Photo by Megan Head / ITeams

East meets West

February 5, 2015
Megan Head
Megan Head

A giant world map lay across the room where Anya stood praying. Beneath her feet was an image of the east European country that has struggled along throughout her lifetime - her own homeland, Ukraine. Ukraine has had a difficult history and after gaining independence in 1991, the country has struggled politically, economically, and socially.

Twenty-six-year-old Anya remembers growing up in Ukraine during the ‘90s. It wasn’t easy.

“I was used to the phrase, ‘we don’t have money for this,’” Anya says. She also wrestled in her own place of spiritual poverty. “I grew up lonely,” she says. Her parents were often working multiple jobs and with her sister four years her junior, loneliness was a normal part of Anya’s life.

Anya heard about Camp Friendship - or as they called it, “American Camp” - from some friends and at age 13 she attended this Ukrainian summer camp. It was there she heard about Jesus and put her faith in Him.

“I like to say that God didn’t save me from something - like, I wasn’t a drug addict, I wasn’t an alcoholic - but He saved me right at the moment when I could have started going down,” Anya says. Over the next year or so, as Anya started taking her faith more seriously, she began to see a growing contrast between her life and those of her friends.

For 10 years, Anya worked at the same summer camp where she was first exposed to the love of God. As Anya assumed roles of leadership at camp, she also began involving herself in full-time ministry visiting orphanages, leading Bible studies and serving in her area.

But something changed in 2011. The camp closed, and Anya began to feel restless. She had so many questions and understood there was so much more to God than she had even begun to grasp. Seeking to gain better knowledge and understanding of both God and her own identity, Anya attended a discipleship training school through Youth With A Mission in Montana.

During that time, God spoke so deeply to Anya’s heart as she drew near to him. She felt God’s heart for Ukraine as she prayed over that map of the world.

“It was a feeling and understanding of pain and brokenness and hopelessness and all those things at the same time.” She thought of the orphans and the drug addicts. She thought about all the people in need of hope.

“I knew I was called to [return to] Ukraine.”

In November 2013 political unrest and protests began in Ukraine. In February, dozens were killed during the displays at Maidan (the public square) in Kiev. Tensions grew stronger and boundaries were breached between Russia and Ukraine while Separatists fought to secede. Many innocent fled their homes. Finding themselves in new and unfamiliar parts of the country, many are still trying to piece their lives back together.

Anya was one of those thousands of displaced people.

Anya’s friend, Clinton White, who she met at Camp Friendship, lived in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. She had always hoped to visit, so Uzhgorod is where she sought refuge.

When she arrived in Uzhgorod, in the summer of 2014, Anya wrestled through grief and guilt. Her parents were still in Lugansk and her friends had been spread all over Europe, Ukraine and Russia. She struggled, trying to process and make sense of her purpose in this new and peaceful city.

She choked up remembering the uncertainty in her hometown - even concerning the usual places of peace, “I would go to bed Saturday and I would pray, ‘God, please don’t let bombs fall from the sky tomorrow or attacks on the streets in my city because I want to go to church tomorrow.”

“You never knew what would happen the next day...the only thing that never changes is God,” Anya says.

Before the violence erupted and she had to leave her home behind, Anya had so many hopes for the future. She had joyfully and heavily involved herself in serving others and had loved her English teaching job.

“But I just lost all of that,” Anya says.

But she didn’t lose her faith.

“At first, I couldn't understand why I was here,” Anya says, “It felt like [God] just took me apart and put me back together.”

It took Anya some time to feel put back together.

“It was a very big challenge for me not to hate anyone throughout the whole summer - not to hate anyone because hatred is like killing. First, it’s killing you. Then, it’s killing people around you.”

Hatred and confusion continues to kindle the unrest and violence, but in the midst of this, churches are taking a stand. They are praying together, fighting together against lies and hatred and encouraging their brothers and sisters throughout the country.

“All the stuff that Ukraine is going through right now, I believe it is for our good. And not only for our good, but for the good of those nations around us - even Russia’s good too,” Anya says, “I believe so because God cares for every nation, not only Ukrainians. And I believe He wants to bring some eye opening and heart changing things to Russia.”

Though she knows God is doing some big things during her country’s trying times, Anya is more than ready to see peace. “Sometimes I pray, ‘God, please do whatever you’re doing faster,’ because I don’t know how long we can wait for those things to happen.”

Her whole world being disheveled, Anya isn’t used to making future plans. But she recognizes that the call to Ukraine and the brokenness she felt on that world map two years ago extends far beyond her understanding.

After almost two months in Uzhgorod, struggling through grief and regret, Anya was finally able to stop mourning and to begin moving forward.

“[God] lifted me up again. He changed me again. He told me He loves me again,” Anya says.

As she continued acclimating to her new environment, Clinton was able to connect Anya with his church and ITeams’ ministries in Uzhgorod. Anya quickly volunteered to assist the Uzhgorod team with translation and participate in orphan ministries. She was soon asked to officially join the Uzhgorod team.

“With ITeams, I can be a part of so many ministries,” she says.

Anya continues to translate between the English speaking team and Ukrainians. She also goes weekly with a group to a toddler orphanage to love on and play with the children.

Anya continues to find purpose and brings life and joy through Jesus Christ to her new community.

Recently, one pastor’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Anya discovered that this family needed funds or they could lose their place in the hospital. She shared the need with her church and they collected nearly all the necessary funds. When she called him to tell him they sent the needed money, he cried.

“Basically, I’m making people cry here,” Anya says, “and it’s worth it.”

“I don’t think any refugees can help others as much as I can. So I feel very blessed to be where I am now and to do what I can do.”

Thousands in Ukraine are still seeking refuge - physically and spiritually. Please pray for Ukraine and those who are bringing light to this broken place.

See more serving opportunities in Ukraine.