia had committed war crimes. However, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson told members of Parliament Wednesday that Putin should be investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, citing attacks against civilians in Ukraine.
The second round of negotiations between the two countries began on Thursday in Belarus. Ukraine said both sides had agreed to create humanitarian corridors through ceasefires that would allow civilians to evacuate and aid to be delivered.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told Reuters that ceasefires will exist only in areas where the "humanitarian corridors themselves will be located."
"[I]t will be possible to cease fire for the duration of the evacuation," he was quoted as saying.