BERLIN (AP) — Alona Fartukhova has been coming to Berlin’s Ukrainian Orthodox Christian community every day since she arrived in Germany five days ago from war-torn Kyiv. The 20-year-old refugee has been attending daily prayers for peace and helped organize donations for her compatriots back home.
On Sunday (March 20), Fartukhova joined dozens of other Ukrainian worshipers at a red brick stone church in the German capital who sang together, lit candles, and received blessings from the head of the community, Father Oleh Polianko. Later they put medical crutches, sleeping bags, diapers, big boxes of gummi bears, and countless jars of pickles — which were piling up everywhere inside the church — into big cardboard boxes to be send to Ukraine.
“It’s some help for our army, and it is … a lot of things for children” said the university student, who fled by herself and is now living at a hotel in Berlin, as she stacked boxes onto the church pews. “It is so good that a lot of people support us, we really appreciate it.”
Across Europe, Ukrainians gathered for church services on Sunday to pray for peace in their war-torn country. Newly arrived refugees mingled with long-time members of Europe’s 1.5 million-strong Ukrainian diaspora at houses of worship all over the continent from Germany to Romania to Moldova.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine more than three weeks ago, over 3.38 million people have fled the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Altogether, 10 million people have fled their homes — more than 6 million of them have been displaced internally, the UNHCR said on Sunday. Most have escaped to neighboring Poland, Romania, or Moldova, but as the war continues many are moving further west.
Germany has registered more than 200,000 Ukrainian refugees but the real numbers are expected to be much higher as Ukrainians don’t need a visa to come to Germany, and federal police only register refugees entering Germany by train or bus. Ukrainians coming to Germany from Poland by car are normally not registered.
Members of Germany’s Ukrainian immigrant community, which counts around 300,000 people, have not only been raising money and collecting donations, but also driven the goods to the border and beyond and on their way back to Germany have taken along refugees. Families already living in Germany have squeezed together to accommodate refugees and are helping them find jobs and get their kids into schools.
The diaspora Ukrainians’ religious communities — mostly Christian Orthodox, but also some Catholic and Jewish communities — have been leading refugee initiatives and have also become an anchor for those worrying about their families back in the war.
Polianko, who heads the 500-member-strong Orthodox Christian community in Berlin, held some one-on-one prayers on Sunday with worshipers who were especially distressed. He then gave blessings “for the souls of our soldiers who are fighting in Ukraine, and also for the souls of our soldiers who have died in Ukraine.”
Because the Berlin community has been so overwhelmed by donations, they temporarily moved from their small church building in the city’s Hermsdorf neighborhood to the bigger church of the Lutheran Philippus Nathanael community in Berlin-Friedenau. Here, they have plenty of space to organize donation drives and a wide driveway for trucks picking up the boxes, says Andriy Ilin, the deputy head of the community. The Lutherans are currently holding their own services in a nearby community center.
“Initially, they offered us the church for March, now they’ve extended it to April, and they kindly let us know that if we need it beyond that, they will allow that too.” Ilin said.
Elsewhere in Europe, local worshipers also opened their churches to welcome Ukrainians. In Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, locals and refugees alike assembled for an Orthodox prayer service on Sunday. Angelica Gretsai, a refugee from the northern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, lit candles just before the religious service in Russian began at a small Sfintul Gheorghe church.
“(I pray) for peace of course, for peace in Ukraine, for these two peoples (Russians and Ukrainians ) to make up, for this war to be no more,” Gretsai said adding that she was yearning to go back home and be with friends and family.
“I’m basically alone here, it’s the first time I came to Moldova,” she said, adding that she was staying with some distant relatives she had never met before. Moldova has welcomed more than 360,000 refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine.
In Suceava, Romania, south of the Ukrainian border, locals and new arrivals from Ukraine held a service together at St. John’s church. Romania has welcomed more than half a million refugees from Ukraine since the beginning of the war and several of them found their way to the church service.
Ariadna Belciug, a local resident at the service, said she was praying “especially for the children, because no one deserves to go through these times.”
“I pray for them to be all right, to be safe and for better days for them to come,” Belciug added.
Nicolae Dumitrache in Chisinau, Moldova and Eldar Emric in Suceava, Romania contributed reported.