Latter-day Saint Ukrainian refugees find rest in Christ, kindness of others

BERLIN, Germany — Days before Easter, Liia excitedly hung colorful plastic eggs on tiny tree boughs outside the suburban house here that she now calls home.

Despite her enthusiasm, the 3-year-old was likely a bit confused. Easter eggs and Easter bunnies were all new to Liia — neither are holiday traditions practiced in her Ukrainian homeland.

Confusion and newness have defined much of the past several weeks this year for young Liia and her two sisters, Dasha and Elsza — along with their mother, Natasha, and Natasha’s sister-in-law, Diana.

The two women and the three girls are counted among the nearly 5 million Ukrainians refugees. “Refugee” is a classification they never wished  for — and one they hope to soon shed. But until it is safe to return to their country, they are living in Berlin.

Every day that Natasha and Diana reside in a German city located almost 1,000 miles away from their native Kyiv is a tough day. They worry about their husband and brother, John. They pray for the safety of loved ones and fellow Latter-day Saints. They watch the news of the day with both trepidation and pride for their compatriots fighting for their freedom.

But the two women are quick to add that they are not alone. They are leaning into the twin companions of the gospel and the support of fellow Latter-day Saints in Berlin who, prior to the ongoing conflict, were foreigners and strangers. 

The women are living temporarily with Oliver and Stephanie Berndt and their children. President Berndt is a counselor in the Berlin Germany Stake. Several other Ukrainian families have found similar shelter and shepherding in the residences of Latter-day Saints across Germany and other European nations.

“When we first met the Berndts, we immediately felt like family — it was like we had known them from some place long ago,” Diana told the Church News. “They are so kind and supportive. They bring hope to our lives.”

Diana and Natasha are both English-speakers. Their language skills help them connect with their host family. “But it can sometimes be hard for my children because they don’t speak the language,” said Natasha. “But they feel safe here in this home. They were nervous at first, but they quickly relaxed.”

When Germany native Elder Erich Kopischke, a General Authority Seventy and a member of the Europe Central Area Presidency, considers the bond between Ukrainian refugees and host families he is reminded of the friendship found in the Book of Mormon between Alma and Amulek.

Amulek, noted Elder Kopischke, had lost all he possessed, including his family and friends. He was driven from his homeland.

But “Alma took Amulek and came over to the land of Zarahemla, and took him to his own house, and did administer unto him in his tribulations and strengthened him in the Lord” (Alma 15:18).

​​Said Elder Kopischke: “This attribute, shown by true followers of Christ by reaching out in love and compassion to those who need comfort, is what we observe during this crisis in different ways all over our area. It does not only strengthen those in need, it also strengthens those who give and serve. It makes us all better disciples of Jesus Christ and a light to the world.”

Stephanie Berndt and Liia decorate Berndt’s yard with Easter eggs in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Liia, her two sisters, mother and aunt are staying with Berndt and her family as the family seeks refuge from the war in Ukraine.
Stephanie Berndt and Liia decorate Berndt’s yard with Easter eggs in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Liia, her two sisters, mother and aunt are staying with Berndt and her family as the family seeks refuge from the war in Ukraine. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A lifelong Latter-day Saint who served a mission to New Zealand, Diana was away from her Kyiv home attending a Young Single Adult conference in another part of the country when the conflict began on Feb. 24.

Her shock that war had actually come to Ukraine was matched only by her fear.

“I woke up that morning to phone calls,” she said. “We were being bombed. Everyone was scared. Everyone was asking ‘What is happening?’ We didn’t think this could actually happen in the 21st century.”

Diana stayed with another family for a week and quickly learned to rush to a nearby shelter whenever the sound of sirens filled the air. After several days, she decided it was safest to leave Ukraine and head west.

Her sister-in-law, Natasha, is a Church convert who served a full-time mission in Russia.

Like Diana, she learned of the conflict via cellphone calls and text messages. In the initial days of the conflict, she followed her natural impulse to serve others. She spent several days with her three daughters in a makeshift shelter and helped distribute food and other provisions to people in need. 

“It was terrible,” she said. “But people always looked for ways to help and stay connected to one another.”

Like her sister-in-law, Diana, Natasha realized it was best for her to take the girls and temporarily leave Ukraine for someplace safer. “We decided we needed to go for the kids,” she said. “It was a hard decision. I have a normal life. I work, and my children have gymnastics and karate classes. Then in one day, it all disappeared.”

Leaving Ukraine meant bidding farewell to loved ones remaining behind. Diana’s 56-year-old father is serving in the reserve army and is assigned to man a checkpoint on a road near the capital. “We always worry about him. We never know what will happen.”

Text messaging with him, she added, brings a measure of daily comfort.

Natasha’s husband, John, is an IT professional. But like so many others in Ukraine, war has forced a temporary “career shift.” Now he spends his days helping to collect and distribute medicine and protective equipment such as helmets for soldiers.

Natasha said her husband stoically faces each day’s challenges. “He tells us everything is all right. But when he talks to our daughters, I can tell that he misses them and that this is very hard for all of them. My daughters cry. Every day they ask me, ‘Why don’t we go home to Father?’”

The family’s journey took them to Poland and the Czech Republic and, ultimately, to the Berndt home in Berlin, Germany. The kindness shown to her family by former strangers has deepened Natasha’s understanding of the gospel. She has discovered that she is a valued member of the global Latter-day Saint community.

“Everywhere in the world, there are people who will help you,” she said. “I am so grateful that I am in the Church. The gospel has given me strength and I know the gospel will bless Ukraine.”

Ukrainian refugees Dasha, Liia, Natasha, Elsza and Diana run into Alicia Berndt, Stephanie Berndt and Oliver Berndt while the family waits for a bus in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. The Berndt family is hosting the family as they seek refuge from the war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian refugees Dasha, Liia, Natasha, Elsza and Diana run into Alicia Berndt, Stephanie Berndt and Oliver Berndt while the family waits for a bus in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. The Berndt family is hosting the family as they seek refuge from the war in Ukraine. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Berlin members — and many others — answering calls to serve refugees

Almost five months ago, Berlin Germany Stake President Rolf Reichardt and his counselors delivered a New Year’s letter to stake members inviting them to actively seek opportunities to strengthen their neighbors, placing particular emphasis on daily prayers and scripture study.

“Little did we know how much this would be needed to prepare our minds and hearts for what was to come — and how soon,” he wrote in an email.

Working closely with the Europe Area leadership out of Frankfurt, the Berlin members organized efforts to connect  with and minister to Ukrainian members, in addition to others fleeing Ukraine who are not Latter-day Saints.

“We are so grateful for the many member homes willing to provide for temporary accommodation to Ukrainian refugees, for the generous donations sent to Ukraine, for many individual initiatives to support the refugees and for the many prayers which are so important,” wrote President Reichardt.

Berlin stake members Michael and Uli Gruse were called to serve as coordinators for the stake’s refugee relief efforts. The Gruses and others, including the full-time missionaries, have performed a variety of services, including preparing hot meals for refugees when they arrive in Berlin and arranging for host families such as the Berndts.

“At first, we didn’t know what to do; we’ve never done something like this before,” said Michael Gruse. But their efforts have been guided by prayer and love. The Gruses came to know many Ukrainian members during their service in the Freiberg Germany Temple. “They are wonderful people, and we love them.”

Members of the Berlin stake have answered every call to serve, said Michael Gruse. Besides opening their homes, they have donated needed supplies such as sleeping bags, food and clothing. “Every single member has wanted to help and be part of this support for these wonderful people. And not just for the members — for all Ukrainians.”

Uli Gruse’s eyes turn misty when she recalls one local food and supply drive organized by the Berlin stake.

“We thought  maybe the members would come and bring what they could. But they brought so much that we needed to rent a truck [to transport donations].”

The ongoing conflict has separated families, she added. “But members and nonmembers alike have united to help.”

The Berndts, meanwhile, say opening their home to refugees has been a blessing.

“We want to help, and we feel very lucky to have such an amazing family in our home,” said Stephanie Berndt.

“I’m especially grateful that my kids have taken them in so naturally,” added Oliver Berndt.

Over the past several weeks, the two families have found peace and joy in preparing meals together and worshiping side-by-side during Sunday Church services. The older Berndt children enjoy having the little girls around to play and have fun with, despite the language barriers. 

Oliver Berndt is inspired by the self-reliance of the Ukrainian women. They have remained as independent as possible, even amid the challenges of refugee life.

“We try to offer a safe space,” he said. “When they are feeling sad, we want to give them space. If they want to have fun, then we have fun with them. … We laugh together a lot.”

Finding hope through God — and the kindness of His children

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently spent a memorable Sabbath Day with Ukrainian refugees living in Poland. He acknowledged the grim realities of the day — but assured them that hope can be found by all who turn to the Savior.

As the scripture promises: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Natasha and Diana have wept often over the past several weeks. Their thoughts are never far from their homeland and the people they love and cannot be with. But they find strength to endure — lifted by the love of others and their hope in Christ.

“Some of my friends who are not Church members ask me, ‘Can you pray for my husband? Can you pray for my friends who are fighting?’” said Natasha. “This is an opportunity to share the gospel. This is an opportunity to give people this hope.

“It’s hard to understand what is happening in our country. But I still have hope because our prophets have promised us that we will have [more] temples and that the [Church will grow] in Ukraine. I just believe in these words. These words bring me hope.”

Heavenly Father knows and looks after His people — often through the prayers and actions of others, added Diana.

When Diana prays, she does not always receive an immediate answer. “But I always feel at peace. I know everything will be okay, even if I don’t know when that will be.”