Czech United Methodists help house Ukrainian refugees

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Key points:

  • Since early March, Poušť United Methodist church camp has hosted about 19 guests who fled their homes after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
  • It is one of five properties of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic serving as a shelter for Ukrainian refugees.
  • The United Methodist Committee on Relief is working with 17 partners throughout eastern Europe to provide aid to the people of Ukraine.

Editor’s Note: In late May, a team from United Methodist News, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries visited church refugee ministries in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and western Ukraine to share stories of the United Methodist presence in the wake of such tragedy and ongoing need. UM News has agreed to use first names only for some of those interviewed to protect their safety.

The Poušť United Methodist church camp would normally have hosted children at camp this summer, but instead, it is serving as a home away from home for Ukrainian mothers and their children.

Since early March, the camp has hosted about 19 guests who fled their homes after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. It is one of five United Methodist properties in the Czech Republic serving as a shelter for Ukrainian refugees.

The Rev. Jana Křížova, coordinator of refugee ministries for the Czech and Slovak Republics Conference, said the refugee ministry happened naturally: “It’s in the Methodist DNA. You see need and do something about it.”

Natasha walks with her son, Artem, at the Poušť United Methodist church camp, where they are staying. They fled their home near Odesa, Ukraine, to escape the war with Russia. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Natasha walks with her son, Artem, at the Poušť United Methodist church camp, where they are staying. They fled their home near Odesa, Ukraine, to escape the war with Russia.

Karel Nyerges, director of Diakonia of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic, said that from the beginning of the war, the church knew people would be coming and wanted to use spaces they knew were available.

“It was winter and camp hadn’t started, so we moved them here,” he said. “As the war goes on, it will be more complicated for the long term, since the camp isn’t suitable for winter. We are seeking possible places they can move to.”

Katie Hills Uzoka (left) of the United Methodist Committee on Relief visits with Vlada and her son, Dima, at the Poušť United Methodist church camp. The mother and child fled their home near Mykolaiv, Ukraine, after her husband went to war as part of Ukraine’s compulsory military service. Uzoka is director of international disaster response for the denomination’s relief agency. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Katie Hills Uzoka (left) of the United Methodist Committee on Relief visits with Vlada and her son, Dima, at the Poušť United Methodist church camp. The mother and child fled their home near Mykolaiv, Ukraine, after her husband went to war as part of Ukraine’s compulsory military service. Uzoka is director of international disaster response for the denomination’s relief agency.

Diakonia is a nonprofit organization of the church that provides social services such as homeless shelters, addiction recovery and children’s educational programs. Nyerges said this is the organization’s first experience with evacuees. They are trying to find ways for children to continue their education, and possibly find work opportunities for the mothers.

“I don’t know what would be if we were not in this place,” said Olha, who fled the Odesa region in early March with her four children and found the camp after a friend’s husband recommended it. She said intense bombing made her fear for her children’s safety.

“The most important thing is that our children are safe and with us. It was difficult to leave behind all that we built all those years. We left relatives, brothers, sisters, parents,” she said.

Irina (right) and her daughter, Nadia, fled their home near Odesa, Ukraine, to escape the war with Russia. They are staying at the Poušť United Methodist church camp. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Irina (right) and her daughter, Nadia, fled their home near Odesa, Ukraine, to escape the war with Russia. They are staying at the Poušť United Methodist church camp.

Vlada left her home, a small village near Mykolaiv, after her husband went to war as part of Ukraine’s compulsory military service.

“I didn’t want to stay there alone because of the war,” she said. “It’s good here. People prepare everything for us with love, and our caretaker is like a father to us.”

Bohumil Opočenský, the caretaker of the camp, said his hope has been to provide some sense of “normal” for the mothers and especially their children.

“It has been great to see the change,” he said. “When they first came, they were frightened, they came with nothing. Slowly they started to laugh; the children started to play. It’s been rewarding to watch.”

Guests from Ukraine join with Eduard Holtman (left) and the Rev. Zdeněk Neužil of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic in praying before lunch at the Veselka United Methodist retreat center near Vimperk, Czech Republic, where they are staying. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Guests from Ukraine join with Eduard Holtman (left) and the Rev. Zdeněk Neužil of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic in praying before lunch at the Veselka United Methodist retreat center near Vimperk, Czech Republic, where they are staying.

Natasha, who fled the Odesa region with her son in late March, said that though she hopes to return, she is making a home for herself at the camp. She shows off a small patch of flowers she’s planted: lilies of the valley, which are often used to signify happiness.

“Fear and anxiety is why I left with my child, and we traveled three days to get here,” she said. “My parents and friends stayed there, and I miss family the most.”

The Rev. Zdeněk Neužil of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic visits with Ukrainian refugees Anna and her daughter Polina at the Veselka United Methodist retreat center. Neužil serves as caretaker at the retreat home. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Zdeněk Neužil of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic visits with Ukrainian refugees Anna and her daughter Polina at the Veselka United Methodist retreat center. Neužil serves as caretaker at the retreat home.

The camp has been funded in part through a $10,000 solidarity grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which paid for immediate needs like food, coal and fuel.

UMCOR is currently working with 17 partners — United Methodists throughout eastern Europe, ecumenical partners and non-governmental organizations — to provide aid to the people of Ukraine.

The Rev. Jack Amick, UMCOR’s director of global migration, said that in the immediate wake of the Russian invasion, the agency focused on basic necessities like food, shelter, transportation and medicine. As the crisis in Ukraine continues, he said the focus must now move to longer-term support projects, such as affordable, independent housing, mine clearance and therapy.

“The church in the Czech Republic is doing a great job at welcoming people and showing hospitality to the stranger — the main thing we’re supposed to do as a church,” Amick said.  

Video: Czech United Methodist camp houses Ukrainian refugees

The Poušť United Methodist church camp near Bechyně, Czech Republic, would normally have hosted children at camp this summer, but instead, it is serving as a home away from home for Ukrainian mothers and their children. It is one of five properties of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic serving as a shelter for Ukrainian refugees. Video by Francisco Litardo for UM News.

Veselka United Methodist retreat center near Vimperk is another host shelter for Ukrainian refugees. The house is often used as a weekend vacation residence for church members, but now it houses a small number of refugees.

The Rev. Zdeněk Neužil, who pastors Vimperk United Methodist Church and acts as caretaker of the retreat center, said that in the few months the Ukrainians have stayed there, they have all become family.

“When three of them returned home after staying with us, my daughter cried because she lost a friend,” he said.

How to help

To donate, please give to UMCOR’s International Disaster Response and Recovery fund, Advance #982450.

Anna fled her home near Kyiv on Feb. 24, the first day of the invasion.

“We woke up with the sound of helicopters flying very low, and we escaped to save the children,” she said.

They first attempted to find shelter near the city, but there was no room. They took cars and left town. She said they drove past dead bodies on the way, and a bridge out of town was bombed just after they crossed it. The car that carried her to Veselka bears holes from shrapnel.

“We didn’t know where we were going; we just went west,” she said. “I have a relative who is a pastor and asked him to pray for us and send us somewhere that would be according to God’s will. With the help of his prayers and help of God, we arrived here.”

Sergei (left) and Anna, who fled the war in Ukraine, show Eduard Holtman pictures of the destruction caused by the Russian invasion after lunch at the United Methodist Veselka church retreat center where Sergei and Anna are staying. Holtman is a lay speaker at Agapé United Methodist Church in Prague and regularly drives relief supplies to the Ukrainian border. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Sergei (left) and Anna, who fled the war in Ukraine, show Eduard Holtman pictures of the destruction caused by the Russian invasion after lunch at the United Methodist Veselka church retreat center where Sergei and Anna are staying. Holtman is a lay speaker at Agapé United Methodist Church in Prague and regularly drives relief supplies to the Ukrainian border.

Sergei, another houseguest, said he only planned to stay for a few days until he learned “what a marvelous friend” Neužil is. The owner of a mechanic shop in his home country, Sergei is now doing the same work here.

Being a widower with a small child, Sergei is exempt from compulsory military service. He also considers himself a conscientious objector.

“I don’t like weapons. I wouldn’t take a gun in my hands even against the Russians,” he said.

Ukrainian refugees Jeva (right) and Polina enjoy a hike atop Mářský Hill in Svatá Maří. Czech Republic. The Rev. Zdeněk Neužil of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic, brought a group to enjoy the view after lunch at the Veselka United Methodist retreat center, which is housing families from Ukraine who fled the war with Russia. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Ukrainian refugees Jeva (right) and Polina enjoy a hike atop Mářský Hill in Svatá Maří. Czech Republic. The Rev. Zdeněk Neužil of The United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic, brought a group to enjoy the view after lunch at the Veselka United Methodist retreat center, which is housing families from Ukraine who fled the war with Russia.

Anna’s children are able to attend school online and she hopes to find a job. Despite all they’ve been through, she said she’s begun to laugh again.

Both Neužil and Nyerges are concerned about the refugees’ ongoing mental health needs and want to make psychologists and counselors available.

“If the war goes on, the migrants will need psychologists, and I fear they are suppressing pain,” Nyerges said.

Vlada and her son, Dima, fled their home near Mykolaiv, Ukraine, after her husband went to war as part of Ukraine’s compulsory military service. They are staying at the Poušť United Methodist church camp near Bechyně, Czech Republic. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Vlada and her son, Dima, fled their home near Mykolaiv, Ukraine, after her husband went to war as part of Ukraine’s compulsory military service. They are staying at the Poušť United Methodist church camp near Bechyně, Czech Republic.

Křížova said that since United Methodist News was there, a number of the refugees have been able to return home; others have moved to areas where they have better opportunities to find work and become independent. Of the 98 refugees originally at the five shelters, 38 have stayed.

“We are still open to welcome Ukrainian refugees,” she said.

Urs Schweizer, assistant to Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe, recently shared a quote from Olga, a Ukrainian woman now living in the Czech Republic, describing her experience: "The Czech Republic will always leave a mark in our hearts and in the heart of every Ukrainian, because it kindly sheltered us, gave us a break from the sirens and allowed us to live in peace the spring and summer of this difficult year for all of Ukraine." 

Butler is a multimedia producer/editor and DuBose is staff photographer for United Methodist News. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted and the Rev. Yulia Starodubets pray with Oksana, who fled her home in northeastern Ukraine after the Russian military destroyed her apartment building. Oksana told Alsted that there is nothing left there to return to. She is staying in a former Soviet printing plant turned shelter in Uzhhorod, Ukraine. 

United Methodist ministry with Ukraine

UM News, UMCOR and Global Ministries, visited refugee ministries in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and western Ukraine. Read more about the church's ongoing response to this tragedy.
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