As Russian forces invaded a small town in western Ukraine in March, one family with 12 children was forced to hide in the basement of their home.
The family of 14 didn’t know they would have no way to escape for about two weeks.
“It happened so quickly,” said Michael Pratt, a friend of the family, who runs a refugee shelter in western Ukraine. “... They couldn’t get out when they tried to get out. They’d be shot at. Food became very scarce. Their electrical power would go on and off, so they couldn’t communicate very much. Eventually, they were rescued. And now, today, most of the kids are in Spain, and a few of them are in Hungary, so they’re safe.”
This is one of several incidents that fueled Pratt and his team of missionaries in western Ukraine to continue providing a haven for refugees as they make their way to the Ukraine-Poland border, he told KSAT 12 in a recent Zoom interview.
Pratt has lived in Ukraine for 23 years and in his current city for 12 years.
He and his team turned their small Christian, nondenominational church into a shelter for refugees just over a month ago when the Russian invasion began.
So far, Pratt said he and his team have served more than 500 people and have provided more than 2,000 meals. The shelter is still open today and continues to serve refugees.
“We’ve been used to war. We’ve had war for the last eight years on our eastern border, and when things expanded, we saw a need and just decided to be ready to meet that need,” he told KSAT.
Pratt’s team purchases items for the shelter through donations it has received online, he said.
KSAT agreed not to publish the name of his organization or the precise location of the church because Pratt feared being targeted by Russian forces. He shared photos of the shelter.
The church is affiliated with a congregation located in the U.S.
Converting a church into a refugee shelter
Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 with shelling and rocket attacks on several major cities, including the capital, Kyiv.
The offensive amounted to the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, according to The Associated Press.
Pratt and his team knew that many refugees would be heading in their direction, fleeing the war-torn country, so they went to work.
“We purchased mattresses, all the bedding we needed. We put in a shower. We expanded our kitchen. We put together a team of volunteers and leaders. The training was on-the-job training. We’d never done anything like this before,” he said. “We started putting the word out to our friends in eastern Ukraine and on our website and social media that we had a place for people.”
Word spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before their shelter was contacted at all times of the day, he said.
“The first two weeks were nonstop. Our phones, different social media, texting — everything was ringing and binging all throughout the day and night,” Pratt said. “Middle of the night, we get calls from people who are desperate and looking for a place to go.”
Their shelter can house up to 25 refugees each day, he said. However, if they were at capacity, he said there are several more shelters in the area where refugees could find solace.
As far as choosing who to help and when, Pratt said it is based on a first-come, first-served basis, but his team focuses on families, women with children and the elderly.
Come as a refugee, stay as a guest
“We call them our guests, not refugees. And we make it our goal to help them feel loved and accepted,” Pratt said.
When the guests come into the church, they’re invited to stay for one or two nights and are given three hot meals a day and a place to sleep.
Though the refugees are entering a safe, secure space at the shelter, the war’s impact on their lives and well-being is obvious, Pratt said.
“When you see them walk in the door of our shelter, they are extremely traumatized. You can see it on their faces,” he said. “We immediately encourage them by assuring them that they have a safe, warm environment to be in.”
Recently, foot traffic has slowed in the shelter, with about 10 to 12 refugees visiting per day. Pratt said they’ve had two large waves come through, but many people are still trapped in some of the larger cities due to the attacks.
His team is expecting more refugees to arrive in the coming days and weeks. Pratt said his team is ready to help on both sides of the border.
“We have another team set up on the Polish side to help refugees once they cross, and so, we’re working on both sides of the border to get people to safety and on to their final destination,” he said.
Attacks strike close to home
Pratt and his family weren’t immune to the ongoing Russian attacks.
One morning around 6 a.m., the air raid sirens sounded as he and his family were in bed.
While the sirens have become a routine for many Ukrainians over the last month — with loud wailing filling the streets multiple times per day and night — this time was different.
Pratt said he was just waking up when four cruise missiles struck a facility not far from his family’s home.
“I heard the first missile hit and immediately jumped out of bed and ran to get my kids and get us to shelter,” he said. “Before I could even get to the kids, the second one hit, then the third one, and then the fourth one. By the time we were in safety, it was all over.”
His family was safe after the attack, but it’s a moment that’s stayed with Pratt since.
Giving thanks to the European Union
Millions of Ukrainian refugees have already escaped the country. That number is likely to increase, as it’s unknown how long Russia’s attacks will last.
The latest report from the Associated Press said Sunday that Ukraine and its Western allies had “mounting evidence” that showed Russia was withdrawing its forces from around Kyiv, but is building up troop strength in eastern Ukraine.
Several EU countries have joined forces in welcoming Ukrainian refugees that have escaped from war, providing shelter, jobs and more to help them get a fresh start. It’s a gesture that Michael said is appreciated beyond words.
“Thank you to Poland and to all the EU countries. You have welcomed us with open arms. You have done so much to give homes and shelter and jobs and health care and just all the ways that you have really helped Ukrainian people,” he said.
Despite the conflict, chaos, fear and uncertainty that comes with war, Pratt said there is a silver lining. It has brought people together, working toward one common goal — keeping people alive and safe.
“So many of the things that divide us in life suddenly disappear and the goodness of humanity emerges in very, very big and significant ways in Ukraine and Poland and Germany and France and all the EU countries,” Pratt said. “People just put away the things that sometimes we fight over and recognize it’s time to help other people. That’s that’s the thing that I’m encouraged by.”