Update June 23
This year, as well as continuing to host over 100 refugees, Great Change Refugee Centre decided to run a series of 4 youth camps over the summer. The kids are from families displaced by the war, who have stayed in the refugee centre over the past year and have settled locally. They asked us to bring reinforcements and help with their first camp, and the team of 8 of us just got back.
We quickly realised the leadership team and many of the volunteers where exhausted. Some had been working around the clock (literally all night) for the last few weeks to complete the building that would sleep the kids. Others had been on site for over a year, missed their old life, and were emotionally exhausted from helping refugees who have been through so much.
We listened to many refugees. One spoke of her 11 kids, including three sons who are all in the Ukrainian army. One of them had been captured by the Russian army and she was still waiting to hear news of him.
Another lady described the experience of living in a city being shelled, and then how much worse it was to live there once it was taken over by the Russian soldiers. After being physically abused by the soldiers, she found it unbearably intimidating seeing them in the street, and in her anxiety developed ticks. She escaped and was taken in by Great Change refugee centre, who helped by giving her accommodation, food, a listening ear and space to process what had happened.
One of the leaders of the refugee centre, Edward, explained that when they started working with the refugees their reaction to the stories they heard was hugely emotional. Over a year later, it was hard to invest the same energy in each refugee, and hard not to feel emotionally numb to each next painful story.
He also showed us a photo from a couple of years ago and pointed to friends and family explaining, “they’ve gone, they’ve gone”. Many fled Ukraine in the first few weeks of the war. Many who have stayed consider those who fled the country to be ‘traitors’, and he fears the problems this will cause in the years to come. During our stay some of our team were able to pastorally support the leadership team who were dealing with so much.
The 60 kids arrived just as the site was finished for them. Within 24 hours the Ukrainian team asked our team of 8 to run all the activities, games, crafts, sports, and other sessions, to relieve some of the pressure they were under. Our team really stepped up and the kids were given a fantastic week of fun. We can’t imagine the upheaval and challenges these children have faced over the last year and a half, but it was great to see and hear how joyful they were and how much they had enjoyed the week.
A couple of days into the camp the Nova Kakhova dam was destroyed. The flood water reached the city of Kherson which was only a relatively short 8 hours drive away. The Ukrainian team wanted to drive to Kherson with supplies from their storehouse. They asked if we could add our minibus to the convoy, which we agreed to. It was a 6am start, followed by lots of tricky overtaking of lorries on single track roads pitted with potholes. We dropped off food and water to a centre on the outskirts of the city. We then headed to the floodwater to drop of a small boat for one of the team to use to search for people trapped by the flooding. As we were doing so, shelling started on the banks of the flood water. It was sad to see the volunteers and relief workers being targeted and intimidated like this.
The impact of the destruction of the dam is hard to overemphasise, with thousands of homes flooded and families with no access to drinking water or food. For now, most don’t want to leave, despite their houses being completely flooded. More pets were coming back from the rescue operations than people. They judged that the risk of disease from the heavily polluted and infected floodwater, living in a flooded house, and avoiding landmines washed downstream seemed like a smaller risk than leaving houses and possessions and trying to settle in overcrowded schools and local centres.
Despite these difficult scenes it was so powerful to see the work of the volunteers from the refugee centre and their friends in Kherson tirelessly and continuously helping those in need (not just dropping in for a week like us). Since we returned to the UK, they have continued to make regular trips to Kherson to drop off supplies. They are also running another 3 weeks of camps for older children, and planning for how they can offer more beds to those seeking refuge from Kherson.
Our team’s last day in Ukraine was emotional for many of the Ukrainian team as well as us. Evelin runs the refugee centre with her husband Slavik, and reflected through tears how much she valued the support the UK team had given, at a time when they were “running on empty”. One of the team, Pete, stayed for a further week to help practically around camp, and reflected just how many projects they are juggling.
For those who pray, do pray for Great Change’s ongoing work, for emotional resilience and determination for these incredible people as they continue to serve those in need.
Update May 2023
A team of 8 is heading to Great Change Refugee centre in Ukraine on 8th June to run a kids camp for 7-14 year old refugee kids that have settled near the centre.
It will be a challenge given the distance, language and culture differences, but we hope we will be able to offer a fun week for the kids to be kids, play games and have a good time.
We are still sending monthly donations to help keep this refugee centre alive, but our money is now running out. Do give to support their incredible work.
The are also looking to refurb a building at a cost of £60,000 in order to increase the number of refugees they can host from 120 to 190.
The Great Change Refugee Centre has recently had to move site as their previous landlord put the rental up and they couldn't afford the new terms. They fearer the whole operation would need to close, but within a few weeks another property / site became available. They have been able to buy this for a small fraction of the true value as the previous owner was so impressed with what they have been doing.
The well, and filtration system that we've funded has made a huge difference - no need for the 2 hour round trip to buy more water each day, and no need for these ongoing costs.
Do see our Facebook page for more pictures and videos.
Update October 2022
There have been many incredible developments at Great Change Refugee centre in Ukraine. They have now looked after over 800 refugees, and currently have 170 people staying with them. We've been sending £1,500 to £2,000 monthly to support them with their ongoing costs.
We've been able to help them with £6,000 to pay for the development of a new local site, as the landlord of the existing site isn't able to let them stay there rent free any longer. They have a rent free 3 year lease on the new site which is an incredible result.
We've also recently paid for a well to be dug so they don't have to transport in water each day (they live in the country with no pipes to supply water). This will save £2,000 per month. It was thrilling to see the taps being turned on and water flowing out.
We plan to continue supporting this centre, but our funds are now running low, so any further donations are appreciated.
Update 22 June 2022
I heard the expression “Ukraine Fatigue” for the first time this week. As we seek to stand with Ukranians and show continued proactive support, it seemed like a good time to give an update on the project.
So far we’ve spent nearly £26,000 on the below support for Ukrainian refugees. Scroll down to see exactly what on.
On the whole, donations plateaued after the first trip. Therefore, we have deliberately not spent all of the fund (as easy as that would be), to enable us to continue to give ongoing support for two key projects:
1) The 100 truck project. Food is difficult to find in some locations across Ukraine. This can be due to fighting on the frontline or due to damaged infrastructure in many other areas. We are regularly sending £3,000 to Emanuel refugee centre in Galati which is enough to fill a van full of food. This is then transported to places in Ukraine that have asked for it. Sometimes the food is kept at that location and cooked to feed people who come along for handouts. Other times it is divided up into family packets and taken out into the surrounding villages where supplies are short. Emanuel have an ambition to send 100 trucks of food into Ukraine. Chris and Pete journeyed into Ukraine with one of these trucks to take it to a refugee centre where they saw this amazing work first hand.
2) Great Change Church Refugee Centre in Ukraine. This is the refugee centre in Ukraine that Chris and Pete visited. This is currently hosting 188 refugees, and requires around £6,000 to operate a month (this mainly covers utilities as food is delivered from the 100 truck project and other similar projects in Romania). These utility costs are met from local Ukrainians as we are their only connection to the west. We have been in close contact with the leaders at this refugee centre and have been sending cash when needed to help pay for bills.
Here are some of the stories from the food that has been delivered
Spend so far…
The more funds we raise – the more we can do, and the faster we can spend, so do share donate, share this link, and see how much support we can offer.
Knighton to Ukraine Project Summary at 22nd April 2022
It’s been a privilege to be able to go to Galati in the south east of Romania and to Ukraine and represent the huge team behind us: those encouraging us & donating.
We’ve now been out twice and in two short weeks we’ve made such strong bonds with some incredible people. From mothers and children sharing their feelings at some of the most vulnerable times of their lives, to incredible volunteers giving up their time to help in any way they can. Each team member has their own story of how their heart has been bonded to others in Ukraine or near the border. There are money more stories – but here are a few.
Helping at the border - a young Mum
One young mum, Elvira and her one year old child, Yegor, came through the border and I was helping them with their suitcases. Yegor was crying. I made eye contact with him and couldn’t help thinking of my two daughters. Playing peekaboo made him smile and Elvira started to relax a little. As tears welled up in her eyes she explained how he had been crying so much recently. The sound of bombs going off every night around the house unsettled him – he didn’t like the noise and vibrations that had been going on since the first day of the war in Kherson. She arrived on foot, and had no idea what was next. Her partner was still at home. Her broken heart was breaking mine too.
She was so vulnerable - she had no layers of protection left. I would have done anything to help in that moment, but I couldn’t stop the war or bring her partner over the border. So we did what we went out to do and met her immediate needs. One of the local church volunteers let one of our team use her car, and they drove an hour to the border with a pushchair they had in store. She was trying to get to Constanta where she knew someone but had no transport or accommodation. We were able to arrange onward transport. An incredible volunteer at the border spent over an hour ringing around a list of places that have volunteered to take in refugees in Constanta, and eventually found somewhere for her to stay. The smile on her face when she was given the buggy and told she had a bed for that night in Constanta, was priceless. For me, that moment made the whole trip seem worthwhile.
Helping at the border - Irina and Eugene
There is an incredible team of volunteers at the border. Many of the volunteers here have full time jobs and family lives they are juggling. I spoke with a young couple (Irina and Eugene) who are engaged to be married. They both have full-time jobs with a lot of responsibility. Their employer agreed for them to work remotely, so they put some refugees in their flat in Bucharest, and now rent somewhere in the village next to the border. Each day they start work at 9am, finish at 6pm, and go straight to border head up the volunteers there and sort the logistics out (finding beds, onward travel and meeting immediate needs). The last ferry comes in at 1:30am and they stay until after 2am to ensure everyone is checked in and has their needs met. We were at the border for a few evenings helping and on two of those evenings neither of them found time to eat. The volunteer above, who spent one hour sorting accommodation for Elvira and Yegor, was Irina. No detail was too small or task too great for her to take on.
We talked to Irena about the feeling of connection and helplessness to address the big needs. She explained you have do what you can and have patience. Sometimes solutions take a long time. The prior week two teenage orphans crossed the border on their own at 1:30am, their parents no longer around. The social services would be responsible for their wellbeing but the kids were desperate for this not to be the case. At 4am Irina and Eugene put the teenagers in their car ready to drive 4 hours to a nearby city where they had found someone to take them in. Just before they set off, their anticipated 4 hour journey was cut to 30 minutes as another option became available. Irina reflected that there is always a solution with patience and hard work.
I was keen to get a photo of this amazing, powerful and humble couple to help ground these reflections, but they insisted it wasn’t about them, they had no interest in showing their faces.
Into Ukraine – food drop off
During our second week, we had heard of a refugee centre (/centre for displaced people) in Ukraine that was taking in 150 refugees and supplying free food and accommodation for those who have fled their homes due to bombing and fighting. They are renting two buildings in the countryside, in an area that has not as yet experienced bombing or fighting. Refugees have come over from all over Ukraine to find a safe place where they can stay, have a roof over their head and access to food.
They are also collecting food to distribute to areas that are on the front line of the fighting. In these areas food can be very difficult to find as shops are not open or not able to get hold of stock. So local people are reliant on charities. The storage area and refugee centre are co-ordinated by a combination of three local churches.
On Saturday 16th April we decided to use some of the £37k of donations to respond to requests from distribution centres in Mykolaiv for some basic food supplies that came through a day earlier. We were told that over Easter we would not be able to find the right staff to pull together such a big food order, and the items we were asking for would be sold out as we needed large quantities and there was so little time between our request and when we needed them. We decided to go to the wholesaler anyhow, and managed to meet the entire need that we had been presented with for a cost of £2,000. The pallets we put together would fit on one van, and despite being told we would not be able to find a “fixer” or a van to hire, 24 hours later we had both lined up for Monday 18th April.
On Monday 17th April we met the fixer at 8:30am, spent half an hour correcting one small part of the paperwork (vital correction!), and headed off to the wholesaler to pick up the food. We were concerned when looking at how low the van was sitting after the food was loaded. A warning light flashed up on the van, and a few minutes later a second one appeared. Our fixer had never used this particular van before, but he had done this trip many times, and was confident, so we set off for Ukraine praying the lights didn’t reflect any serious issues. We are looking to see if we can get 2 vans donated and driven out to help with transport from Galati and from Ismail.
We decided to agree to requests of a few tins of meat for border staff and checkpoint guards. We were there to help Ukrainians, and these were Ukrainians trying to support their families.
As we headed in there were many army / military checkpoints, and we were very thankful for our Ukrainian fixer who was able to get us through the guns, anti-tank defences and concrete/sandbag barricades. Only a couple of days prior to our visit, there were two saboteurs caught monitoring and recording the guards’ movements and routines at the checkpoints. It would have been intimidating without him.
The drive took about an hour, plus a few hours stopped at borders and check-points. We arrived at the pin drop location where we had arranged to meet, and within a few minutes were greeted warmly and taken to the warehouse where we unloaded the food from the van. The food is then picked up by volunteers from Mykolaiv who risk their lives taking it to the front line where bombs are falling daily and heavy fighting is ongoing. One area it supplies includes a shelter/church providing around 500 hot meals a day to people. It is supplemented with other donations and split into household boxes to be given to individuals.
Into Ukraine – To the refugee centre
We arrived a little later than expected at the centre and with the 8pm curfew fast approaching we decided to flex our plans and stay the night. As we ate dinner we realised what an incredible place it is. Its location in Ukraine means the fathers, brothers, sons etc can be together with the rest of the family (most men of fighting age can’t leave Ukraine) which helped give it a more relaxed feel. After we finished eating, the kids got up and sang a song and everyone joined in. There was huge applause at the end. The atmosphere and community were so special: the local volunteers had created an atmosphere where the refugees felt at home whilst the volunteers were facilitating in the background.
Edward, one of the church leaders who had the idea of the centre lives on the site and spends all his time with the refugees. His explained how it was important to give the refugees the best possible experience. Standards were incredibly high – the food cooked up by the volunteers was restaurant standard. One of the church family has a bakery and provides free fresh bread and pastries every day (they were delicious). Edward said his job was to be available to the refugees and especially to be a listening ear to those needing to process their current situation.
The centre receives 80% of its food from donations from Romania, with only 20% being bought in fresh. Water has to be bought in, and waste taken away as there are no pipes this far into the countryside. Along with the electricity, gas, warehouse rent, and other bills, the whole operation costs around £6,000 per month. They are living hand to mouth, and had a fraction of what they needed for next month. They money they have is from donations from local Ukrainians doing what they can. It was a joy to be able to help them with this with some of your donations. They are also looking for a van to use to transport food around.
If you would like to donate so we can send more food into Ukraine and support projects like this please do. As you can see there is no shortage of ways donations can be effectively used. All of the money raised goes straight to helping as the teams are all self-funded. There is no overhead like there is in large organisations and the effectiveness is multiplied by the hours of free voluntary work.
See a video of this trip from our Facebook page here here https://fb.watch/cxkW8F-TLx/
Do share it if you feel able, so more people will see it and hit the donate button
Our time in Galati
The Romanian Church / refugee centre we stayed with in Galati (Biserica Crestina Emanuel) are carrying out the most phenomenal work hosting over 70 refugees. As our time at the centre progressed, we understood more and more just how much they are doing, most of which was not the glamourous eye catching stuff. The list is long but includes the accommodation that they are providing, washing and cleaning bedding, cleaning toilets, hoovering and sweeping floors, providing 3 meals a day, help with online schooling the kids receive, researching and buying train & bus tickets, arranging accommodation, transport to and from the border, medical help, emotional support, supplying clothing, shoes and basic necessities like deodorant and pain killers, buying trucks of food to go into Ukraine, playing games with the kids, translating between Russian, Romanian and English, I could go on.
It would be remarkable for any big business to plan and deliver on this, but for a small army of volunteers (most of this is done by around 10 people) to come together in their spare time and achieve all this is nothing short of miraculous. It is especially impressive given the existing voluntary work the church continues. Half way through our first week a local lady dropped into the church. She had been abandoned as a child. Her life was a real mess. Volunteers, including one from our team spent time with her, listening and talking through her problems and challenges. She is now coming back regularly for support.
It was obvious local volunteers from the church were working incredibly hard, and stretched thin. Some were really tired: one was juggling two kids with COVID and spending 12 hours a day at church serving the refugees. One of the things we did was take pressure off these volunteers by helping with many of the tasks listed above. So each morning we spent a couple of hours cleaning (bathrooms, toilets, sweeping and vacuuming floors). As well as some of the jobs listed above, we organised store rooms that were full of boxes or clothes, piled to the ceiling, A few days later one of the volunteers came down to pick up a shampoo for one for one of the refugees and explained how much time and stress was saved due to this organisation. We also added privacy for the refugees by creating mini bedrooms in communal sleeping areas and putting up curtains.
There is a need that is greater than we can resolve, but what we are doing is making a difference to those we’re helping. Can you, your church, any of the groups you are involved in, or your workplace donate so we can do more?
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