Samantha Lakey sits at a lunch table in June surrounded by Ukrainian refugees in Northern Ukraine as reports are read telling that the Russians have crossed the Ukraine border with tanks. She thinks about how, a few months earlier, she was in the States, listening as news anchors described warring scenes that seemed so far away.
Now, sitting in Kiev, Ukraine, though far from the conflicted areas, her first instinct is to worry.But, the refugees around her are still full of hope.
Lakey, along with Jess Weeden, Ashley Raybon and Rachael Valfre from Hillcrest Church of Christ, traveled to Ukraine in the middle of the revolution to help refugees at Jeremiah’s Hope, an at-risk children’s home.
Lakey, a 2014 nursing graduate of Hardin-Simmons, said two weeks earlier, she never imagined that God would take her to Ukraine. Andrew Kelly, leader of Jeremiah’s Hope, contacted the Hillcrest elders, desperate for help.
“He basically said, ‘We have so much to do and not very many people to do it with, and we’re getting swamped. Is there anybody who is able to come?'” Lakey said.
Lakey said she knew that, despite the protests of her family, Ukraine was where she needed to be.
“People don’t want you to go to war-torn countries,” Lakey said. “But it’s kind of like when God lays the cards out perfectly, you can’t not do it.”
Raybon, junior speech pathology major from Irving, said in the weeks leading up to the trip, things fell into place and it made perfect sense for her to take the trip also.
“You don’t get these types of opportunities all the time,” Raybon said. “We’re young. We need to take advantage of them.”
Valfre, a nurse at Abilene Bone and Joint, said she was not worried about taking a trip to the war-torn country.
“I knew Hillcrest would not be sending us if they thought we would be unsafe,” Valfre said. “The turmoil, at the time was in the eastern part and we were away from most of the danger.”
Justin Hatfield, college minister at Hillcrest, said the ladies were given a two-week window to decide whether they could make the trip, and they unanimously agreed to go.
“It shows their heart for sacrifice because they dropped what they were doing and took off,” Hatfield said.
Jeremiah’s Hope is a home run by Andrew Kelly, an ACU alumnus, and his wife Jenny in the village of Kolentsi. The camp cares for at-risk youth and underprivileged children, and also has summer camps for missionary kids in Europe.
Hatfield said he takes groups from the college ministry to Jeremiah’s Hope quite often, but during the summer, the camp’s mission was changed to fit the circumstances.
“When they started having bombings and people were being evacuated, their camp was contacted by the government to be a place for these people who are homeless to stay until they can get homes,” Hatfield said.
Raybon said before they arrived, the adults and babushkas, or grandmothers, were spending all their time caring for kids of refugees.
“They needed to worry about other things like the state of the rest of their family, so when I got there, we just did child care,” Raybon said.
Some of the kids there were orphans from families that stayed behind in Eastern Ukraine to fight for their homes, Lakey said.
“If you left your home, then either the pro-Ukrainians or the Russians were going to take it,” Lakey said. “So you just had to sit there through the gunshots or you would lose everything.”
Lakey and Valfre worked mainly in the kitchen. Lakey said more refugees arrived daily, so the kitchen was bustling.
“I was constantly in the kitchen cooking and cleaning,” she said.
By the end of her two weeks in Ukraine, Lakey said the amount of people she cooked for doubled from 60 to 120. And each dish was washed by hand, as they were without a dishwasher.
Lakey said the Ukrainian women working alongside her showed her the beauty of service, laughing and singing when life got stressful.
“Whenever I think of Ukraine, I think of starved faces and war, but that’s not what they were,” Lakey said. “They were these bubbly, sassy women.”
Raybon said while she was there, she stumbled upon a church service being held in Jeremiah’s Hope. She said she expected to find the refugees crying out in desolation of their loss but that’s the opposite of what she saw.
“These people were so joyous and they were singing with smiles on their faces,” Raybon said.
It’s the significance of these smiles that Raybon said still gives her goose-bumps to this day.
“If you know Ukrainians, you know they don’t smile a whole lot and when they do smile, it means the world,” Raybon said.
Weeden said, she too was humbled by their faith in the midst of such tragedy. She found this faith in her nightly chats with Oskana, a Ukrainian refugee who spoke English.
“She was so intentional in her relationships with everyone and she wanted them to know that there was still hope,” Weeden said.
Lakey said at the end of their two week venture, the goodbyes were heartbreaking.
“There’s always this voice in the back of your head that’s like ‘What if I never see this kid again? What if I never see my friends over there?'” Lakey said.
Raybon said she found it most difficult to say goodbye to Daniel, an 11 year-old refugee to whom she taught English and learned Ukrainian. She called him a little ball of sunshine.
“I just got to learn so much about him,” Raybon said. “He was definitely the hardest one to say goodbye to because I don’t know if I will ever see him again.”
Back in America, the four women said the lessons they learned from the Ukrainian people is something they carry with them.
Weeden said the refugees’ faith in their darkest time was an example to her.
“I realized how much faith will be tested for those who believe,” Weeden said. “And also that our goal shouldn’t be to avoid it but to take it as it comes and prove faithful by being patient, kind, and loving.”
Valfre agreed, saying they taught her lessons she couldn’t learn elsewhere.
Lakey said she was shocked by the Ukranians’ strength.
“They have a lot of stamina and they don’t give up on themselves, their community or their kids,” Lakey said.
Her hope was strengthened by their unwavering trust.
“I learned to have faith and have joy when the world around me is literally in shambles,” Lakey said. “I learned how to lean on people and to lean on God.”
Jeremiah’s Hope is hosting a fundraising dinner on Sept. 20 in the Hunter Welcome Center. To learn more about the event or their service in Ukraine, contact Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.