A Ukraine Story.

Back in March I booked a round trip flight to Warsaw, from April 2 to April 30th.

I had no plan, but I wanted to volunteer in Ukraine, so the plane ticket was the first step.

A few days later I found a video on Facebook, an interview with Volodomyr Prokip, a young pastor leading up the Methodist Church in Lviv, in western Ukraine. I called him up, he was housing displaced people at his church, and helping others get to the Polish border, to safety. I asked him if he needed help, he told me “Come over, we can use help, bring gun holsters, medical supplies and kneepads for the local territorial defense brigade.”

I reached out to the folks at my church here in Land O’ Lakes, spent some of my own money and got many donations.

A few days before I left this was the dining room table in my home:

Some people in my life (like my daughter Claire) thought I was nuts to go over there. I knew that going to Lviv was NOT as dangerous as other parts of Ukraine (like Mariupol) but there was certainly a risk in going over. Weird thing is that when I woke up on the morning of April 2nd there was a bible verse going through my brain;

“This is the day that the Lord hath made, we shall rejoice and be glad in it!”

Mom and Dad took me to the airport… total weight on my baggage was 80+ pounds.

I flew to Poland because there are no operational airports in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.

I don’t speak Polish or Ukranian, but during my time in Europe there was always someone around who spoke basic English… thank goodness!

I landed in Warsaw around noon on a Monday, so I took a cab over to the bus station and bought a bus ticket (for $32) that would take me east to Lviv, just across the Ukranian border.

I was the only American on the bus, many of the folks on the bus were Ukranians who had fled west to Poland in the previous month and were now deciding to return home in April. In early April western Ukraine was safer than eastern Ukraine, fewer incoming Russian missiles, but of course this changed later in the war…

The bus left Warsaw at 4PM, slowly plodding east to the Poland / Ukrainian border. There was a woman on the bus who worked in Ukraine as a high school English teacher, so we talked a bit and got to know each other.

In both Poland and Ukraine there is standard English instruction in middle school and high school, so most young people speak enough English to help a clueless American like me.

Whenever I met Ukrainian people and told them I was there to volunteer with the church I would always get a warm response… I grew to love the people of Ukraine in my time there.

About 2 hours into the long bus ride an older woman sitting behind me got a phone call and she started crying with tremendous sadness. Other people got upset as well so I asked the English teacher “What is she so upset about?”

That woman had just learned that her son, in the Ukranian Army, had been killed on the eastern front.

This conflict suddenly felt that much more real to me, the Russian Invasion was no longer something far away on CNN, it was right there in the bus, in the sound of a Mother weeping, in the faces of the other people comforting her. I began to cry, because I couldn’t imagine getting a call like that, about my own children….

The bus was delayed for about an hour at the Ukranian border, the border officer looked very closely at my passport and I explained to him how I was going to Lviv to volunteer with the church. I showed him a printout with information about Pastor Prokip and the address of the church in Lviv.

The slow bus arrived in Lviv at 1AM, and martial law was in effect so the pastor could not drive to pick me up without risking arrest. I looked at the GPS on my phone (which was at 10% battery) and decided to hike the 2.5 kilometers to Pastor Prokip’s apartment.

Both duffels and my backpack topped 80 pounds, so there I was, walking in the cold through a Ukranian city in the middle of the night with 2 heavy bags that made my arms ache.

I made the decision to go there, but I remember talking to God on this long walk, asking him if I was supposed to be there, in that moment, stopping every 300 feet to set the bags down and take a break.

I think I was meant to be there, walking along that street.

When I finally reached the apartment building I took this picture to remember that moment:

I’m amazed that Pastor Volodymyr Prokip welcomed a total stranger into his home (a crazy American), but we quickly became friends in the following weeks.

This guy is only 32 years old, yet he heads up a church that houses displaced people, and he helps everyone who comes to his church, no questions asked. When I got there in April he had already sent his wife and 2 sons to the Czech republic to get them out of harm’s way.

Here are some of the young people staying at the church, many of them lost their homes in eastern Ukraine due to Russian shelling:

My first full day in Lviv we helped a family move out of their apartment and pack up their belongings to move to Canada. I watched Pastor Prokip trying to move people to the border in a tiny 4 passenger car, so after a few days of working with him I called Harvester Methodist back here in Florida and we started a fund to raise money to help buy a van for the pastor’s church.

It took a month, but we raised $12,000 that is now being sent to Ukraine as this is being written.

There was also a large volunteer center in Lviv, so on days when Volodymyr did not need my help I would go there and volunteer:

One of the first people I met there was a high school kid named Vika, she spoke fluent English, I would see her every time I went there, and I predict she will be President of Ukraine one day:

Vika reminded me of my daughters back home, and I admired how she was always there volunteering and giving of her time.

Vika… when you run for Presidente I will return to Ukraine to be your campaign manager!

This retired gentleman was also at the volunteer center on a daily basis:

Right before I went to Ukraine I bought a new Samsung S21, all these pictures were taken on that phone.

Sometimes when I was done working for the day I would walk around Lviv taking pictures of the many churches and lovely buildings in this 800 year old city:

Lviv was part of Poland before WWII, then part of the USSR from 1945 until Independence in 1991. The entire city is full of lovely buildings and squares and hidden spots with quaint restaurants and places to see. There was an 8PM curfew, so the entire city closed early, but everything was open during the day.

There were many times when the War seemed far away and non-existent.

In mid-April of 2022 there where not that many missile attacks… but the air raid sirens were pretty common, this is what they sounded like:

For the rest of my life I’ll never hear this sound again without thinking of all the Ukrainian people who died in these senseless attacks. It’s a haunting sound, especially when 4 or 5 sirens start sounding off in the distance… echoing off the buildings.

Putin is a real bastard, and I hope him and his military leaders die a horrible death for what they’ve done to the innocent civilians in Ukraine and Syria.

There will be a reckoning.

Lviv is in Western Ukraine, 40 kilometers from the Polish border to the west. For this reason Lviv was safer then the cities in the eastern part of the country like Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson or Mariupol.

When I got to Ukraine in early April the Russians had already been pushed out of Kyiv (the first true Russian defeat) and the atrocities of Bucha were revealed in the days that followed.

Any student of history knows that Russian soldiers raped and murdered German civilians after Germany lost WWII, and the sad thing is how the Russian military leadership encouraged their soldiers to do the same in this conflict, even awarding medals to soldiers who committed war crimes in Bucha.

Both BBC and CNN had very accurate coverage of this conflict, with reporters on the ground in very dangerous places across Ukraine. Certainly this conflict has been recorded extensively, by drone cameras, by victims, by soldiers and the news media as well.

My plane ticket to Warsaw spanned April 3 to April 30th, so I decided to visit a friend over in Germany for my last week in Europe. Pastor Prokip drove me to the Polish border, and on that same MORNING Russian missiles fell on Lviv and killed 7 people. The area that was hit was on the same street I would use to walk to the volunteer center every morning….

This church was very close to the missile attacks.

Sunset over the Lviv train station… another site that was bombed in the weeks after I was there.

Other than raising the $12,000 for the church van I don’t know that my trip made any difference whatsoever, but I’m so glad I went there, I’m grateful to have become friends with Volodymyr Prokip and the people in his church, I’m glad I met Vika and the other folks at the volunteer center…

My parents and the folks at Harvester Methodist Church prayed for me, and I think that helped.

When I got back it was amazing to see everyone again.

Some thoughts:

I felt grateful to be alive. I trusted God, and He brought me back safe, to share this story.

It was a leap of Faith to step away from my work for a month and go to Ukraine.

We are so fortunate to live in a country that is safe and insulated from war.

I felt called to go, and it was the right thing to answer that call.

Before I went to Ukraine I was writing my 3rd book, and going there and having this experience helped me develop some of the ideas for that next project. If I don’t write much on this blog in the next few months, it’s because I’m using that material for my book.

I had some adventures in Poland and Germany, but that is for another blog post yet to be written!

Ben Alexander

May 16th : 2022