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'Didn’t want to go’: Ukrainian mother who fled to the US raises thousands to help Ukraine

Ukraine
Local residents pass by a destroyed church which served as a military base for Russian soldiers on April 10, 2022, in Lukashivka village, Ukraine. The Russian retreat from Ukrainian towns and cities has revealed scores of civilian deaths and the full extent of devastation since the beginning of the Russian invasion. |

The lives of Ellina Lesnik and her three children have been turned upside down in the last month-and-a-half as they are now taking shelter in Tennessee amid the ongoing Russian invasion of their Ukrainian homeland.

As residents of the southern suburbs of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, they're separated from their husband and father, Sergey, who remains in Eastern Europe finding ways to help others as the war has driven over 10 million Ukrainians from their homes and thousands to an early grave.

In the early days of the invasion in February, it took the family 12 hours to travel from their home to the Polish border. They encountered a slow-moving, 5-mile-long line of vehicles filled with frightened families who were also trying to cross the border. After hearing that men could not leave with their families, the Lesniks took a six-hour journey to try their luck at the Romanian border, a less crowded border crossing.

When they reached the Romanian border, the line was much shorter, but Sergey wasn't allowed into the country. The family was forced to split but eventually were reunited when the Ukrainian government exempted fathers of three or more children from having to stay in the country to fight the Russian soldiers.  

After reuniting, the family went to Romania for a couple of weeks. But a friend in Nashville who has supported their soccer camp ministry for 20 years insisted that the Lesniks take shelter in their Tennessee home.

Although they did not want to go, Ellina and her children made the trip to the U.S. while Sergey stayed behind to help Ukrainian evacuees.

From Tennessee, Ellina is doing her part to raise funds to help others who remain in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Christian Sports Academy, the business that she and her husband have poured their heart and soul into operating, is now serving as a shelter for displaced Ukrainians.

“It will take $35,000 to purchase a van and establish the logistics of this operation to deliver life-giving supplies and transport women and children away from the violence,” Ellina Lesnik told The Christian Post.

The academy, which seeks to have a biblical and holistic influence on children, parents and their community, is also operating a church and Christian education programs for kindergarteners and older students who have been displaced. 

Security workers employed by the Lesniks are taking care of people there. While the shelter once accommodated 30 women and children, Lesnik said only 10 people were staying at the shelter at the time of this interview because “people are constantly moving to the border.”

Lesnik encourages people to donate online to help with the relief efforts or send a donation by check in the mail.

“[E]very day, our workers are going and distributing food in the village and people from the village are coming to take supplies from the academy,” Lesnik said.

She also expressed gratitude that the academy and her home are undamaged, which she attributed to “God’s grace.”

In a video released last month, Lesnik spoke of how she “had [a] pretty normal life” just two weeks earlier, before Russia’s invasion.

“My children loved their school. My daughter was practicing figure ice skating. We celebrated [the] birthday of two of my daughters. My husband was busy with work and ministry. I was busy with online school of biblical counseling,” she said. 

‘Everything that I loved was in danger’

The Lesniks and their three children first fled from Ukraine as soon as they heard that Russian President Vladimir Putin “bombed all around the country” as opposed to simply attacking one place.

While they initially sought shelter in the western part of Ukraine, near the Polish border, they determined that it wasn't safe after encountering “so many tanks” and realizing that “it’s very close to the Belarus border and Belarus was about to attack Ukraine too.”

All the traveling and separation from her husband has taken an emotional toll on Lesnik. As she crossed the Romanian border without her husband, Lesnik thought deeply about what she was leaving behind.

Lesnik/Ukraine
Ellina and Sergey Lesnik and their three children pose for a photo during the Christmas season. |

“On the third day of war, I crossed with my children,” she recalled. “It was evening [and] I was crying so bad that I couldn’t see the road because everything that I loved was in danger and left with Ukraine.” 

Lesnik would soon find herself traveling even more. When the Ukrainian government amended the order to exempt men with three or more children from having to stay in the country, Ellina and her children traveled to reunite with Sergey. He wasn't allowed to cross the border from the Romanian side, so he tried to enter from the Hungarian border.

“The border police said, ‘If your wife and children will come, we will let you go,’” she said.

“When he called me and he said, ‘I would be able to cross if you will come,’” Lesnik discovered that it would be difficult for her to go back to Ukraine by car because she would be stuck in a long line of traffic. 

Leaving her car behind after traveling through Romania and Hungary, Lesnik walked with her children through the border.

“They let him cross the border then,” she said. “So we were finally reunited.”

Ukrainian Christian Sport Academy
Ukrainians forced from their homes due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict take refuge in the basement of the Ukrainian Christian Sport Academy in the suburbs of Kyiv. The facility is operated by Sergey and Ellina Lesnik. While Sergey is on the ground in eastern Europe, Ellina is in the United States working to raise money for relief efforts. |

‘I didn’t want to go

After her American friend urged her to “please come to Tennessee,” Lesnik was conflicted because she wanted to stay with her husband. 

“I didn’t want to go because it’s far and we don’t want to be separated [from] my husband,” she told CP. “[A]nd my husband said that I’m not going to go, I’m going to stay and help Ukraine from outside.”

As her friend continued to insist that she and her daughters fly to safety in Tennessee, Lesnik finally relented and purchased tickets to the U.S. and traveled to Nashville.

“I don’t want to live in [the] U.S.,” she stressed. “I came here because there is a thing that I can do, I can share how people can help if they want to.”

“I can come to share what’s going on in Ukraine, how they can pray and help. And so they’re sending help to the organization that we’re working with,” she added. “So we’re able to send my husband the humanitarian help.”

While Lesnik and her daughters remain in Tennessee where two of her three girls attend school and what she described as a “very good” experience, Sergey remains in Eastern Europe.

He is working with organizations like Convoy of Hope and Samaritan's Purse in Poland. 

“He’s renting storages in Ukraine. So he’s traveling back and forth from Ukraine to Poland, from Poland to Ukraine. … He’s looking for new storages where he can send supplies and then he’s creating a network of churches … who will distribute everything and who is distributing everything to the people that [are] in need.”

Lesnik said helping people leave Ukraine is her husband’s primary focus. He helps volunteers go “to the hard places and take people out of the war zone, transport them to the border and then take supplies and go back. So it’s like a round trip.”

Everything has been completely destroyed’

Lesnik lamented that “on the north of Kyiv, everything has been completely destroyed, like several small suburbs of Kyiv completely destroyed.”

She insisted that although the academy is not damaged, there is still potential for Russian rockets to be pretty destructive even if they are shot down. 

“Last week, a couple of pieces fell in the village we used to live in. So they damaged several buildings,” she said. “For now, we are very thankful everything has remained there.”

In conversations with her friends in Ukraine, Lesnik has learned that some have lost their houses, jobs and family members. With each passing day, she warned, there are fewer supplies and less food in Ukraine. 

“To buy food, you have to stay in the waiting line a couple of hours just to be able to buy bread. But to be able to buy bread, you have to have a job,” she said. “But as I said, 10 million people lost their jobs. I think even more because some people are staying in those areas that are bombed so that’s why we need to keep sending supplies and be able to help fill the tanks of the car.”

“Our church and our friends are asking, ‘Hey, can we come to the academy and take some supplies?’” 

In addition to the Mission Together fundraiser, a fundraiser on GoFundMe has raised nearly $22,000 to help Sergey “buy medical supplies, food, and gas and sent it to Ukraine’s churches.”  

While she is happy with the fundraising success, the money raised so far amounts to a small drop in the ocean of need.

“I understand that it’s not a time to rejoice. But I’m impressed and I will be impressed by the generosity of the American people and the … compassion that I feel from them,” she said. “So I’m very grateful to be able to share, and I’m very grateful that so many people want to hear and want to help and want to listen even though it’s very hard news to listen to.”

As someone born and raised in a secular Soviet Union country, Lesnik was not introduced to Christianity until she was a teenager. She became a Christian in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Lesnik said she first discovered Christianity when missionaries came to her school and shared the Gospel with students and teachers. 

“I was one who converted or became a Christian or believed in Jesus when they shared about that,” she recalled. “And a couple of years later, my sister, she brought a Bible from someone who distributed it on the streets of Kyiv.”

Lesnik said there were “no Bibles in Soviet Union families, no Bibles in Soviet Union stores.” Because she wasn't able to buy a Bible anywhere, she said, “the Word of God was a treasure.”

As a college student, Lesnik became involved with the Christian outreach group Campus Crusade, where she met her husband who became a Christian through Campus Crusade's efforts.

Eager to remain independent and separate from the country that served at the center of the former Soviet Union, Lesnik met with Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., last month to urge the U.S. to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine. She specifically advocated for the U.S. to stop purchasing oil from Russia. The U.S. government eventually banned imports of Russian oil. 

Like most Ukrainians, she doesn’t know when she'll return home because of the uncertainty of the conflict.

“As soon as I’ve got the news war is over, I want to go back home,” Lesnik proclaimed.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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