I walk in and hear voices all around, but I understand nothing.
How many times have I been in a similar place?—In the facility of an association or nonprofit that works with people in need—the disabled, children with special needs, single mothers, orphans, the elderly, and of course, refugees from every imaginable corner of the world.
These types of places have a special atmosphere, one that’s not easy to describe. You see broken lives up close, with your own eyes, along with incredible suffering, the kind of everyday pain that is often borne in silence and solitude. You face traumatized souls and aching hearts, and you realize that when desperation is met by hope, indifference turns into action, and depression can be overcome by the kind deeds of people who care.
I’ve participated in many such projects in different parts of the world and have often wondered what motivated my fellow volunteers—university students, middle-aged fathers and mothers, retirees—the everyday people who make such a difference. Was it empathy? Faith in God? The desire to do good, to be useful, to make a difference? Maybe a bit of everything.
I’ve spent years doing humanitarian work in Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Germany, Romania, the Philippines, Moldova, Iraq and, of course, in my own country, Ukraine. I spent five years in the mid-nineties in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, working with orphanages, performing puppet shows, organizing the distribution of Christmas presents, rallying students to volunteer with us. More recently, I spent two years between 2015 and 2017 participating in and directing camps for children from displaced families from the Donetsk region, and before the Covid-19 pandemic, I was working with a team creating murals at children’s institutions. Our last mural was painted in December 2021, a time that seems like such a distant past. A previous life. Before the war.
Will I ever be able to return to my beloved, amazing, tortured, and now half-devastated land? Did I ever think that one day I would be on the run for my own life? Collecting all possible information about refugee status, rights, possibilities, and the limitations of temporary protected status? Trying to figure out at least some kind of semblance of a plan? Wondering how long it will take for the war to come to an end?
I walk into the room.
I was told that I could ask for information at this association, nestled in a simple street of the small Western European town I’ve fled to. A very friendly person at the gate greets me—in English, thankfully—and offers me tea or coffee. A choice! And the option of sugar and milk! Next, he hands me a packaged cookie.
Now I’m waiting in line in a little yard with people of at least 15 different nationalities—men, women, and children from the Middle East, Africa, and Ukraine.
When it’s my turn, another person with a badge takes me inside to a tiny office with two tables and six chairs. What do I need? Food? Shoes? Shampoo, toothbrush? Language classes? What about a free haircut?
Valerie, the very bubbly 52-year-old English-speaking hairdresser, takes me to the next room, which is the size of a big closet. She hugs me when I tell her that I am from Ukraine, then sits me in a simple chair, covers me with a black haircutting cape, and asks me what kind of hairstyle I would like.
That’s when the tears come. What am I crying about? I’m not sure anymore. All I know is that my life will never be the same.
Valerie keeps up a bubbly conversation as she works, telling me a bit about her life. She prefers black coffee without sugar. She has a grown-up son who lives in Italy. And she keeps checking in about how I like my hair in the back and my bangs. She says she’s a bookkeeper who works in the neighboring city and volunteers here once a month.
I feel taken care of, welcomed, rested, and understood. At the end she gives me a tiny blue card with her contact info. “Write me. Whatever you need. Even to simply meet for coffee and a chat.”
My heart is overflowing with gratitude for Valerie, the lady that registered me and explained how I could be helped here, the volunteers in the corridor, the man at the entrance, and as I walk slowly through the streets of this brand-new-to-me town, a Bible verse I memorized in my early twenties gets a new meaning: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”1
With the care of kind people like these, and God’s love and protection, I will be fine.
- Matthew 25:40 NIV