OUTLOOK - It has been 16 weeks since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. The stories and images are both heartbreaking and inspiring as we see the efforts of Ukrainians to defend their homeland as well as the international response in the form of humanitarian aid.
Two women who grew up in Outlook have seen first-hand the pain and destruction; one who was part of a Disaster Assistance Relief Team, and one who makes Ukraine home and is determined to serve Ukrainian people any way she can.
Medical team works out of parkade
Karen Birkett is the eldest daughter of Ernie and Evelyn Anderson. Born and raised in Outlook, she graduated from Outlook High School and then attended the University of Saskatchewan where she studied Nursing, later specializing in the Operating Room.
Her skills and experience as an agency nurse led to a four-week deployment with Samaritan’s Purse, an organization with Billy Graham ministries, on a Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART) to Ukraine.
Stationed in Lviv, she worked in an Emergency Field Hospital (EFH) headquartered in an underground mall parkade. “Operating out of a makeshift hospital has its challenges,” Karen said, “but also a lot of rewards.”
Karen assisted with locally cancelled elective surgeries as well treating trauma patients. “Although my interaction was predominantly with anaesthetized patients it was wonderful to hear the stories from the ER and mobile clinics set up in the community,” she said.
In one instance, a shopper at the mall above brought an unresponsive lady to the field hospital on a stretcher. The medical team ran a full code on her and she survived. They were also able to give reassurance to a woman with a high-risk pregnancy when she was able to hear her baby’s strong fetal heartbeat. On another occasion they provided rest, spiritual and medical care to a mother with multiple sclerosis who had been hiding for four days in the woods with her six children, the youngest being blind. Karen said, “We were not seeing the trauma we were initially anticipating in our EFH but we were able to provide assistance conveying to the people of Ukraine they are cared for and not abandoned.”
Invasion forced evacuation
Cheryl Lyons, daughter of Blake and Loretta Lyons, has been living and serving in Ukraine for almost 20 years. Since the start of the invasion she has been determined to stay in Ukraine, driven by her testimony to God’s faithfulness, and her love of the country and the resolve of its people.
“The Ukrainian people have shown that they will not give up,” Cheryl said. “They have come together extraordinarily through this time and have become stronger as a country as they have chosen to fight and stand together.”
In the first weeks of the war Cheryl and others from her church left their town since Russian forces were only about 50 kilometers away. “We weren’t sure how things would go for us as foreigners, or for our community if we were to have been captured,” Cheryl explained. “As a result, we had the opportunity to help in a refugee camp in western Ukraine.”
More recently, Cheryl was lending a hand in a small town about two hours northeast of Kyiv that had been occupied by Russian forces for over a month. “There is a lot of clean-up and rebuilding that needs to happen with the physical buildings, as well as caring for the people there,” she explained. “They have been so thankful to be able to share what they have and are going through, and of course to have help as they start to rebuild their homes.”
She is sad to hear some people in the west believe the lies that what Russia is doing is for the good of the Ukrainian people. “If only those same people could see what I have personally seen, I am sure they would change their minds,” she emphasized.
Food and water supplies affected
Karen said getting humanitarian aid into the country has logistical challenges, but Samaritan’s Purse has an established network through its Operation Christmas Child projects. “These relationships and continual branching out create important avenues for reaching those in need,” Karen explained. The effectiveness of the operation was seen recently when 169 metric tons of food were delivered for distribution.
Sanitization is now an important focus since water supplies have been cut off or have been extensively damaged, making access to clean water difficult. Karen explained, “With this obstacle comes the risk of infectious diseases.”
To provide safe water, filtration systems have been set up. “One reverse osmosis system has supplied 39,000 liters of potable water in a 5-day period for the Mykolaiv area,” Karen remarked. “More of these systems and a desalinization project are in the works for those areas hard hit.”
Cheryl is thankful her community’s water supply hasn’t been impacted as of yet, but she takes precautions. “Praise God we have not lost our power where I live which means we also have water,” she explained. “I was prepared by having extra water containers filled though. I still have large containers with water just in case.”
As for food supplies, a fuel crisis in Ukraine has resulted in a spike in prices. People are looking forward to producing some of their own food, even as they look ahead to what could be difficult days. “Thankfully it is garden time,” Cheryl explained, “so we are blessed with fresh veggies! What will it look like when the winter months are upon us? I am not sure. Some believe that we will have a very hard time ahead.”
In the meantime, Cheryl has been working hard to help people cope with the stress of the last few months. That includes running Kids’ Camps to give children a place to “just be kids again.”
It is estimated more than 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced. Cheryl has been dealing with many farewells. “Some friends have just returned after being gone for over two months but many are still living in different countries; Canada, the United States, Romania, Germany, Spain, and Scotland.” But she herself feels a call to stay and do what she can for the people she loves. “As long as God keeps the door open for me to stay, I will. Looking back over the past three months, I see how God brought about different opportunities to share the gospel with others in a different way during these uncertain times than if I had chosen to leave.”
Efforts from around the world
Karen describes her time in Ukraine as a privilege as she worked alongside people drawn from many countries to serve in this war zone. Ukrainian citizens are integral members of the team as translators, caterers, chaplains, procurement, base managers and fleet personnel. “Everyone’s roles are important,” Karen explained, “from logistics, business admin, chaplains, base managers, maintenance, water sanitation, procurement, supplies, security and hospital workers. It takes a large team to run a response of this size.”
She was impressed they were all trained volunteers. “I worked with some absolutely amazing people including a professor and neuro anesthesiologist from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the recently retired vice president of Coca Cola in the U.S. It was a privilege and an inspiration to serve alongside so many wonderful people from all walks of life and professions from around the world who truly want to serve others.”
These women have seen first-hand what is happening in Ukraine and they encourage supporting efforts to help its citizens. “All I can say is…wow,” Cheryl said about the response from people here. “No words can express how I feel about the support from people back home! It has been a huge encouragement for me and our church family here in Rzhyshchiv. Thank you!”
She asks that people pray. “Buildings can be rebuilt easily enough through financial gifts. Give if you are able. The ‘rebuilding’ of lives though is totally different – not only for those who are still in Ukraine but for those who have had to flee their homes and are now living in other countries.”
The devastation continues. As Cheryl was responding to this interview she awoke to the news that missiles once again landed in Kyiv and fighting rages on in the east. Her plea is earnest, “We continue to pray for peace.”