It's been one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, starting a war that has torn the country apart and forced millions of Ukrainians to flee.
For The Salvation Army, the past year has been a time of intense ministry in action, especially in Ukraine and the surrounding countries. Debbie Clarke is one of many Salvationists serving on the front lines. She is a senior soldier at Winnipeg’s Heritage Park Temple and an emergency disaster services specialist. She was recently deployed to Romania for two months, where she supported the Army’s ministry to Ukrainian refugees in Bucharest.
In this episode of the podcast, Debbie shares a testimony about her experiences. Her testimony was recorded live during a Sunday morning meeting at Heritage Park Temple in January.
This is the Salvationist podcast. I'm Kristin Ostensen. This week marks one year since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. Since then, the world has watched in horror as war has torn the country apart, forcing millions of Ukrainians to flee.
For The Salvation Army, the past year has been a time of intense ministry in action, especially in Ukraine and the surrounding countries. Within the first 8 months of the conflict, the Army’s Eastern Europe Territory had assisted more than 100,000 refugees. Generous Canadians have stepped up, too, raising over $2 million dollars for the Army’s relief efforts.
Debbie Clarke is one of many Salvationists serving on the front lines. She is a senior soldier at Winnipeg’s Heritage Park Temple and an emergency disaster services specialist. She was recently deployed to Romania for two months, where she supported the Army’s ministry to Ukrainian refugees in Bucharest.
Debbie shared a testimony about her experiences during a Sunday morning meeting at Heritage Park in January.
When I received the call, asking me to deploy to Romania for two months, I have to admit I had mixed emotions. What would I be doing? Was it going to be safe? How were my family going to be? And as I began to talk to my family, I soon realized that I had full support and they encouraged me to go. I prayed about it and decided that if this was where God wanted me, then I would be obedient.
Within days, I left for Romania, with a quick stop at IHQ in England for orientation. It was also great while I was there to meet up with a few friends at IHQ. Arriving in Romania, I checked into my tiny little room, which would become my home for the next two months. It may have a leaky shower, sketchy plumbing, as I knew when everybody else flushed around me, no fridge, no coffee pot, but it wasn't a tent for 300 people, or a cot in a shelter, which I have experienced in the past. It was clean and it was my new temporary home. This was going to be a very different deployment. Most of my deployments were from floods, fires or hurricanes. And there were devastation all around. This deployment may not be physically draining, but it may be emotionally or mentally draining.
I want to take a few minutes to share with you some of my deployment. It's very hard to capture everything that I got to see or I was involved with for two months. But hopefully I can share some of my God stories or my God moments and some of my special stories.
In the picture you'll see the divisional commanders for Romania, Majors Ionuț and Roxy Sandu and their dog, Katerina. These people were amazing people. Their passion for people, their love for Christ was evident in everything they did. Major Roxy is a very strong advocate for human trafficking, which many of you know is very important to me. Working directly with them for my whole two months was amazing. They made sure you were looked after, they made sure they took you out on a few little things on the weekends. And they are, they have become good friends of mine over the past and we continue to stay in touch today.
So, when Russia invaded Ukraine, February 24, 2022, Major Ionuț knew he needed to do something. Almost immediately, he formed a team of three people, filled a vehicle with supplies, and headed towards the border, which is about six and a half hours drive. Here is where The Salvation Army's involvement began. The Salvation Army, as many of you know, are on the grounds immediately during disasters, and we serve in various capacities. So, at the beginning, we had a building called Romexpo, and this was used for a variety of services for the Ukrainian refugees, including a congregate shelter. But as the days and months went by, and the situation changed, the reception centre downsized to a smaller section in Romexpo. This here is the current location. And this is where my deployment begins.
So, my first day starts out with a 25-minute bus ride to Romexpo. Travelling in a crowded bus is quite an experience, being sandwiched among many people from all sides—and if you haven't noticed, I'm not that tall, so it's very hard to see. No idea where I was to get off. Language—I had no clue what people were saying. And I sat there thinking, Am I going to last two months? Before we get even the doors open in the morning, there is already a line of people waiting for access to the building. Once inside, the individuals receive a tag, which gives them access to all services that are provided in the building. And on an average while I was there, we were seeing about 1,000 people a day. Clothing here is free and you can take as much as you like. The lady that looks after this, Iona, she was very adamant that everything was hung, was neat, was tidy. And a little bit of dignity and respect goes a long way. No one was watched while they shopped, and nobody cared how much clothing you took. There was also a children's area, as you see in the picture. And that was right next to where we were, and this children's area was supervised by World Vision. And parents could leave their children there as they navigated through all of the services that were provided.
In this reception centre, The Salvation Army has two roles. One is our voucher program: families can come four times to get a voucher of about 50 leu, which is about $15 a person, and that's in Canadian. And these vouchers then can be taken and used in a variety of stores across the area. Another program was for children and mothers and grandmothers, which gave 100 leu once a month for three months, and that was about $30 per person. So, they could avail of that. The Salvation Army was also involved in a partnership with World Vision. And this is—you can see me at the table there—this is where I spent my days.
While I was there, I was involved in two different programs. The head of the house would come, scan a QR code and get a text message to register. I found very, very easily that if I looked at someone and said SMS, they showed me their phone. The only thing I could read on that phone was their time and the day—I had no idea of anything else. I picked out the names after a few weeks there and learned some tricks of the trade. So that's what we did. And then there's also another one starting for school-aged children in Romania, to help cover costs associated with education needs. And that's a one-time payment of about 240 leu per child, or per person. This is where I spent my days. I have to admit, after my first day at the centre, I went back to my room and I wondered, Am I going to be able to do this? You see, during my training, they showed me and told me, on an iPad or on a phone, how to do things in English. But when the doors opened, everything was in another language. And I thought, I can't do this. I don't understand what's happening. I don't know how to talk to the people. And a funny note here is, I went through the whole day thinking they were speaking Ukrainian, which I found out afterwards, they were actually speaking Russian because three of the volunteers were Russian, and most of the people that came, because of where they lived in in the area, they also spoke fluent Russian. So Russian was being spoken and I thought it was Ukrainian all along. I felt very discouraged. And I decided to open up one of my encouragement cards that many of you gave me before I left. I thought, I'm on a roll here. My first day I'm opening a card already. I'm never gonna get through this. But I have to tell you it was the perfect card. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Yes, I will admit, I had a few tears. But I knew that this was where God wanted me. I decided at that moment, I was going to claim my favourite verse in the Bible. And The Message puts it very clear, he said: “But he already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously” [Micah 6:8]. I claimed that verse and I continued on, my two months deployment.
A few days into my deployment, I sat next to a girl, her name is Yulia. And Yulia is also a refugee from Ukraine. The Salvation Army hired four Ukrainian refugees to work for The Salvation Army, and they became very close friends of mine over the two months. We began to talk about our families like most people do, right? Share about your family. And Yulia shared with me about her daughter who got married in July. It was a very happy but sad day. Because Yulia's daughter got married in Romania. Dad, the father of the bride, was still in Ukraine. Yulia’s daughter said she made the best of the day, and they all did. But every girl dreams of her dad walking her down the aisle. And her dad couldn't come. See, the war affected everyone, including the children.
One of my days at the reception centre, I was sitting next to one of my Ukrainian friends, who were also co-workers. And one of them needs a Band-Aid. So of course, you know, you’re an EDS responder, you got everything in your backpack. So I reached in my backpack, and I grabbed my little pouch that has my Band-Aids. I handed her a Band-Aid and she looked at the pouch. And she reads “Giving Hope Today,” to which she replies, “That's what we need—hope. We need hope today.” You see, the day before and the night before was a night of bombing. And they didn't know if their families were safe. And they needed hope. Home and family and trauma of separation and flight from war were on the minds of every refugee. We hugged and I assured her of our prayers. It was an also an opportunity for me to tell her that my family, my church family back in Canada were praying for them also.
I soon realized this is where God wanted me. I needed to be a friend, to listen, to be a shoulder to cry on, to be the hands and feet of Jesus. You see, I couldn't stop the war, but I could journey part of the trip with them, any individuals that God put in my path. I can recall one day a lady came to register and she seemed a little upset and overwhelmed. I whispered a prayer as she came to me and we're all sitting there and you're wondering, you know, who's going to come to you, right? And this lady came and she sat down. And I began to enter her name and her birthdate and all of the information that I had to enter. And I started to enter the children's ages and birthdates. And I soon realized these were grandchildren. Three, six and nine—almost the same age of my grandchildren. My heart broke. When I asked—one of the questions is, you need to know the Romanian telephone number. And so, if I said “Rumynskiy telefon?” they go “Da” and they would hand me their phone. And then I would find their number, which wasn't always easy because everything was in another language and I had to find a phone number. But through it all, she broke down and she started to cry and I handed her a tissue. And I put my hand on hers and I said, “It's OK. Take your time.” Because the people on either side of me were speaking Russian to her and telling her what I was looking for, and she was overwhelmed. So together, we got through everything. And after I finished registering her, she put her hand on mine and she said, “Spasibo”—“thank you.” It took everything, everything in me not to cry. Can you imagine as a grandparent, taking your children's children, going to a new country alone, and not knowing what the future held? I can't imagine. But a week or so later, I was sitting at my desk and always she comes past my table—she didn't need to register, because she already did, but she was getting other services. And she looked over at me and she waved and she said, “Spasibo, spasibo.” I will never forget those words. “Spasibo.”
One of my days while I was on deployment, I was feeling a little down. I guess I was missing home, missing my grandchildren and the children here at Heritage Park. So, one lady came and she sat at my table and I was wearing a mask the whole time I was there. And her little girl said to her—I assume she wanted to wear a mask. So, her mom reached in the box and gave her a mask. And she took the mask and she put it over her face and then she looked at me and she pulled it up over her eyes. And as we looked at each other, she would pull it down and she’d play peekaboo and she'd put it back up over her eyes again, which gave me a little bit of time of laughing and my heart was lifted that day, my spirits were lifted. And I realized that day that was a God moment. Because God knew what I needed. He knows my love for children. And he put the two together. And he chose to use someone else to bless me.
There are many stories that I could share with you today. But unfortunately, time doesn't allow it. Stories of my new Ukrainian friends, as they share their stories of their homes being bombed. Stories of worry because they couldn't reach their parents or grandparents. Stories of anxiety and anger. And also stories where God was in the midst, sending people my way when I needed the encouragement most. I was reminded that God will open doors of opportunity for me to be a witness for Him if I am obedient. I realized I was not alone. He would send people my way and incidents my way to remind me of this. He didn't promise it was going to be easy, but he did promise he would be with me all the way.
Jesus began his ministry building relationships, and I believe that's where we are to start. You see, love is a universal language. And if I show love and compassion, people will see Christ in me. Did I mess up some days showing that love? Big time, of course I did. I'm only human. But every night I would pray and I would ask for strength to be a light during this very dark time. I asked for opportunity to bring hope during a very hopeless situation. I asked for strength and courage to be Christlike. I feel very privileged that God would allow me this opportunity. I met many co-workers from all over the world. I met and worked with some of the refugees who ran from their homes, not knowing if or when they will ever return. I made many new friends, which I still talk to on a regular basis thanks to WhatsApp. I believe I was a witness to many people, whether refugees or workers who crossed my path daily. And I pray that the seeds I planted will be helped, be grown by the help of other Christians along the way.
Was it hard? Yes. Some days were lonely. Some days were frustrating. When you break your glasses, and you have no idea where to get them fixed. Or your phone cord stops working at midnight and you have no clock, no wake-up call. And the language itself was hard and sometimes very frustrating. Some days you were lonely and you missed your friends and family. There were days when I got sad news and I needed a shoulder to cry on. There were also days when, because of the war, you were anxious about your own safety. But I could claim the chorus, the verse from the chorus: “Through it all, through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God. Through it all, through it all, I’ve learned to depend upon his Word.” I can truly say that the blessings I received while my time in Bucharest, Romania, far outweigh the hard times. I was blessed beyond measure. Thank you.
Thanks for joining us for another episode of the Salvationist podcast. And thanks to Debbie and Heritage Park for sharing this testimony with us. For more episodes of the podcast, visit Salvationist.ca/podcast.