Several weeks after Russian forces occupied Ukraine’s Snake Island on Feb. 24, Slavic and Eleonora Braila knew they had to get their family out of the country they knew and loved.
“I was born in Odesa, and we lived about 40 miles from Snake Island. When missiles started flying overhead, I made the decision to take my family and leave,” Slavic said. “We left the business, our farm, our home — everything we had.”
So, Slavic and Eleonora, with their children Mark, 9, Melissa, 7, and Natansil (Nathan, 4), went to Romania on March 26, trusting God for whatever lay ahead.
Half a world away, Stephen Gergi remembered his longtime friend Slavic, who had led him to Christ many years before. From the same village in Ukraine, Gergi immigrated to the U.S. about 15 years ago, settling in Asheville. He contacted Slavic and offered to pay for the family’s resettlement to the U.S. from Romania.
The family’s route took them from their village of Ozerne, to Bucharest, Romania, then through France to Mexico. Their challenges were amplified by the fact that Mark is on the autism spectrum, and the youngest child would soon be tested as well.
“It was a hard journey,” said Slavic. “The kids were confused, but we constantly prayed that God would bless and protect us.”
After arriving in Mexico, Slavic and Eleonora decided that making contact with immigration officials at the border near San Diego made the most sense. But they were concerned the lengthy wait faced by all potential immigrants would be especially hard on Mark.
“I prayed for mercy and that God would speed our way,” said Slavic.
And did He ever. Slavic connected with a volunteer at the border, explained their situation, and God intervened. Due to their unique circumstances, the Brailas were given priority and were soon allowed into California. In only three days, their friend Gergi secured their flights to Asheville, where they arrived on April 4, rejoicing in God’s provision and protection.
In Asheville, Liliya Chernous, a member of Reach Life Church, had long worked with refugee resettlement. A refugee herself who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine 25 years ago, she is well-known in the community for her translation in schools and medical facilities. Her resource network, which includes many churches, has assisted many displaced people.
The Brailas’ need for housing was evident, and as inquiries were made, word came to Steve Harris, a regional mission catalyst for North Carolina Baptists.
“Norma Melton from the Buncombe Baptist Association told me a Virginia family who had inherited a house in Asheville wanted to make it available — rent free — to help a Ukrainian family resettle,” Harris recalled. “I was able to connect this family with Liliya, a member of Reach Life Church, who has been on the cutting edge of ministry to the Ukrainian community.”
Chernous, aware of the Braila family, made the connection with the homeowners who offered a 6-month-free rental agreement. Providentially, the home has a piano, which Mark, whose autism has made his experience with war-displacement all the more upsetting, plays to calm himself. They were also blessed in that their local school has a special program designed for kids with autism.
“Local churches have been doing what they should be doing,” said Perry Brindley, associational mission strategist with Buncombe Association. In following God’s call to aid refugees, “they’ve really stepped up. Our role is to support churches, and families when we can. So when our churches take the lead, it makes us more effective in ministry.”
Chernous believes Chrstians in America are well-suited to reach refugees from Ukraine because of their shared cultural values.
“Ukrainians are strong people. They love freedom. They are very hospitable, willing to share with people in need. This is in their DNA,” Chernous said.
She suggests asking new Ukrainian neighbors to participate in projects together, like hiking, building and even Bible study.
“Listen to their stories, ask questions about their families and their country. But most of all, bring them love.
“Slavic is a hard-working and a loving father,” Chernous said, “but they, like any refugee family, still need a lot of help.”
The Brailas are not the first Ukrainian family helped by N.C. Baptist church members; more than 500 have served on the ground in Ukraine since the start of the war.
“Being on mission together is more than a slogan, whether serving Ukrainians in Ukraine or being ready when they arrive next door,” said Executive Director-Treasurer Todd Unzicker.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing ministry of the Love Help Teach soup kitchen feeding Roma children in Ukraine, you can do so at baptistsonmission.org/Donate.
by Marty Duren, N.C. Baptist contributing writer