I am a Refugee: Reflections of a Missionary Leaving Ukraine, Part 1
April 2022

The following was written on March 7, 2022 and published as a SEND U BlogSEND U, SEND International's training and development focus, is a place and a forum for sharing resources, training opportunities and ideas broadly within SEND.

By Ken Guenther

I am a missionary who is also a war refugee. I came to that realization a couple of days ago. My wife and I are Canadian citizens but residents of Ukraine. Or at least we were until about a month ago. We have our Ukraine temporary residency cards, recently renewed. Our home for the past 12 and a half years has been in the city of Kyiv. This has been the longest we have lived in any country or in any home since we got married and left for the Philippines almost 35 years ago. Now we are “back” in Canada. Because of the current war in Ukraine, we do not know for how long. 

In the past week, I have experienced many different and sometimes conflicting emotions. I am thankful to God that we were given sufficient warning and were able to leave Ukraine before the fighting began. But I am also shocked and deeply saddened by the devastation and death that the war in Ukraine has caused. I feel a great sense of loss as I think about the possibility that we may never return to our home, friends and ministry base in Ukraine. At the same time, I am proud of and admire the courage, resilience and resourcefulness of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. Fervently and continually, I pray for peace in Ukraine – and wonder what this all means for us. 

What is a refugee? 

But am I really a refugee? After all, we were born and raised in Canada. This is where our parents, brothers and sisters, our daughter and son-in-law, and three of our grandchildren make their home. 

“Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.”  

According to that definition, we are now refugees. Interestingly, the 1951 Refugee Convention would not define us as refugees. This legal document says that a refugee is: 

“someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”  

When we left Ukraine, we did not leave our “country of origin” nor are we fearing persecution in Ukraine. But we are unable and unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear – fear of war. Although the 1951 definition did not mention war as a reason for fleeing, military conflict has become a leading factor in the refugee crisis around the world today. 

Our country of origin but not our home 

Although Canada is our country of origin, it is not our home. It is hard to know how to respond to well-meaning friends in our sending church who greet us with “Welcome home!” We do not own a place of our own in this country. In many ways, we do not feel at home in Canada. Blizzards and minus 24-degree (-24 Celcius) temperatures in March were probably common in our childhood, but they have not been our experience in the past decade. 

Despite the cold weather, we received a warm welcome and it was great to reconnect with family and friends. The hospitality we enjoy with our relatives has been wonderfully gracious and generous. But we are not at home. 

Our home and our most valuable possessions are in Ukraine. Our neighbours and many of our friends are still in Ukraine, although every day, the number of them who are now also refugees is increasing. I can do much of my work from North America, although not as easily. But our departure has radically disrupted my wife’s work and ministry. Just as importantly, our daily routines have all been disrupted because we are not living in our own home or neighbourhood. 

Our status changed after we left 

I was not a refugee when we left Ukraine. I definitely did not think of myself as a refugee when I boarded a KLM flight out of Kyiv early in the morning of January 30. We had already been planning to leave Ukraine in February to conduct an online 6-week training program from a North American time zone. Because of the threat of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, we decided to leave three weeks earlier. We did not want to be in a situation where we would need to stay in Ukraine during the duration of the training if commercial airlines decided to stop flying into Kyiv. The previous year, I was unable to lead that same training program because the pandemic forced us to cancel our travel plans. I did not want a repeat. 

So, we left a few weeks early, just to make sure we would not be stuck in Kyiv. We packed what we would normally pack for a 10-week trip. At the time, we were not refugees. We could have chosen to stay. Many of our missionary colleagues did choose to stay although all had evacuation plans in place. 

Our field is now a battlefield 

That all changed on February 24, at 5:00 am Ukraine time when Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Since that date, all of my colleagues from our mission organization have left Ukraine as well. Our “field of service” is now a battlefield.  

Our home is now in the middle of a war zone. That became very real soon after the start of the war. Possibly the first Kyiv apartment building that was hit in the conflict was a building 200 metres from where we call home. The Ukrainian forces shot down an enemy plane or missile and pieces of it smashed into this nearby apartment building on our street. 

How do we plan? 

With the reality that we cannot return to Kyiv any time soon comes the growing realization that like refugees, our future is very uncertain. 

What will life in Ukraine be like after the war? 

So many questions fill my mind as I think about the future. Will our building still be standing when this war is finally over? Will the electricity, water, and sewer utilities be so badly damaged by the war that the apartment will become unlivable? Could it be looted? Will we ever be able to retrieve our belongings from that apartment, even if we decide we cannot live there anymore? 

We are less than 10 years from retirement. Will our city and neighbourhood ever become safe enough for us to return before we need to retire from full-time missions work? Should we consider moving to another country and establishing another ministry base there? Should we find a more permanent place to live in Canada? 

What will ministry look like in Ukraine after the war? 

I also think about what future ministry might look like after the war. Although we understand a lot of Ukrainian, we are Russian speakers and feel far more comfortable in that language. If Ukraine is able to withstand the invasion, will the deep-seated resentment toward Russia result in antagonism toward those like us who attempt to communicate in Russian? Will we be forced to either speak in English or learn Ukrainian in order to resume living in Ukraine after the war? 

Much of our local ministry in the past few years has focused on international students in Kyiv. Many of these students were from “unreached people groups”, and were much more accessible in Ukraine than they would have been back in their home countries. What will happen with international student ministry after the war? Will students from other countries want to come back to Ukraine to study or will they stay away because of fear that this conflict will repeat itself? 

How do we plan in light of all these uncertainties? 

Feeling guilty 

At the same time, I feel guilty for calling myself a refugee. How can I include myself in that number when so many of those who have fled Ukraine have lost far more than we have? The UN says over 1.7 million people have left the country since the fighting began. Most of these are women and children since men are staying behind to fight. So, families are being torn apart as the most vulnerable flee for their lives. They are leaving their livelihoods and the only life they have ever known. Unlike us, most will not have relatives and friends waiting and ready to receive them and help them resettle. Most of them do not speak English. 

This may well become the largest refugee crisis in the past 100 years. The UN refugee agency estimates that more than 4 million will take refuge outside of the country with millions more displaced within the borders of Ukraine due to the war. The European Union believes the number of refugees from Ukraine may grow to 7 million. 

Yes, our personal crisis pales in comparison with those of my Ukrainian friends and neighbours. I am not a refugee in the same way that they are. Yet, I am still a war refugee. Accepting that reality will probably be necessary to successfully navigate the decisions we need to make in the coming months. We cannot pretend that soon our life will return to the “normal” we knew in the past 12 years...

(To be Continued Wednesday, April 20)

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