The young woman sitting in the Christian centre in Portugal owned by the mission 'Word of Life' in mid June 2022 told us she was thrilled to be going to stay with a Christian couple in Bradford. From there her plan was to move to London, where she had already managed to secure a place to study for an M.A. in Charity Management at St Mary's University Twickenham. In 'normal' times this would have been a sweet tale of a smart, highly-skilled and motivated person who had been head-hunted in her sector, and who had successfully risen through the ranks to become a key player in the administration of care for the disabled, promoting a game-changing attitude to the management of charities in Ukraine.
However...Olha Sokolova's serene, smiling face does not really reveal that she experienced immensely difficult times in the ongoing conflict in her home country. She had been living a peaceful life in eastern Ukraine (Luhansk) with her mother and two brothers in 2014. An avid lover of history and archaeology, Olha, who was at this time a teacher, had been on a dig in Russia when the armies of that country invaded her homeland. She was advised not to attempt to return to her home, and this was when her family began to reside in different areas of Ukraine, including in the city of Kharkiv; in latter times her mother and one of her brothers relocated to Odesa. One of Olha's siblings has been serving in the army, including in the city of Khershon, captured by the Russians. The other is an IT specialist, whose expertise has been used in military operations in the past.
Olha's mother refuses to leave the port city of Odesa. She has already fled once, from her home in eastern Ukraine. That was once-too-many times, so she is hanging on there in that port city, accompanied by her dog; meanwhile her children are scattered, trying to survive, and trying to help their countrymen and women to survive too.
After her first internal exile, Olha, with all her qualifications and skills (including some knowledge of mathematical methods in historical research, language abilities in Polish, Russian, and English, and experience as a volunteer in NGO work in Poland), was taken on as a tutor in what was to be a revolutionary scheme to educate students with Down Syndrome and other intellectual challenges, rejecting a more traditional Soviet-based model, and using all the best practices the organisation could find from all over the world. She and her colleagues had such 'success' that the Ukrainian authorities have on many occasions been forced to review their policy and practices on care for the disabled. Olha and her colleagues were guided by the Christian view that all life is sacred and valuable, and worthy of protection, care and nurturing.
When war broke out back in February 2022, however, Olha was working in a different post, as communications and fundraising manager in the charity 'Perspectiva 21.3' .This agency's core values are Christian, and the website tells us that it 'reaches its mission by providing support to people with intellectual disabilities to have meaningful day activities. For this purpose, we provide services of social and vocational training, with safe employment opportunities and teaching life skills for supported living. This is possible to achieve by joint efforts of partner and donor organizations, local businesses, churches, and municipal authorities.'
All of this wonderful work of helping people with different special needs, teaching life skills, finding employment for them, was halted when the Russians invaded Ukraine in February. Olha went to the bathroom in her home during that fateful night, saw that messages were coming into her phone, and realised that her worst fears were being realised. War had begun. With surprising presence of mind, she woke her flatmate to tell her to make sure she had a good breakfast, as they would need it! They packed quickly, picking out essential items for their evacuation from Kyiv. Olha's employers told her to take two months' salary, which they knew she would need very soon, and to get out of the city that they felt would become the target for Russian missiles.
The journey to Poland took days, for they, like so many others fleeing the capital, had to struggle amidst impossible quantities of traffic, find fuel for the car, take curfews and air-raid alarms into account, and pray for someone to be there to help them at each stage along the way. A trip that would normally take hours took days, but eventually they reached first Ternopil, then Lviv. Olha and her companion walked the last 12 kilometres to the Polish border to avoid sitting in a freezing vehicle for endless hours (remember those scenes of refugees dragging a trolley along the frozen paths?) Joining the queues of exiles, Olha's ability to speak Polish was already of great use to herself and others as she entered the country she had once served in as a volunteer.
But Olha's refugee journey hadn't ended! She was persuaded by her friend, who had family contacts in Israel, to go to that land as a place of refuge, so she spent some weeks in the country, in Tel Aviv, but caught Covid-19 there! Soon, however, she received a call for help from the Czech Republic. It came from the 'Word of Life' organisation, who were using their camp facilities to host Ukrainian refugees. They badly needed an interpreter, as well as someone to organise schooling for the growing group of refugee children. Who better than Olha? She had the gifts, the skills, the acquired experience. Most of all, she had the serenity that emanates from believing that she was there for a purpose, living under the sovereignty of God, and loved by her Saviour, serving him there as she had done during the previous more peaceful years. Olha set up a mini education system for the otherwise school-less children, and saw how many of the people she assisted then came along to the church services offered by her colleagues. Among them were dozens of unbelievers, and many professing believers who for a long time had forsaken gospel truth. This delights Olha!
Now that Kyiv is receiving some of its former residents again, or being flooded by displaced people, and now that the city is attempting to re-establish some kind of infrastructure, it is the more vulnerable who are still 'at the bottom of the pile' . Olha has been helping to get some projects up and running again. Bake4Ukraine is one such project, where some of the students assisted by the mother agency near Kyiv are now helping to bake bread and cook soup to keep fellow-citizens supplied with free food. Read about this project here
As mentioned above, we spoke to Olha when she was in Portugal. Her mentors had ordered her to rest there for a while, and we know only too well how exhausted the people helping in the relief effort are becoming. It didn't surprise us to know that Olha was suffering in this way. But we also believe that this young woman will carry on seeking to strive after excellence, using all her many gifts in the service not just of her fellow country men and women, but in that of her Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, whom she loves. Thankfully, she now has a visa to enter the UK, and her hosts are eager to welcome her soon!*
*Since writing this, Olha has arrived safely, and is already in the welcoming home of her hosts in Bradford, England.