Voices of Ukraine: Volunteers, working to save refugees from war, talk of the need for prayers and to “close the sky”

By Victoria Emmitt
May 3, 2022

People protest with powerful signs outside in the Czech Republic.
"Protest of Russians in the Czech Republic against the war in Ukraine" by AlexVolter is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Loquitur Media Note: This is the second of a series of stories on Voices of Ukraine, a project to connect Cabrini’s Loquitur Media reporters with people on the ground in Ukraine. The Loquitur continues to stay in touch with Dasha Andrienko, a former Wayne resident, who fled her home after the Russian invasion began and is now helping to rescue others from danger.  In her May 2 Instagram message, she said: “We coordinated refugee project in Zakarpatie for the last three weeks (talking to families, registering, meeting, coordinating). And today, we are traveling to Slovakia and tomorrow to Czech. Prayed and feel like it’s time to go.” The first story can be found here.

 

Two days before the start of the war, Anya Melnichuk and her husband had an overwhelming sense that they needed to get out of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and head west toward Ternopil.

As soon as they arrived at the Youth With a Mission camp, only days later, the war started.

Their first thought was: How are we going to help people?

“We created a shelter, arranged mattresses, blankets, as much as we could so we could host people who were evacuating from dangerous cities,” Anya Melnichuk, Youth With a Mission volunteer, said during a Zoom podcast interview with Cabrini’s student media, The Loquitur. 

Melnichuk, in charge of the logistics for helping refugees escape, said they faced a shortage of essential supplies needed to host refugees coming from dangerous areas of Ukraine. Many people donated things like fur coats to keep people warm or to take the place of blankets and pillows. 

“We were very creative, doing our best to be able to host people,” Melnichuk said.

In their work, volunteers at Youth With a Mission realized the high number of people still living in dangerous areas who didn’t have the ability to relocate. Without a car or way to get to the train station, they had no way out. That is when Melnichuk and other volunteers decided they were going to help with the transportation to reach those vulnerable communities of people who were left behind. 

From danger to safety

Melnichuk reflected on the dangers and uncertainty tied to the mission.
A major bridge near Chernihiv, Ukraine, collapsed, crumbling at the feet of Russian forces as they closed in on eastern Ukraine, she said.
One day, about 50 Ukrainians with no accessible transportation waited for help and gathered on one side of the bridge for rescue buses to get them away from the front lines and take them to Kyiv, she said. 
Young men behind the wheels of rescue buses successfully transported those Ukrainians from the front lines and into Kyiv for transport out of the country.
Back and forth from Ternopil to Kyiv, drivers carried refugees from danger to safety. The drivers work in different shifts, alternating days starting at 5 a.m. until midnight transporting refugees to safety. However, for people who couldn’t even reach the pickup spot, Melnichuk organized rescue for people who have a hard time helping themselves.
“There were so many people with crutches and with wheelchairs, you know, elderly people who couldn’t take care of themselves – people with disabilities. That was really touching for our hearts to see those people, and to help them,” Melnichuk said.
While the war in Ukraine continues to leave a trail of destruction, the unity and support shown for Ukraine has been comforting. 

 

“It was touching for our hearts to see those people and be able to help them and bring them to a safe place and take care of them,” Melnichuk said. “We were helping them find places in Ternopil to get situated or helping them get to Europe.”

In a United Nations press briefing, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the war in Ukraine. He said, “that the most terrible war crimes since the Second World War are being committed in his country.” In the briefing, he said, “Russian troops are deliberately destroying Ukrainian cities, creating mass starvation, shooting columns of civilians trying to escape hostilities, blowing up shelters and creating conditions in their temporarily occupied territories to ensure that most civilians are killed.”

For the Youth With a Mission volunteer, every day is different, from providing local humanitarian aid and also helping to coordinate the evacuation of those in dangerous cities who are unable to leave without assistance. Each day is filled with uncertainty and plans are changing at a moment’s notice, she said.

Alexander “Sasha” Volyanik, director of Youth With a Mission, said volunteers are constantly adapting to new conditions and new challenges.

“You just have to remember that we are building the plane as we are flying and trying to refuel at the same time,” Volyanik said. “If this doesn’t work you throw it away and develop something new, you just keep going.”

According to an April United Nations press release, in the span of six weeks, at least 1,430 people have been killed, including over 121 children — figures which are likely a “serious underestimate.” Homes, bridges, hospitals and schools have been damaged and destroyed, while almost 11 million people have been forced to flee — more than 4.2 million of whom are now refugees in neighboring countries and beyond. In total, over a quarter of Ukraine’s population has fled.

The United States has also committed $1 billion in new humanitarian funding to support these refugees and is welcoming 100,000 refugees from Ukraine into the country, according to the U.N. April 5 press release. 

‘Everyone has a part to play in this war’

Currently, Volyanik is in his hometown Ternopil, Ukraine, in a joint effort with all the evangelical and Protestant churches in the city to bring relief to the refugees. They have 23 shelters where they can host up to 3,500 a night, he said.  

Volyanik is thankful that Ternopil hasn’t been hit as hard as other areas of Ukraine especially considering its population of 230,000 and has 45,000 refugees.

So far Volyanik and his team haven’t had any casualties despite the dangerous work they are doing.

Men between the ages of 18 to 60 cannot leave the country because of the war or martial law. The people leaving Ukraine are the women and children.

Volyanik hopes that the people who left will come back to Ukraine so they can rebuild.

When asked what the West could do to help, he said:

“Close the sky.” Volyanik wants western nations to help by closing the skies so that no Russian planes will be flying and bombing Ukrainian cities to the ground. Ukraine cities don’t have enough strength to take on a land fight.

Alexander (Sasha) Volyanik, director of Youth With a Mission director, discusses the uncertainty of war and the unpredictable nature of running a mission to rescue thousands of Ukrainians. “We are building a plane as we’re flying and trying to fuel at the same time.” He spoke to Loquitur Media in March 2022.
His wish for the west: “Close the sky.”

From a transit center that he operates in Western Ukraine, he said: “So, my message is, ‘Ask God what is your part in this war and just do it in obedience to God and understanding this is my place and I am committed 100 percent so you’ll know that you played a big part in that war and bring the victory day closer.’ “

The reality that Ukraine is facing right now will have an impact on future generations to come, he said. Volyanik urged western nations to sympathize with the experiences of those in Ukraine and help bring victory. He said everyone – across the globe – has a role to play. 

“Everyone [has] a part that we can play in this war. Some people will pray. Some people will give. Some people we’ll be a volunteer, and some people will go to the front line… What is your part in this war?”

One action all can turn to is prayer. He said:

“We pray for peace…we will never be the same, the price we pay right now will influence our nation for generations, that’s the reality.”

Victoria Emmitt

Hello! I am a senior Digital Communications and Social Media Major, and I was a third-year transfer student here at Cabrini University. In my first year at Cabrini, I worked as a reporter for The Loquitur before stepping into my role as Editor-In-Chief. A fun fact about me is that I use to work for the Walt Disney Company as a photographer. I am looking forward to working alongside my team of editors and reporters this year to produce meaningful content in the form of written articles as well as through various forms of multimedia. A passion of mine is human rights and social justice issues and I love to report on topics such as these to educate and spread awareness to my audience. Outside of The Loquitur I hope to pursue a career in social media and have had the opportunity to intern with a digital advertising agency this past summer as a social media intern. I am looking forward to my future after graduation, but I am so happy to be leading such an amazing team of editors and reporters until then.

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