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Missionaries in Ukraine weigh whether to stay or go

The U.S. government and local authorities give conflicting information


A military exercise in western Ukraine in September Associated Press/Photo by Pavlo Palamarchuk

Missionaries in Ukraine weigh whether to stay or go

Ukrainian and American officials delivered mixed messages this week as the situation in Ukraine intensified, leaving unanswered questions for foreigners who must decide whether to leave the country. U.S. President Joe Biden warned of an “imminent invasion” by Russian troops flanking Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, but Ukraine’s defense minister downplayed the urgency and said on Tuesday there was “no need to have your bags packed.”

The situation presents a particular challenge to American missionaries and their organizations. Some groups are requiring their members to pack up and leave. Most Christian organizations WORLD contacted declined to comment on their evacuation status, citing security concerns. But some missionaries WORLD reached said they felt safe enough to stay put for now. 

Bob Burnham, a missionary with Mission to the World (MTW), has lived in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa for 25 years. His family decided to stay, partly because of the relative calm in their city. “I haven’t seen a soldier in a long time. It doesn’t look like a city that’s about to go to war at all,” Burnham said. “Everyone’s in the park sledding with their kids and that kind of thing. It doesn’t feel like we’re in any kind of danger.” (MTW is allowing its missionaries to assess the situation on their own and speak independently.)

An estimated 100,000 Russian troops have massed near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia and neighboring Belarus in the north. NATO is moving more forces to eastern Europe, and the United States has put 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployments amid the uncertainty surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move.

The U.S. State Department this week issued a travel advisory for Ukraine. It also authorized the voluntary evacuation of nonessential embassy personnel and the mandatory departures of the families of diplomats. Burnham attended a U.S. Embassy virtual meeting on Tuesday and described it as underwhelming: “It wasn’t urgent by any means.”

But this could be the calm before the storm, so Burnham has two additional criteria that would trigger his action plan of evacuating with his wife and three daughters to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv: Moscow increasing its surrounding troop presence from 100,000 to 150,000 or the U.S. Embassy mandating evacuations of its essential personnel.

Still, some Americans in Ukraine are saying their farewells—many at the request of their sending mission organizations. One missionary, whom WORLD is identifying only as Michael to protect his safety, received word this week that his organization was evacuating all 50 people affiliated with the group, including children, from Ukraine. He trusts his leadership but is mourning this decision: “One of the things about missionary life is through thick and thin you get to earn credibility when you stay. We were here through the 2014 conflict and didn’t leave, and people remembered that, and we were able to share the gospel and do great things. And so it’s hard to leave now when we don’t feel we need to.”

In 2014, Russian separatists took over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Fighting between separatist and Ukrainian forces has killed nearly 14,000 Ukrainians, including more than 3,000 civilians.

Michael has three teenage children and broke the difficult news to them on Monday: One suitcase each, and the dogs have to stay in Ukraine. They had planned to drive their small car to Lviv and then cross the border into Poland but learned Tuesday afternoon that Warsaw closed the land border to Americans (but not to Ukrainians), citing COVID-19 protocol. Now they are awaiting new instructions.

There are other signs of evacuation: Nick Sweeney is the director of Kyiv Christian Academy, a K-12 international school established to educate missionary children. He said about 20 percent of his staff is leaving by the end of the week, some at the direction of their sending agency. Close to 30 percent of his students are evacuating, and he expects that number to increase throughout the week.

Assemblies of God World Mission’s Jane Dollar said she and her husband are one of two missionary couples from their organization staying in Ukraine. The remaining five families are returning to the United States.

Washington may be trying to avoid another disastrous evacuation situation like what happened when the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan last summer and the Taliban took over the country, putting American citizens at risk. But the travel advisory and partial embassy evacuation are causing tension with Ukrainians who believe Moscow is trying to sow panic among foreigners to destabilize their country. “Everyone’s just a little bit on edge. We are, too,” Burnham said.

Sweeney said Christians in Ukraine are processing the news in different ways: “The Ukrainians are used to dealing with the Russians and seem to be largely unruffled. The expats are different and seem to show a bit more panic. However, all are doing their best to trust the Lord in this.”

Editor’s note: WORLD’s Esther Eaton contributed to this report.


Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.

@WorldNels

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