BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – The war continues in Ukraine six months after Russia’s invasion of the country.
Innocent lives have been lost in the process, along with the homes and livelihoods of millions of Ukrainians. Many were forced to flee the country in order to survive.
The war hits even closer to home for one Northeast Tennessee congregation.
Churchgoers at Celebration Church in Blountville, Tennessee are helping displaced Ukrainians rebuild their lives here in the Appalachian Highlands.
Krystyna Potapenko said she left Ukraine on Feb. 24, the night the bombs first hit her home city of Kharkiv. It’s a day she’ll always remember vividly.
“I woke up immediately and told my husband and kids, and we just took our family and brought them to the car, taking nothing. Absolutely nothing,” she said.
Potapenko told News Channel 11 it took six days to get to the border and another two days to cross. She said the four of them, her husband and two kids, traveled to Poland then Germany, where they stayed for three months before hearing about the opportunity to come to Northeast Tennessee.
She wasn’t alone. The same story held true for Viktoriia and Serhii Shumakher, who also packed up their two children with one backpack full of belongings between the four of them. Viktoriia was also pregnant when they fled the country, which her husband said made for a difficult trek.
However, their journey out of the country led them to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of sanctuary in America provided by Pastor Robert Russell and his kind congregation.
“We have a long-time contact in Ukraine, a gentleman who was in the city of Kharkiv,” Russell said. “That’s where all of our families are from, and he fled like all of these families and since he came to the United States, he introduced us to families who had needs.”
Four families all arrived in July and are now settling into their new normal, but it’s not exactly a cut-and-dry process.
“You do have to file with U.S. immigration and get approval. There is a special program for Ukrainians and they get a two-year VISA and of course, we have host homes for them and are trying to meet all their needs,” said Russell.
Right now, the issue is finding long-term housing, but that’s a worry for another day as they focus on what’s in front of them – each other.
“Your home is not a place, it’s not a house, your home is your family,” said Potapenko.
The four families collectively said they’ve had a positive experience since arriving on U.S. soil. However, fears for friends and family still in the country are ever-looming.
Tetiana and Kostiantyn Hatsenko with tear-filled eyes said they don’t know if there will be anything to return to in Kharkiv, but they and their four kids are alive and that’s what matters most. The Hatsenko’s left Ukraine in the first week of March.
Pastor Russell said it is important people don’t forget that this war is still happening.
“The war is still very intense. The city they are from, Kharkiv, has been under attack since the very beginning of the war and continues to be under attack,” he said.
He said another family is set to arrive on Aug. 31.
If you’re interested in helping the church meet the needs of the families they’re helping, you can reach out by clicking here.