I worked with refugees for years, but I never thought I’d be one.
My family and I are from the United States but have lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, for six years, not including the two years I served as a missionary for the Church here. Now, we have left our home behind, the house we built, which may soon end up as rubble. Just another casualty of the terrible armed conflict. We didn’t want to leave our family and friends there, but our first priority was to protect our children.
After we left the country, I had to cross the border back into Ukraine in order to meet with some friends and get some vital belongings we left behind when we fled. Then I had to wait in line for several hours, outside, in the cold, to leave the country again. I was shivering by the end. Yes, it was nothing compared to what others are going through, but I got a very small taste.
Millions of women and children have now left Ukraine as refugees. They wait in lines for up to several days. Their husbands (and also many women as well) must stay to protect their land. I can’t imagine what they are enduring right now. For most of us, the concept of a refugee is so foreign we can’t even picture it. Most of my friends in the developed world will never experience anything like this. Too often, we ignore them or wish we could ignore them.
But we must remember that these are real people. They never wanted to leave their country. And even now, most would want to go back as soon as the fighting is over. That’s true for most refugees I worked with in my previous job with Catholic Community Services in Utah. They are incredible, resilient, and essentially like us. In fact, exactly like us. There are currently over 84 million refugees worldwide, according to the UNHCR, and that doesn’t include former refugees, some of which you are probably familiar with: Albert Einstein, Gloria Estefan, Madeleine Albright, and Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf.
Technically, I am now a refugee. I am lucky enough not to have to live in a refugee camp or leave my family’s fate in the hands of strangers, so I can’t fully empathize with most refugees nor fully accept that honorific. But I will never again be able to see myself as somehow different from them. Never.
Women and children from Ukraine, including many of our friends and family, are now crossing into Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. Their husbands are staying behind to fight for their country. My wife and I are spending every waking moment, late into each night, helping our friends who are still in Ukraine, and any others we hear about, coordinating escapes, shelters, and sending money. But we still feel so powerless. It seems like we simply take turns crying throughout the day. We are emotionally and mentally exhausted. But then we remember the courage of those who are actually fighting in the streets, and we muster the energy to keep going.
We’ve also seen many small miracles as we work to save our friends. Members of the Church all over the world have donated to relief efforts, have offered their homes as shelters from the storm, and some in nearby countries have even taken time off work, rented cars, and come to the border to pick up stranded Saints. Our friends and family outside Ukraine have sent us money to help Ukrainian families. Because of their sacrifices, we’ve been able to help provide food, shelter, and evacuation assistance.
We’ve been able to help children without parents, grandmothers whose houses were destroyed by shelling, refugee children who were sleeping on the floor, families who are currently without any income, and grandparents and children who are running out of food as the conflict erupts in their cities. These Christlike people who have donated and offered help are welcoming the “stranger,” as the Savior asked us to do:
“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in …
“… Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:35, 40, emphasis added).
My ancestor, Hosea Stout, who served as chief of police in Nauvoo and was a personal bodyguard of Joseph Smith, was also a refugee almost 200 years ago. His family was forced out of their home, essentially at gunpoint. They trudged through mud and snow for over a thousand miles. When storms came, he stood outside his family’s tent, trying to keep it from collapsing in the wind. And still, most of his family died. I had a picture of him on my wall when I worked with refugees, so I could point to him and tell my refugee clients I had some small connection with their situation. Now I am one of them.
It seems the world will never be rid of war and conflict. But there will always be heroes, people who do for others what they cannot do themselves, like the Savior. In every crisis, we have the opportunity to be either a bystander or a hero. Right now, over 40 million Ukrainians are rising to the task of the century, confounding everyone’s expectations, and doing what no one thought possible. They are fighting for their rights to speak and worship as they choose.
We could easily apply Alma’s stirring words to the situation happening right now:
“Nevertheless, [they] were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church ” (Alma 43:45).
Ukraine is a very special, holy place, and I knew it from my first day as a missionary back in 2001. The Saints there are some of the most sincere, resilient, incredible people I’ve ever met.
Now it’s our turn to “let the lower lights be burning, send a gleam across the wave” (Hymns, no. 335). It’s our turn to “go and bring in those people now on the plains,” as Brigham Young pleaded.
Please pray for us. Ukraine needs (and deserves) all the help it can get.