Editor’s note: Deseret News journalist Kyle Dunphey and photojournalist Kristin Murphy traveled to the border of Ukraine in Poland and surrounding countries to view the impact of the refugee crisis. This is the fifth of several dispatches from the border.
KROŚCIENKO, Poland — On a cold snowy evening in a remote corner of southeastern Poland, Oleg Kravchenko’s van shuttered to a halt.
Before him sits a handful of other cars, obscured by snowflakes the size of quarters as border patrol officers grudgingly wave them through the checkpoint. It’s bright, lit up by neon signs directing traffic that cast an eerie glow over the road. Through the gate and into the darkness lies Ukraine.
Kravchenko and Inna Malezhyk, a family friend, have been moving nonstop for days. They left the Ukrainian border safehold of Chernivtsi, driving refugees into Poland and dropping them off in Warsaw on this April day, then making their way to Vienna for a night, briefly into Germany, back into Austria and returning to eastern Poland three days later to form a massive, thousand-plus mile loop.
Their route is convoluted, but the mission is simple — drive refugees out of Ukraine, and return with humanitarian aid to Kyiv, where Kravchenko serves as a stake president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It marked the seventh trip for Kravchenko and Malezhyk, and it’s starting to wear on them, the dark circles under their eyes growing bigger each day. In the coming months, they will lose track of how many times they’ve unloaded boxes of Kevlar helmets, body armor, backpacks, medical equipment, food, diapers, clothing and more, the result of groups of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe and the world who mobilized in the wake of the Russian invasion.
But the constant movement keeps them sane — an object in motion, stays in motion, says Malezhyk.
“You can’t stay at home in Kyiv listening to bombs and go crazy. This gives you something to do, it helps distract you,” she said.
“Volunteering is the medicine for our spirit,” Kravchenko said, a message he reiterated to his stake during a conference a day earlier. “We do it for ourselves, then for others that need it. But it is actually medicine for ourselves, it keeps us healthy.”
On the other side of the world, Kravchenko’s daughter is working toward a master’s degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University, and Malezhyk’s daughter, now living with a family friend in Salt Lake City after fleeing her family’s home in Kyiv, wrapped up an unconventional sophomore year at East High School.
They could both be in the U.S. with their families. Malezhyk is able to come and go as she wishes, and Kravchenko, a 62-year-old former plumber, taxi driver and self-proclaimed “odd job specialist,” is exempt from the law conscripting men between 18 to 60 years old for the war.
Yet both are anxious to get back into Ukraine, despite missiles still falling as far west as Lviv, just 50 miles from the Polish border.
“When we come out of Ukraine, we feel guilty, because we’re in a peaceful and comfortable situation,” Kravchenko said. “When we return back to Ukraine, we feel much better because we’re back with our people.”
‘Faith that’s lived’
It’s been months since Kravchenko and Malezhyk crossed into Ukraine on the snowy evening in April, making their way to Lviv and eventually to Kyiv. A lot has changed.
Other church leaders have since stepped in, centralizing the church’s response and taking over much of the humanitarian coordination. But the well-oiled machine that took shape at the hands of Kravchenko, Malezhyk and many Latter-day Saints throughout Europe, shows no signs of stopping.
“We’ll keep going as long as we’re needed,” says Constantin Helmrich, of Vienna, who served a church mission in Kyiv under Kravchenko and quickly became the European point man for Latter-day Saints’ response to the crisis.
What stakes across Europe would later call “the southern route” was born just days after the Russian army invaded, while Kravchenko and Malezhyk were in Hungary working to evacuate their families. Kravchenko reached out to his contacts in the church, hoping to eventually return to Kyiv with aid. Latter-day Saints like Helmrich were simultaneously scrambling to see how they could help.
The next day, Kravchenko met with members of the Vienna stake. At the time, he only had his small, personal car, a hatchback that Kravchenko promptly loaded with medical supplies, food and hygiene products, and drove back into Ukraine.
Days later, Latter-day Saints in Vienna sought donations from a network of church members across Europe, amassing almost $85,000 in donations and truckloads of aid in weeks. Kravchenko would send lists to Vienna on his return to Kyiv, letting members know exactly what his city needed — an Army unit low on body armor, a neighborhood store running out of diapers or a hospital that needed a portable X-ray machine.
At the same time, the world was rushing to donate, deliver and volunteer to help Ukraine. Stories of aid disappearing into the black market or misguided donations stacking up at the border ensued. At the border village of Medyka, volunteers burned a pile of donated T-shirts to stay warm as February temperatures dropped below zero.
“A lot of the supplies get to the border and they get lost because of corruption or they simply can’t get across,” said Helmrich. However, “We get pictures from Kyiv ... the supplies are actually getting there and that’s really cool.”
Like many across the continent, the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Vienna has transformed. Dozens of beds for refugees line the basement, including several cribs. A room upstairs is used to sort donations, which include diapers, food, medicine, clothing, water filters, solar panels, and of course, candy. Blue and yellow abound, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and in one corner of the room sits a stack of artwork from children in Vienna, destined for children in Kyiv. In the first week of the war, Latter-day Saints in the Austrian city made hundreds of beds available for refugees, as did stakes in Hungary, Germany and Poland.
Helmrich was glued to his phone, and as refugees poured out of Ukraine, and aid poured in, he would routinely work from 5 a.m. well past midnight.
“In the first couple weeks, we saw how unified everyone became,” he said. “You hear about so much that splits the community, even church communities, in half. It was great to see how everyone worked towards one thing. The church works across borders and it’s so much more than just faith — it’s faith that’s lived.”
Kravchenko is given a hero’s welcome when he walks into the Vienna meetinghouse. The stoic, taxi driver-turned-stake president is greeted by hugs and handshakes, embracing Helmrich as if he’s a family member returning from a mission. He peruses the rooms filled with aid — much of it stemming from an Amazon wishlist that Kravchenko himself compiled. Before he leaves, members gather by the door.
To Ukraine With Love
Although Kravchenko may be revered among church members in Austria, he will be the first to tell you “there are thousands of volunteers that are doing a huge job, who are doing much more than what we are doing. We are a piece of sand on the beach.”
Since April, as the humanitarian needs of Ukraine have shifted, Russia restructures its war effort and refugees return home, Kravchenko and Malezhyk are now primarily driving aid inside of Ukraine for an Idaho-based charity, To Ukraine With Love.
Svitlana Miller, who was born in Ukraine but now resides in Idaho Falls, started the charity shortly after the invasion when her call for donations resulted in an overwhelming response.
“We had a line of people out the door. My Venmo started pinging like every few seconds. It was totally unexpected,” she said. “People were donating thousands, and I hated that they were using their own funds if there’s a way to turn this into a tax deduction.”
Now, despite only being a registered nonprofit for a few months, Miller’s charity resembles a well-established international aid organization, with social media and public relations specialists, grant writers, coordinators and over 50 drivers currently in Ukraine.
It’s the reason why Kravchenko and Malezhyk were able to graduate from their small sedan, piled so high with aid that it obscured the rear-view mirror, to each driving their own full-sized van.
“It’s the equivalent of having five Ford coupes,” Malezhyk said.
A colorful cast of characters makes up the small army driving and volunteering for To Ukraine with Love.
There’s the American man with no ties to Ukraine, who drives deep into dangerous regions in the east using paper maps; the 10-year-old boy from Orem who insisted on accompanying his dad into Ukraine to deliver groceries, and the Latter-day Saint bishop-turned-Ukrainian military commander who receives generators, armor and water filters from the charity.
“We can help,” said Miller. “The world can help these people last a little longer, stand their ground a bit longer, until Russia runs out of resources. The world is behind us.”
In July, Malezhyk will move to Canada to start a new life under the country’s Ukrainian visa program. She leaves her country having delivered literal tons of aid, and facilitating the evacuation of dozens of refugees.
“I feel guilty,” she said about the prospect of leaving Ukraine. “Everything is good there, people are working, living their lives but we know in Ukraine it is not good. People are dying.”
“I have a difficult choice,” she continues, “stay here and help, or go be with my child.”
Kravchenko will stay. When asked about any future plans and whether he thinks he’ll join his family in the U.S., he cracks a wry grin. “Only Ukraine,” he says.
“We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. We live just in the day,” he said. “There’s an American book called ‘Gone With the Wind,’ with Scarlett O’Hara. She says ‘I can’t think about that now, I will think about it tomorrow.’”