On Feb. 27 and 28, Maxym “Max” Oliferovski described what life was like for him in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, a few days after Russian military forces began invading Ukraine by land, sea and air. He and his wife, Anya, (pictured) lead New Hope Centre, an MCC partner organization, that focuses on families in crisis. They also are Mennonite Brethren church planters. As of March 3, they continued ministering to people who are now affected by war. Here is the interview, adapted and edited for readability.
Linda: What a difficult life you have been living these days!
Max: Yes, it's very interesting life here. Things changed. In a second. We woke up on the 24th of February. And it's a different time. Different situation. Yeah, different challenges.
Linda: Are you okay? Are you safe enough?
Max: Praise God. We’re in a safe location.
Linda: When you first heard that the Russian troops had invaded, what went through your mind?
Max: I couldn't believe it. You know, for several weeks, the whole world was talking about the Russian troops on the border – in Russia, but on the border with Ukraine. Huge numbers. And we, we were ready for that to happen. But when it happened, we just couldn't believe it. We said, “No, this is not possible. This is crazy. It’s 21st century; this can’t happen.” So you know, as usual, when there are traumatized events (for) people, the first thing is denial. Yeah, this can’t happen.
Linda: So what was the first thing you did after you learned?
Max: Well, events happened in the morning, around four or five a.m. as I remember. I woke up at 6:30. I got a phone call from a friend who knows for sure. And he said, “Max, this just began. Tell your relatives; tell everybody.” And that's what we began doing. We began calling other people and said, “Hey, this, this happened. What we hope wouldn't happen, happened. So please, if you have plans to evacuate, do that now.”
Personally, my wife and I, we decided that we would stay in Zaporizhzhia as long as it’s possible. And the next two days, were not easy, because our apartment is located downtown, you know, very close to strategics things and locations. And it's been hard to get adjusted to the new life. You hear sirens. You see the neighbours, going up and down into a bomb shelter. You hear all the news. But at the same time, we were thinking, okay, how can we help the families, our neighbours, you know, church members.
MCC's long-term response will likely include psychosocial support and trauma healing, temporary emergency housing, emergency distributions of locally purchased emergency supplies such as blankets, and distribution of food packages.
So, we purchased some food ahead of time. And we made food kits. So, the first day, we distributed the food kits because we don't know how long the stores would work. Yeah, by the way, the first day, huge lines, the gas stations, ATMs, grocery stores, you know, huge lines. The second day, not, not as huge, but then the further you go, the less supplies you have, right? So, first day, we distributed the food kits; then we shelter at our place. (They have since relocated to a safer place outside the city.)
Linda: Your work before this has been a lot with trauma and helping people who have dealt with trauma from the last Russian incursion or other things. Can you tell me about the trauma people are experiencing now?
Max: Everybody in Ukraine to a certain degree is experiencing the traumatization. The thing is people need to learn how to deal with it. They need to talk to someone; they need to hear encouraging words, because if they listen [to] only news, they would hear about the fights, about people dying.
So, we encourage; we send messages to people who work with our church members to really do some things that would help them, not just watching TV and listening to the bad news, but call one another. Weep or cry with one another. Do some activities if they can because it’s really hard. And I’m sure, as all of this is over, hopefully soon, there will be lots of work to do here in terms of helping people overcome their traumas and traumatic situations.
Linda: That makes a lot of sense – that you would all be traumatized at this point. And here you are traumatized and trying to help other people deal with their own. That’s the reality of living in war I suppose.
Max: I would add here about trauma one more thing. You know, everybody who has small kids, we encourage them right away, just if it’s possible and if you have a car or you can go with someone, please leave. Because the kids, they get traumatized the most. We adults can cope with it, more or less, but the kids really can’t. So we encouraged everybody who have kids, from church, if you can leave, please leave. So many of our friends now left the first or the second day, especially with the kids, just to save them from this traumatic situation that can, you know, ruin their future lives.
Linda: You said the other day that you were spending most of your time helping people to evacuate. What does that look like?
Max: Well, first people need transportation, right? And you don’t want to go by yourself because the roads are packed with cars, like traffic jams and everything. So you want to go with someone. Like two or three cars together. So we tried to coordinate people, you know, going with someone.
We called people and we asked them, especially those who have small kids, and we asked them do you have a way to get evacuated? And so, many people need some encouragement because even if they have a car, they aren’t sure. Shall we stay? Shall we leave? And we try to support them because they have feelings of guilt, you know, we leave everything, we leave churches, we leave other people, how can we go? And we say, “Well it’s up to you. You decide, but this is what you need to do for your family, for your children.”
There are evacuation trains here, from Zaporizhzhia from other cities. So we tell people that they have this opportunity, as well, to go to the train station. You don't know whether you can succeed or not, but at least you can try.
Linda: So, are most of the people who are evacuating going to safer places within Ukraine? Or are they leaving the country?
Max: Well, most people I know plan to settle in western Ukraine, which is 1,000 kilometres from here. They (Russian forces) can get the missiles there. But there are no tanks and no military troops there. And there are many locations that can accept people like retreat centres, churches, and other places, houses. So many people from Ukraine from here, where we live in East, South, they just go to Western Ukraine, hoping this will end soon and they can come back.
Linda: You said that you are planning to stay here as long as it is safe? Why have you made that choice to stay, rather than to go as you're recommending that other people do?
Max: Well, first, we don't have small kids with us. Our only daughter just happened to be in Germany on a mission trip there. And even if she wanted to come back, we would say to her, please stay there. And the planes don't fly. So we know she's safe.
And we've been helping many people with my wife, Anya, you know, with New Hope Centre and church and we thought, “Okay, we, we can afford, you know, to stay here as long as we can, just to encourage people, support them and help others.” So we were kind of motivated by two factors: our close one is in a safe place, and we want to serve others as long as we can.
Linda: Were you able to have a church service this morning?
Max: What our church service is in the evening, as has happened historically, we're a new church. So we're making some new traditions. So I'm looking forward, actually, to connect with the church. We will use Zoom to do that. We're a small church, and people can share and pray together. So I'm looking forward to do that in actually three hours.
Linda: Since you are the pastor of that church, what words do you have prepared to share with them?
Max: Well, at any rate, we all now encourage one another, as the scripture says, yeah, not just leaders and pastors. We encourage one another with words of hope that truth will overcome, you know, lie. And then the good will win the evil.
Linda: Okay. When you think about the Russians – How do you deal with your attitudes, your feelings toward people in Russia?
Max: It's governments who are fighting. Most people, they're just people. They have passports, Russian passport, Ukrainian passport. So we pray for them. We're praying for Russian government, you know, so God can stop this in whatever way he chooses. And we pray for the Russian population, you know, those who support Ukrainians there. We have friends in Russia who support Ukrainians. You've seen that there are protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. So we pray that they can be strong enough and share that this is, you know, craziness. This needs to stop. For the rest of people, we pray that God would open their eyes.
The situation in Ukraine is changing minute by minute. The day after this interview, we got another update from Max. He said the front line was moving and was now less than 100 kilometres from him and his wife. Here’s Max.
As we're going from downtown today, we saw one of the missiles just started in, flying over us. First time in life. You know, you can't really get prepared for that."
- Max Oliferovski
Max: Last night was the first time we really heard and felt physically, the explosions. They were very close. The windows didn't break. It was in the evening. The heart begins to pound. That's just how the body reacts to it. And we thought that's how we would spend the night. But the night was calm. We were able to sleep. Praise God.
It's hard to learn how to deal with these new circumstances and the stress level. So pray for safety definitely. As we're going from downtown today, we saw one of the missiles just started in, flying over us. First time in life. You know, you can't really get prepared for that. But the heart begins to react, respond to that. We don't know where it went. It was in the sky. When you hear all these explosions and shootings, even if you're in a safe location, like nothing's happening next to your door, it’s still hard.
- So pray for safety.
- Pray for health.
- Pray for wise decisions.
As I said, we decided to stay here to just keep helping the families, the church. There's probably a limit to how long we can do that. Right now? It's definitely yes. Things can change tomorrow, so pray for wisdom.
But as we stay here, pray that we will be helpful, really, and can provide help to our church, leadership to our church, help to families, help to communities, whatever is needed. Yeah, pray for strength and that we can continue the ministry in the circumstances.