Tracking the UCC Ukraine response
Days 8 & 9
by Rev. Joshua Baird
Feb. 5, 2023 – travel day
Feb. 6, 2023 – Telenesti, Moldova
Yesterday was a long travel day, with multiple flights, not to mention delays and mishaps and miles on the road. On the final flight we had a chance meeting with a man who was so moved by the plight of Ukrainians that he started his own non-profit (in the U.S.), solicited funds from friends and family, and is, as I write, driving across the war-torn region delivering heating stoves to whomever he deems in need. That is one way to respond to crises, and it is unfortunately common, regardless of the event or setting. Our primary partnership in Moldova is through Church World Service, and they exemplify a different kind of response.
CWS has had a presence in Moldova for more than a decade, fostering good relations and building trust with a variety of local partners. Our primary visit today was with a new partner – but the relationship was formed and forged through their long-standing presence. Local relationships and local leadership mean the wheel does not have to be recreated. The infrastructure is in place. The most pressing needs are identified and can be addressed. Gifts are stretched further. Impact is multiplied.
We were accompanied today by Steve Weaver, CWS Regional Director for Europe and the Middle East, and Andrew Blakely, CWS Moldova Team Leader. They drove us from Chișinău to the small community of Telenesti. There we met Anyetta and Alexander, founders of the community organization Diamant, and Nastya*, a Ukrainian refugee who works with them. Anyetta and her husband Alexander launched Diamant 20 years ago and have grown it steadily ever since. The pandemic created significant challenges, but their resolve enabled the work to continue. Today, they provide after school care, counseling, tutoring, activities, and hot meals to about 100 kids each week. They offer classes to adults on parenting and entrepreneurship. When they have the resources, they invest in participants to help them launch into new careers. Recently, they initiated a new program taking high school students to nearby cities to expose them to colleges and career paths that would otherwise be inaccessible, and likely unimaginable, to these youth.
Anyetta shared that on Feb. 24, 2022, they woke to a noise in the distance and knew right away that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had begun. Parents of kids at Diamant donated food, clothes, diapers, and more. Anyetta and a few teens in the program set out for the border and gave away everything they brought to people escaping the violence. So she put out an appeal to the community on social media. And in this impoverished community, in an impoverished country, the people gave until they ran out of things to give. And then they gave from their own homes items they were already using.
As people crossed the border, Moldovans opened their homes to receive them. Upwards of 800,000 refugees have entered Moldova to date. Between 50,000 and 100,000 remain, equal to between 2-percent and 4-percent of the country’s pre-war population. Around 25,000 have been welcomed into the homes of Moldovan citizens. A much smaller number live in three
refugee camps, with the rest staying in the homes of family or friends. Nastya and her family are living on a family-owned property. Her grandmother was born and lived in the area, and left a home to the family when she died. Nastya’s mother, however, had moved to Ukraine and the property sat empty for many years. Now it is full to overflowing with Nastya, her sister and mother, and six children under the age of 13. They have shelter (in the form of a run-down old home in need of repairs) and little else. Yet Nastya serves with Diamant most days, giving back to the community that has welcomed her.
A year into the war, it is inevitable that some resent the presence of the refugees and the services they are receiving. But through the intentional work of Diamant, Ukrainians and Moldovans are learning to live together, work together, and support each other through difficult times. Anyetta, who appears to have no shortage of dreams for Diamant, recently launched a community outreach focused on providing food to seniors who lack family support. Meals are delivered by two people: a local Moldovan woman, and a Ukrainian – Nastya, who is determined to give back.
It is fitting that Diamant serves as a conduit for promoting peace, inclusion, and growth. From the beginning, Anyetta and Alexander dreamed of a center where lives would be changed. Diamant translated into English is Diamond. Anyetta explained the name this way: “Diamonds first appear to be of little value. But with work and polish, they will shine.”
Well intentioned people who are blind to the work already happening in affected communities can still have an impact. But building on existing relations and taking the time to learn about, support, and invest in locally led, community-based organizations deepens the reach of our gifts. It values the work and vision of local people. It multiplies the brilliance of their care.
*Name has been changed.
The Rev. Joshua Baird, team leader of Wider Church Ministries Global H.O.P.E, is part of a four-person United Church of Christ delegation meeting with global partners in Europe to see how UCC gifts are being used to help the people of Ukraine.