HANNOVER, Germany — The picture, snapped by a photojournalist at the Ukrainian border last March, captures an image of Olga Zabrodina and her children.
Dressed in winter clothing and looking exhausted, Zabrodina is carrying her 2-year-old son Sasha’s stroller; the child is still buckled inside. It is apparent that the Latter-day Saint mother could no longer push the stroller along the rough, rocky, frozen terrain.
After war erupted in Ukraine, local leaders asked members to pray for revelation and determine whether they should flee or stay in country amid the escalating military conflict.
Zabrodina speaks beautiful English and knew her talent could bless the nation. Her husband was already fighting with Ukrainian forces. She wanted to stay and help.
But as she prayed, she knew she should leave the country to save her children.
With her three sons, elderly father, sister and two nieces, Zabrodina crossed the borders of five countries over 11 days — arriving in Germany with only a few personal items in a backpack. “Someone from the Church was there to carry my son and give me some water,” she said.
Unable to withdraw money from the bank and without knowing if her husband was alive, she prayed for the conflict to stop.
Yet, she was sustained by a powerful feeling of peace. “We left by revelation. We received help. We are so blessed,” she said.
‘God is in charge’
Eight months after that long journey, Zabrodina and other Latter-day Saints refugees met on Nov. 6 with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Patricia T. Holland, in Hannover.
Translating for other refugees, Zabrodina detailed their struggles and their blessings. She and other refugees spoke of their desire to return to Ukraine and with gratitude for the Latter-day Saints who stayed in the country to carry on. She broke down as she spoke about her husband, still fighting in the Ukrainian Army.
“The Church is all we have now,” she said.
Elder Holland offered tender apostolic encouragement. “Things are going to be all right,” he said. “God is in charge. The best thing all of us can do is to be true to our own covenants.”
Then he added a powerful promise. “The prayers of a righteous few can change the course of history for a whole country.”
“This will get resolved,” he said. “We will see it through. It will be all right.”
Elder Holland later said he was unprepared for the deep emotion he felt as he met Zabrodina and the other refugees.
“The Saints organized, taking them into their homes,” he said. “It is the gospel at its very best, at its absolute very best. … It is the gospel in action.”
Sister Holland told the refugees that she had read all she could about their plight. “I’m so deeply touched to be able to meet with some of you,” she said.
Drawing on Elder Holland’s promise, Sister Holland reiterated that a few faithful individuals could bless a nation. “I believe that with all of our prayers, and all of our love, we can do that.”
Stability in an unstable world
Elder Erich W. Kopischke, a counselor in the Europe Central Area presidency and a General Authority Seventy, said the willingness of the German Church members to help has been “marvelous to observe.”
“The Church provides stability in an unstable world,” he said. Amid the current military conflict, “Germany again has become one of the major go-to countries for refugees. Ukrainian members feel welcomed by German Saints. This ministering on both sides brings blessings to both.”
As gas and oil prices soar, inflation runs high and members battle increasing living expenses, the main challenge is “getting through the winter,” Elder Kopischke said.
Elder Markus Zarse, an Area Seventy in Germany, added, “Likewise we still suffer from [COVID-19] and the consequences of action taken to fight the pandemic, especially social isolation among the youth and the effects of prolonged isolation.”
President K. Günter Borcherding of the Hannover Germany Stake also worries about the months ahead for local Latter-day Saints. “Members are not living in fear,” he said. “They have a lot of trust in God.”
President Borcherding and his wife, Ingrid, opened their home to refugees as the conflict began. They hosted Poulina and Sergei Gorski, whose age and health made their decision to leave Ukraine very hard.
After the meeting with Elder Holland, the Borcherdings and the Gorskis recalled the day they first met.
Holding up her phone and speaking with the help of a translation app — the couples do not speak the other’s language — Ingrid Borcherding said to her friends, “you had nothing but plastic bags.”
As the app translated his German words into Ukrainian, President Borcherding added, “then you went shopping.”
The Gorskis purchased the basic supplies needed to make borscht soup. “They came here with nothing, and they wanted to share something with us,” President Borcherding said. “Their attitude was not what can we receive. They wanted to know what they could give.”
Support for refugees
The refugees are some of more than 1,000 Latter-day Saints who fled Ukraine last March and were placed with member families across Western Europe. Members from Zabrodina’s ward in Ukraine, for example, settled in eight different nations.
From the earliest days of the conflict, the Church established an Emergency Response Council, under the direction of the area presidency and led by Elder Michael Cziesla, an Area Seventy, said Elder Zarse. The response was immediate as Latter-day Saints in Germany “opened their houses and their hearts” to welcome refugees. “Many remembered that they have been refugees themselves during World War II and were eager to now be able to help others.”
In addition to the help refugees have received from the members, the Church provided more than 900 tons of food and other provisions for Ukrainians.
The Church gave $2 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and $2 million to the World Food Programme to help those displaced by the crisis. This gift from the Church to the UNHCR helped an estimated 40,000 displaced families; the WFP provided food for some 11,000 people for four months.
Those donations were followed by an additional $4 million to humanitarian efforts in Europe — including food sent into Ukraine; first aid, medication and hygiene supplies to refugees through Project HOPE, The Association of Neonatologists of Ukraine, and International Medical Corps; clothing; and shelter and transportation.
So far this year, the Church has assisted 1.6 million refugees in Europe.
Zabrodina knows the Lord is aware of her. She and her family had heeded the direction of Church leaders to prepare legal documents and three-day emergency kits. “We were ready to leave,” she said.
She arrived in Germany to learn that local youth would be visiting the temple on the exact day a temple trip had been planned for the youth in Ukraine. She accompanied her two older sons on the trip.
Poulina and Sergei Gorski also listed numerous blessings and miracles amid their personal despair. As the conflict erupted in Ukraine, for example, the power went out and their city was dark. A bomb hit their apartment building, but did not explode. They spent the evening in the subway. “We understood that God is with us,” she said. “He didn’t leave us.”
Still, they look forward to the day they can return home to Ukraine. “We know that God knows each of us personally and takes care of us in our difficulties.”
Zabrodina said even with the love and support of the members, living away — among those that do not speak Ukrainian — is isolating. She speaks English, but not German. Her children are learning to speak both.
President Borcherding said, in his stake in Hannover, the willingness to help refugees exceeded the need. The refugees had a temporary and then a more permanent place to stay, donated clothing and food. They were given rides to Church. “We are surrounded by many, many faithful members,” he said.
As their neighbors pitched in to help, Church and community unity increased.
“It was Zion-like teamwork,” he said.