Romanian Christians driving through snow storms and risking lives to help refugees from Ukraine
by Christine Leow // March 4, 2022, 12:14 am
Braving bitter cold, the Tullys and other volunteers travel hours to the border to hand out supplies to Ukrainian refugees as well as transport some to refugees in Bucharest, the capital city of Romania. All photos from Natalie Tully's Facebook.
For the past few days, Pastor William Tully and his wife Natalie (Ps Bill and Naty to those who know them) have slept only in spurts.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in the wee hours of Thursday morning (February 24), attacking on three fronts and launching missiles in several places, the couple has been travelling from their home in Bucharest, Romania, to the Romanian-Ukrainian border to rescue refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.
“We had children in the car, crying and exhausted because they had not slept in four days.”
Each trip involves stocking up the cars they can get hold of – Monday night’s effort included a mini van and a station wagon – with things the refugees waiting at the border might need, from medicine to warm clothing and blankets – and returning with refugees who have crossed into Romania and are in need of either shelter or safe passage.
It is late winter now and the weather, already a bitterly cold 3°C in the city, becomes a frigid 0°C as they head north towards the border. The drive on icy, snow-banked roads takes about four-and-a-half hours one way and includes a ride on the ferry across the Danube River which slows the journey tremendously.
On Monday night, the trip home with six refugees in tow took six hours.
“We had to drive through a snow storm. The roads are treacherous so you have to go slow. We didn’t get back till 4am,” said Ps Bill who heads the International Church of Bucharest.
Added Naty: “We had children in the car, crying and exhausted because they had not slept in four days.
“Some had escaped by train, others by car, others walked, depending on where in Ukraine they were coming from.”
Over four days, the couple has brought through some 25 refugees.
“I know of others who have brought through more,” said Ps Bill.
A call for help
The Tullys’ involvement with the rescue work started because of Naty’s father who is a pastor of a church in Moldova as well as a leader of many churches in the south of the country.
“Will you help? We have Ukrainian refugees heading your way.”
When the Russians began their onslaught, frightened Ukrainians escaped to neighbouring Moldova, a tiny nation just 5% the size of Ukraine and considered one of the poorest countries in Europe.
“Moldova is the closest access to get out of harm’s way,” explained Ps Bill.
Within 48 hours of the invasion, thousands had poured into Moldova. Churches there rallied to help.
“Churches there will do what they can possibly do. They are incredibly generous,” said Ps Bill.
But they were quickly overwhelmed.
“They need food, medicine.”
“My father-in-law called to say, ‘We are getting refugees, we need help.’”
To set the plea in context, Ps Bill shares some sobering facts. The average pay of a pastor in Moldova is about US$100. This is barely enough to sustain the family. Add a Ukrainian family or two and the burden becomes unbearable.
Then, came the calls from the Tullys’ own network of friends and contacts: “Will you help? We have Ukrainian refugees heading your way.”
So, over the weekend past, they called upon their church and their contacts from around the world to help on several fronts: To provide aid to the Moldovan churches helping the refugees there, to assist refugees making their way to Romania and to supply resources to those still in Ukraine.
“They need food, medicine. For those in Moldova, they also need money to buy food to feed the refugees. We need to shelter those coming here to Romania.
“The situation is evolving even as we speak,” said Ps Bill.
Just five minutes before they spoke to Salt&Light, the Tullys had received an urgent call for help. Some 200 Ukrainians were heading to Romania on buses. They will need to be sheltered in safe places.
Said Naty: “The majority are children and women. The possibility of them falling into the hands of human traffickers is very real.
“We need to send them to churches or places that we trust.”
Real lives, real needs
On the ground, the situation is grim.
“In different parts of the border, the lines are two to three days’ wait.”
Wrote Naty on her Facebook post on February 28: “Last night, we hosted our first group of refugees. The host shared that the family came only with the clothes on their back.”
So, their church has organised Grab-Bags with essentials for the refugees.
At the border, the Tullys are also working with the Romanian churches closest to the Romanian-Ukrainian border who are among the first points of contact and help for the Ukrainians coming in.
There are long lines forming on the Ukrainian side and Naty managed to get a pastor’s wife in that area to help bring resources to the people there as they await entry into Romania.
Said Naty on Facebook: “In different parts of the border, the lines are two to three days’ wait.
“Even those in cars probably are not keeping it warm all the time due to gas-shortage.”
Some of the needs are simple but they speak of the difficult situation the refugees are enduring.
“The needs are changing and we have to respond on the spot.”
Plasters are high on the list because some had walked all the way to the border and now nurse blistered feet.
Vitamin C and cold medicine are in demand because many have sore throats. They had escaped without proper documents and have had to wait in the punishing winter cold to be allowed into Romania.
The Ukrainians left behind need flour and oil to bake bread for the community because the local stores have run out of bread.
Heavy coats, blankets and even a military tent have been requested to protect those who are waiting from the elements.
For the men sleeping in the Tullys’ church because the open homes are sheltering the women and children, mattresses to sleep on were received with much thanks.
Ukrainians are not the only ones the Tullys have picked up from the border. They are helping an Afghan man who fled Ukraine. He has family in Belgium and they are raising funds to buy him a ticket to get there. So, finances are a big need.
“They are scared. Very few speak English.”
They have even heard of a group of Chinese Christians who are stuck in Ukraine because the roads out of the city have been destroyed and bridges blown up. They are in a precarious position because of the politics between Russia and China have made them unwelcome to the locals.
“It’s double the trouble for them,” said Naty in her Facebook video.
She added: “The needs are changing and we have to respond on the spot.”
For now, the Tullys are relying on their cars and those of their friends to ferry the refugees from the border. So, the numbers they can manage are small.
“If we have ways to move the people, that would be a new blessing. We might need to arrange for buses,” said Ps Bill.
“Last evening, we were told by the border police that there were fewer than normal coming through because the snow was falling. On a nicer day …”
Manpower is in short supply as well. Volunteers to help out at the border – “volunteers have not slept in four nights, they are tired” – and translators to interpret for the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking refugees are needed, said Naty.
“They are scared. Very few speak English and they have to make lifetime decisions in a moment,” added Naty in her video.
Close to heart and home
The unrest at hand is near to the Tullys not simply because it is happening right at their doorstep.
Naty has family in all the areas involved. Raised in Moldova, her parents still live there and she has relatives in Moldova – “cut me and I bleed Moldovan” – as well as relatives in Russia. She also has relatives on her mother’s side in the Ukraine because her mother is Ukrainian.
“The locals went to church as usual. They prayed, sang, cried with one another … and said their goodbyes just in case.”
“My cousin in Ukraine got arrested because he speaks Russian and they confused him for a Russian. They let him go (in the end) but he is petrified,” Naty told Salt&Light.
“My relatives are not leaving because of health issues.”
Instead, they have bunkered down in their cellar to wait things out. One cousin has been conscripted into the Ukrainian military, Ps Bill told Salt&Light.
Naty wrote in her Facebook post: “My relatives in Odessa saw and felt the first bombing and shooting on the first night from their window.”
On Day 3 of the invasion (February 26), Naty posted on Facebook an update from her family in Ukraine: “Russian tanks are already around Izmayil Region, 15 minutes from Moldovan border, one hour from my father’s church.
“Some of my mom’s family from Odessa live right next to the airport. They saw directly at 2am how the attack started. They saw and felt the bombing. They prayed and put the kids to bed.”
Her family in Ukraine no longer has access to pharmacies or food supplies. Some cannot leave their homes because the roads have been blocked.
“The locals are baking bread for the village. They went to church as usual. They prayed, sang, cried with one another … and said their goodbyes just in case.”
Added Naty in her post: “One of my relatives, a young mom with kids was turned down at the border … she didn’t have the right kind of passport to cross.
“We are not sure these are not Russians who stop Ukrainians from leaving.”
“Pray for the people left behind to persevere in their faith.”
Speaking to Salt&Light Naty said: “There is a lot of misinformation. The soldiers think they are rescuing the Ukrainians and that they would be welcomed.
“Some soldiers are Russian criminals let loose. They dress in Ukrainian uniforms and pretend to be Ukrainian but because of the language, Ukrainians speak Russian and also Ukrainian, they know these are not Ukrainians.
“Eyes on the ground, the criminals have gone crazy. My family saw them shoot civilians.”
That is why the volunteer drivers who travel into Ukraine with supplies are risking their lives. So far, the Tullys have managed to send in €7,000 (US$7, 780) worth of aid – medicine, winter wear, blankets – across the border.
Naty is not the only one with loved ones in Ukraine. Many of the members of her church have relatives there, too.
“Pray for the people left behind to persevere in their faith,” wrote Naty.
Light in the dark
In the midst of these dark days with more looming ahead, the Tullys have seen good come out of it.
“Believers have called from all over the world.”
When they reached out to their contacts for help, several responded.
Said Ps Bill: “To say the response has been overwhelming would be understating it. People from across the globe sent resources. Some volunteered to come. We saw the Body of Christ at work.”
Added Naty: “People we have not talked to for over 20 years gave us their connections and resources. Believers have called from all over the world.”
The Tullys are now coordinating all these efforts.
“We are right now agents, call centre, suddenly we got a whole new set of jobs,” said Naty.
“Although it looks bad for us, God is in control.”
“We can’t take care of the whole of Ukraine but whatever God brings our way, we will try to meet their needs.”
They are also partnering churches in Romania and a Christian relief organisation, and working with the local police.
“God has used the war to bring Christians from all over the world and united believers like never before. Just a week ago, Christians were divided by Covid. This war brought us together.
“With God, a lot of things are possible even in a tragedy like this. Although it looks bad for us, God is in control.”
On a deeper level, Naty said that helping the refugees has reminded her that all believers are refugees in this world.
“We got so cosy with our jobs, our families. We think this transit, this world, is our destination, that the border we are in is where we should be.
“We want to bring comfort to those discouraged, hope to those who are hopeless.”
“We need to just pack the basic things and refocus on our final destination, just like the refugees focus on their destination.”
Ps Bill also sees opportunities to share the Gospel because some of the refugees are not believers.
“We want to bring comfort to those discouraged, hope to those who are hopeless. We want to be the hands and feet of Christ.
“We want to share the Gospel and allow people to hear that Christ loves them and wants a relationship with them.”
Added Naty: “God is trying to do something amazing.”
How you can help
- Financial support
- Military tents for Romania and Molodva
How you can pray
For the refugees:
- Safety of refugees especially in rough weather
- Protection for the mums with children that they do not fall into wrong hands because of the high risk of human trafficking
- The Gospel to be preached and refugees to cling to the hope of Jesus
For the helpers:
- Safety of those going into Ukraine with supplies;
- Safety for drivers ferrying the refugees into host countries;
- Strength for volunteers at the border who are the first responders and who have not slept much;
- Wisdom and discernment for the Tullys on how to manage resources and get more;
- Provision of translators;
- God’s care for the families of volunteers who are not getting as much attention and care as usual.
For those in Ukraine:
- Protection and strength for those fighting in the country and the medical personnel who stayed behind to help
- Churches and locals to preserve as they host refugees themselves with the limited resources
“We need God’s miracle”: Christians in Ukraine plead for united prayer
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