SUCEAVA, Romania—The flood of thousands of Ukrainian refugees that began pouring over the Romanian border at Siret on Feb. 24 has diminished to a daily trickle of a few hundred, said SBTC DR associate Wally Leyerle. But the heart-wrenching stories of the survivors remain, while the possibility of another tidal wave of refugees looms.
In addition to physical assistance provided by Baptists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the Romanian government at the Ukrainian border, a digital engagement tool launched by Send Relief and IMB missionaries is offering spiritual hope to those fleeing the Russian invasion.
“Their stories are horrific,” Leyerle said, recalling things he heard from Ukrainian refugees during his March 21– April 2 trip to Romania, where he served as part of a team of six Southern Baptist Disaster Relief leaders representing SBDR teams from California, Missouri, and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
“Our job was to determine what was going on at the border and how Southern Baptists can help partner with Romanian Baptist associations and IMB missionaries … to figure out what future teams would do,” Leyerle said, adding that his team was aided by an IMB missionary and Catalin Croitor, pastor of Betleem Baptist Church in Suceava, whose congregation is part of the Suceava Regional Romanian Baptist Association which he also directs.
The situation at the border at Siret, near Suceava, was orderly when the SBDR team arrived, Leyerle said. The Romanian government responded quickly in the early days of the crisis. Soon, NGOs assisting refugees with everything from documentation to supplies to baby and pet needs to healthcare sprouted up along the border.
Government-provided tents stocked with cots, heaters, and supplies offer overnight respite for travelers. Inside a World Vision tent, handicapped refugees find practical assistance. Red Cross Europe and Red Crescent Turkey maintain service sites, too.
The SBDR team and Romanian Baptist churches established a border station to provide tea, coffee, charging stations, assistance directing refugees to the proper resources, and spiritual comfort.
It helped that the first Romanian volunteer at the border, according to national news reports, was Pastor Cornelush Miron, whose nearby church in Calfindesti was part of the regional Baptist association. Even before the government acted, Miron had launched a grassroots campaign on social media to assist the refugees, Leyerle said. Churches responded generously.
Miron introduced the SBDR team to the Romanian border guards, who are also firefighters.
“We had an ‘in’ with Pastor Cornelush,” Leyerle said. The DR team soon got to work, helping those crossing the border. Leyerle said 30 stuffed teddy bears handmade by seniors at his home church, First Baptist Church of The Colony, were quickly given to kids.
They talked to the survivors, praying with them, distributing Bibles, information, and hope.
The refugees’ stories were heartbreaking, Leyerle said, adding he had heard accounts of sexual violence and mass killings. One survivor showed him a photo of an unexploded Russian missile lodged in an apartment. Many cried openly, often saying had lost everything: their homes bombed, their bank accounts inaccessible, their businesses destroyed.
Some sank to their knees in gratitude and relief at finally finding safety. One explained she had survived the infamous explosion at a Mariupol theater which killed 300. She tearfully related accounts of unthinkable abuse of civilians by Russian troops.
Five adults and two children squeezed into a small car and traveled more than 900 miles to safety, dodging roaming gangs and Russian snipers, taking a week to accomplish a trip that should have been completed in two days.
“They came to us with horrendous, brutal stories … things we had not heard, things you cannot print,” Leyerle said.
Buses brought other refugees to the border, too.
Yet not everyone wants to leave Ukraine, Leyerle said, noting reports of some 50,000-100,000 displaced Ukrainians remaining just north of the border, still inside Ukraine, lodged in parks and empty buildings.
Romanian Baptist churches are sending supplies to these survivors as well, Leyerle said. The SBDR team loaded materials and mattresses onto trucks for these displaced peoples to be conveyed north by Ukrainian refugee volunteers.
Leyerle added that the situation could “turn on a dime” with a Russian offensive in that region, sending thousands once more across the border. Thus, a continued relief presence at the border is warranted since another massive influx of the displaced may well occur.
The region’s complex geopolitical situation is made even more challenging by the fact that the Ukrainians and Romanians, despite a shared border, do not share a common language.
Romanian Baptist alliance churches, despite their own financial challenges, have generously embraced their Ukrainian neighbors.
“Many churches across the 105 kilometers of the Suceava association quickly created shelters in their facilities to temporarily house refugees, who would spend a few nights before proceeding to destinations in western Europe,” Leyerle said.
Since the crisis began, Betleem Church has opened its basement, filled with partitioned rooms containing bedding and necessities, to refugees.
“We try to offer to them intimacy, quietness, hope, and practical love,” Pastor Croitor wrote in a recent communication. Betleem Church, with others in the Suceava association and broader Romanian Baptist Alliance, is involved in the supply chain conveying necessities to the displaced within Ukraine.
The groups, with IMB personnel and SBDR volunteers, also staff the border site they established with the help of Leyerle’s team.
Prominent at that border tent is a large blue and yellow banner produced by Leyerle’s team and featuring a QR code that links to a website in the Ukrainian language called “Hope for Ukraine.” The website contains a clear presentation of the gospel.
IMB President Paul Chitwood, who again visited the Romania-Ukraine border in early April, noted that the QR code had been made available to 5 million Ukrainians and that thousands of gospel conversations had ensued.
Betleem displays a similar banner, which, translated from Ukrainian, means: “Hope for Ukraine. How can we help you? The Romanian Baptist Church.” Betleem and other churches in the Suceava association are offering Bible studies to the refugees and providing children’s activities, in addition to lodging, Croitor said.
A second multistate SBDR team, including SBTC DR volunteer Terry James, left for Romania on March 30. SBTC DR Director Scottie Stice deployed to Romania April 7-14.
Donations toward the ongoing crisis response can be given here.