Whitney Cravens had served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine and had come to see the people there as her own.
“When something like this happens,” she said of the Russian invasion, “it’s easy to feel helpless or that whatever you’re doing just isn’t enough.”
Ms. Cravens is a Program Assistant for Refugee Services of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO), assisting people from Ukraine who have resettled in and near Sedalia.
She recently had the opportunity to spend 10 days assisting Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
This rare experience helped make her more hopeful about what she can do to address such human suffering, wherever she is.
“I was really glad to be able to go and physically be there and better understand the situation on the ground,” she told Ashley Wiskirchen, communication director for CCCNMO, in a recent interview.
The Columbia native previously served for 19 months in Kherson, Ukraine, before having to evacuate in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, she discerned that God was calling her to mission and became a member of Action International Ministries, planning to return to Ukraine after the pandemic.
The breakout of the Russian-Ukrainian war in March postponed those plans indefinitely. So she went to work full-time with CCCNMO Refugee Services, hoping to gain valuable experience while assisting some of the Ukrainian people the agency has already helped resettle in this area.
Refugee Services of CCCNMO is the only agency that works with the U.S. government to settle refugees in Central Missouri.
“I obviously couldn’t go back to Ukraine yet, and there are a lot of opportunities here to work with Ukrainian families,” Ms. Cravens stated.
But when an offer came from Assemblies of God World Missions for her to spend 10 days helping refugees in Poland near its border with Ukraine, she leapt at the opportunity.
“Since I have some language skills and now I also have some experience with refugees, it seemed like the perfect time and opportunity,” she said.
She got the invitation on a Thursday, got permission to take a leave of absence from her work at Catholic Charities, booked her flights, and was in the air the following Monday.
“I was thankful to have a job at Catholic Charities Refugee Services, who obviously care about the situation,” she said.
She said faith and compassion are what motivated her to go.
“My compassion for the Ukrainian people had to do with the suffering they have experienced through much of their history,” she said. “And how much more suffering it has become now!”
Being Martha and Mary
Ms. Cravens traveled alone, not finding out exactly where she was going until after arriving in Warsaw in the evening.
“I would say it was ‘go with the flow,’ but also steps of faith, trusting that I had a specific purpose for being there,” she said.
She packed for winter, assuming she’d be working outside.
Instead, she spent most of her time indoors, helping to staff a stopping-off point for refugees at a Polish church near the Ukrainian border.
“It’s kind of a transition point,” she said. “It’s a one- to three-night place to stay, to have a bed, a shower and something to eat, and then members of the church would send them further west.”
She noted that Poland has taken in more than 2 million refugees from Ukraine, “but a lot of refugees just pass through on their way to Germany or Spain or the United Kingdom.”
“These people are coming across the border with nothing but the clothes on their back and maybe a backpack,” she said. “And they’re fleeing violence, and there’s no certainty that they’re ever returning home, at least to the same place or in the same state that they knew it before the war started.”
While on mission in Poland, she helped out any way she could, washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking food, and serving as a language interpreter.
“It wasn’t super-glamorous, but it was the service that was needed,” she said.
Simply listening proved to be her most important task.
“I think it was helpful to have me there not just to interpret but also to be someone who could listen to them, if they had any issues or stories that they wanted to share,” she said.
Some of the people she met had been traveling for 36 hours straight.
“A lot of them were just in shock and expressing their disbelief how all of this was happening, and their confusion or not knowing when they would be able to return home, or if there would even be a home for them to return to,” she said.
She did not know any of the people who stayed at the church, but they were very much like the people she had come to know and love during her time with the Peace Corps.
“It just broke my heart to hear them, and I shared their confusion and disbelief,” she said. “But I could see the impact of being someone who could have these conversations with them.”
Ms. Cravens recently heard about what started out as a peaceful protest in the town where she stayed while in the Peace Corps.
“The protesters were fired upon!” she said. “It was in the town square where my parents came to visit me, the square where I used to get on and off the bus, the square where I used to go running.”
While in Poland, she met up with members of one of the Ukrainian host families she stayed with while in the Peace Corps.
Her host mother and three children, ages 18, 12 and 6, are now refugees settling in Poland but are eager to return home as soon as possible.
“They’re telling me, ‘We don’t know where we’re going to go, we don’t know what we’re going to do or who’s going to help us,’” she said.
Her host dad and his son were unable to leave Ukraine.
“It took them 10 hours to go 1 kilometer in order to cross the border,” Ms. Cravens stated.
“So this is all very personal,” she said. “But I know that my grief, in a sense, doesn’t compare with that of people who are from there and have lived there forever. But it is still real.”
Ms. Cravens was filled with a mixture of emotions upon returning from Poland to the United States.
“I felt really joyful about what I was able to do and what the Lord had done in my life during my time there,” she said.
“But at the same time, what’s happening is really tragic,” she continued. “It’s one thing to read about things or watch them on the news, but it’s another to see them for yourself.”
She finds vast consolation in knowing that there’s plenty she can do to help while she’s here in Missouri, waiting to return to Ukraine as a missionary.
“We have a very strong purpose here,” she said.
She serves on Refugee Services’ employment team, working primarily with Afghan refugees, and does case-management work with mostly Ukrainian refugees living in Sedalia.
With recent authorization from the U.S. government, she’s helping people from Ukraine (who settled in this area before Russia’s current invasion) file Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) forms to help their families resettle here through the Lautenberg Program.
That program was established to help resettle families fleeing religious persecution in post-Soviet nations in Europe and Asia.
Refugee Services has already helped several families resettle in this area under the program.
“And now, whether they’re previously our clients or just Ukrainian relatives or Moldovan relatives, they can file now for those cases, which is really good news,” she said.
She’s also helping a group known as the Central Missouri Returned Peace Corps Volunteers conduct a collection drive of essential household items for people who are here from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
Ms. Cravens’s experience in Poland renewed her appreciation of the importance of refugee resettlement and refugee care.
“The work that volunteers are doing around the world to welcome refugees and care for them is amazing, but I hope people appreciate how well resettlement work is here in this country,” she said.
She looks forward to returning to Ukraine as a missionary someday after the war.
Until then, she’s eager to help in any way she can here in the United States.
“I think it goes for all of us: we can only do what we can,” she said. “But don’t underestimate the value of small acts of kindness and seemingly small roles, because collectively, we can do a lot together.
“And all of the different ways people are helping Ukraine,” she continued, “they’re all collectively coming together and helping Ukrainians feel really supported.
“So whether it’s here, welcoming Ukrainian refugees, supporting all refugees, supporting the idea of America receiving refugees — all of this is important,” she said.
Ms. Cravens, a credentialed minister in the Assemblies of God and member of Columbia First Assembly Church of God in Columbia, also emphasized the importance and power of prayer and of people of different faith backgrounds working together to do God’s work.
In terms of helping financially, she urged people to give generously but wisely to organizations with good reputations.
She noted that she saw people wearing Caritas Ukraine vests in a train station in Poland, on their way to help.
Caritas Ukraine is part of the same international network of Catholic relief organizations that includes Catholic Relief Services.