Monday, September 25, 2023

Rettig: Life changing perspective — A visit to Ukraine

While it is customary to focus on local issues in our mayor’s columns, sometimes the events outside of our area simply must be spoken about… I’d like to dedicate this month’s column to an issue that is close to heart for me at this moment.

It is Sunday night here in Northern Romania, and a few hours ago, some friends and I concluded a quick journey into Ukraine aided by locals on both sides. Saturday we drove 15 hours across the border overnight with a couple vans of food and financial aid for refugees.

Obviously traveling to Ukraine is something that stirs emotions right now, some perhaps wondering why that makes sense or whether it was wise to do so… Now having returned, I can say we accomplished more than we hoped or planned to without putting ourselves or those we went to help at any risk. Here’s a few things we did and learned.

As far as aid goes, our assistance was a relatively small package of about $40,000. A few hundred donors across the country, including a dozen Denton County state, county and local leaders who I shared my plans with, donated funds for direct aid. Working with local churches providing housing, food and transit help for refugees on both sides of the Ukrainian and Romanian border, we brought aid to a network of Ukrainian churches housing just over a 100 refugees at a time. These refugees are not those that fled in the first wave during the initial few weeks after the invasion, primarily with means, family or opportunities abroad to flee to, but rather those who are older, financially destitute, and/or hurt or even shell-shocked by direct bombing of their homes. It is these refugees being taken in by thousands of Ukrainian families, churches and organizations in the West of the country whose needs we wanted to aid and whose stories we wanted to tell. I could write pages of the stories and interactions we had in just a short 48 hours so I’ll just highlight a few.

The group from Mariupol told the most harrowing accounts. This group of 20+ people were staying in a three -room apartment on mattresses when we met them. They spent three weeks living in freezing temperatures underground in Mariupol, starving with limited food and water. Eventually they faced starvation or exposure below ground and had to risk fleeing above ground attempting to cross the active front lines of the Russian advance and the bombs falling all around them. Some estimates say up to 98% of structures in that one city have been damaged or destroyed.

One elderly couple hid as artillery and Russian Navy ships in the Black Sea destroyed the homes on their block until all but their home remained. All of them showed some signs of shell shock from weeks of bombardment. This particular couple lost contact with all 4 of their children and 10 grandchildren in the city and pled with us to share their photos and information with whomever we could and pass their info to the missing persons NGOs. Mass graves are being reported in the media raising their fears that perhaps their families are either still trapped or have been killed.

Younger couples, including some of men of military age were subjected to being stripped of clothing and searched for army tattoos by Russian soldiers. Despite the promises of safe passage for those laying down weapons, the refugees report those found to have fought in the Ukrainian army were subject to execution.

Some of this group passed through 15 Russian checkpoints, and lived in their cars for up to 11 days to cross the 300 miles to Western Ukraine due to clogged roads, broken down vehicles and lack of fuel. Fuel reached $40/gallon along the way when it was available. Finally they reached a safe haven near the border of Romania provided by a local congregation. There they remain for the last several weeks. A few have some contacts in other countries and are trying to continue their journey. As soon as space opens more refugees are passed along from way stations further east.

The situation inside the country is dire in the war zone. I could write many more stories from the hours of first-hand accounts the many others shared however that will have to be enough for now.

A few thoughts… The situation is highly distressed for those without a place to go once they reach the West. For others, including the area where we went, the area remains calm and supplies and even fuel is available. We brought enough fuel for our vehicles so as not to use any there, however we did eat at restaurants and stayed with a local pastor. Businesses are trying to operate and appreciated the chance to make some money. There is good infrastructure, internet, cell service and most shops have available food even though costs are very high. Clearly the supply lines are strained but stabilizing as the whole country has mobilized for the war effort. Many of the refugees will not have homes to go back to. Their situation will not improve for months, and they will be hurting economically for years besides the loss of life and physical and mental damage they have endured.

Despite these terrible things, there were also amazing moments as well. All of the refugees and local residents poured out thanks for the USA for aid to their country and for solidarity with them. We shared how many people have expressed support for their nation and donated to help. The group I traveled with is a gospel singing group and Sunday morning for the Ukrainian Easter they held a special concert for the local churches and refugees. The church was packed to standing room only and the emotions ran high as they sang songs of hope and encouragement in the hardest of times. Many said they hadn’t smiled or had a moment of happiness in months and the music lifted their spirits and the visit raised their hopes that the world understands their need and desires to help.

As a donor, it is difficult to connect with specific needs in a situation as vast as this. Our trip had multiple aims. Be safe, be a help, get in and get out, not use many local resources, bring targeted aid to a specific group, establish connections and a network to pass more aid to help with the longer term needs of these more vulnerable and destitute individuals… and finally to gain perspective and motivation for ourselves. It’s impossible to not come away with a sense of responsibility to act, sadness at the tragedy unfolding for millions and life-changing perspective for those of us able to go and see the effects of the war up close.

Our trip may be over, but our efforts are just beginning. Now that we have organizers on the ground and connections to additional stations and aid partners, a 501c3 is being established to raise more funds and provide an ongoing conduit to help. If you would like to be involved, the charity will be set up soon.

A link is currently available for non-tax deductible donations through the gospel group where there is a link to the Romanian/Ukrainian project we just went on. Any aid received going forward will be used to continue support for the refugee network we worked with in both Romania and the Ukraine.

Thank you to our local leaders who gave on the spot donations that I took with me to Ukraine. The generosity of our nation and our neighbors and leaders is known and appreciated. We don’t know how long the war will last or what will happen before it is over, but for those already suffering, they will need help long after the guns are silenced. Pray and give as you can to the many projects and aid organizations doing good work there. This is the great need of our time.

CTG Staff
CTG Staff
The Cross Timbers Gazette News Department

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