Cezary Gladun was on his way home from a concert in Warsaw when he learned Russia had invaded neighboring Ukraine.
“Practically the same day,” he said, work took him to a town bordering the besieged nation.
The scene he encountered was “nightmarish,” with cold and hungry women and children everywhere — many freshly separated from husbands and fathers — and no clear system in place to help them.
“Nobody,” he said, “knew anything.”
Amid the chaos, Gladun happened to run into a mother and her child looking for a ride back to his own hometown of Lublin. Her husband, a migrant worker living in Poland, was waiting anxiously for them there. The three of them packed into his car and drove the 60 miles west. Once there, Gladun opened his apartment to the family who gratefully accepted his offer to stay with him until they could figure out their next step.
Then, he did it again — and again.
A convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gladun is one of many members of the Utah-based faith in Eastern Europe who have found their lives altered — if not utterly consumed — by the work of welcoming and supporting Ukrainians displaced or otherwise affected by the war.
These efforts range from the entirely grassroots to the church-led and church-funded. Their focus also runs the gamut — from planning outings and field trips for refugees in need of a diversion, to equipping soldiers fighting on the front lines. All, however, have made use of the church’s international networks to respond to the mounting physical and mental toll brought on by a war with no clear end in sight.
For his part, Gladun estimates he has ferried around 70 Ukrainian refugees from the border town of Dorohusk back to his home, where he shelters and feeds them until they determine where to go next. If the distance is drivable, Gladun takes them. Otherwise, he helps them find a train or plane that would get them where they want to be.
“I am working for the Lord,” he said, “a tiny cog trying to help people, mostly children, in a concrete way.”
Running supplies to the front lines
When Britta Ellwanger arrived in Poland shortly after Russia’s invasion, it was with only vague plans of desiring to help. A former Latter-day Saint missionary to Ukraine and a graduate student in Kyiv (she had been visiting her father in Israel when the bombing started), she had a grasp of the language that was rare among non-Ukrainians. At the very least, she figured, she could help with translation.
Two months later, she has become something of an expert in sourcing protective military equipment for Ukrainian soldiers — many of whom are desperate for even the most basic items.
“I fully reoutfitted a troop last week,” she said, “that didn’t have shoes.”
Operating under the nonprofit forPEACE, she has developed an “expansive network” of battalion commanders and medical personnel who send her “very specific lists of things.”
With their requests in hand, she enters a race against the clock to source the items, many of which — including military fabric — no longer can be found locally.
“We are literally scrambling for the last 50 meters of Kevlar at this point,” she said. “Poland is really getting drained of resources.”
As the fighting rages, other urgent needs have emerged, including L-Thyroxine — a medication still used by many to counteract long-term thyroid issues brought on by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Together with a German organization, Ellwanger was able to acquire a shipment that, at the time of the interview, was making its way to the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson.
“Transport is a super, super scary phase because you lose control of your supplies,” she said. Besides scammers, there’s the possibility that soldiers, empowered by martial law, will take what they need from a shipment intended for others.
To deal with this, she’s come to rely heavily on the knowledge and connections of individual Ukrainians and a Ukrainian organization that have “pretty much aced” getting aid in and out of the country.
Ellwanger said the entire experience has served as a reminder of “the power of little people,” pointing to a “powerhouse” team of German medical students, for instance, helping her get water filtration systems into Ukraine.
Through it all, she has witnessed “many Mormon networks” spring up. Some include Ukrainian Latter-day Saints who have since moved to the United States. Others have “no connection to Eastern Europe.” All feel drawn to help.
Ellwanger said she has remained in close touch with a women’s book club in Utah ever since one of its members — someone she met a decade ago at the Missionary Training Center — asked how to help.
“This book club in the early days of the war kept a bread factory running in Mariupol,” she said. “They supported Ukrainians stocking up on food and medicine in the west and transporting it to the east and south, and they supported Ukrainian crowdfunding for body armor for soldiers going to the front lines or protecting their homes from invading forces.”
Another friend from her MTC days recently held an improv show and donated the proceeds to forPEACE, while the daughter of a couple Ellwanger knew from her days in a “tiny” Latter-day Saint congregation in Tel Aviv has served as her “main support.”
Going forward, she said, this kind of grassroots aid is critical if Ukraine is to have any chance at holding off the Russians.
“What we’re hearing from military commanders is that the next 30 days are make it or break it,” she said. “The Ukrainian army is sustaining a lot of casualties and losses. ‘Liberated’ areas are not really that liberated. This is a turning point in the war.”
Delivering aid in Moldova
Nina Scurtu couldn’t focus.
Originally from Moldova, she had been living with her Ukrainian husband in Kyiv when the bombing erupted. She and her mother-in-law escaped to her parents’ place back in her home country but, as with so many Ukrainian men, her husband remained behind.
She texted her boss, a fellow Latter-day Saint, to let him know she wanted to focus on helping the refugees who were streaming into Moldova by the thousands each day.
Not only did he encourage her to do so, but he also opened up his adult education nonprofit where Scurtu worked — known as Cumorah Academy, based in the Czech Republic — for donations specifically for refugee aid.
Contributions soon poured in from members — plus their friends and family — across the globe. Many donors were former missionaries to Moldova and Ukraine. Others came from members as far away as the Philippines and Peru with no connection to the region.
“A lot of them were members that haven’t been going to church for years,” she said. Others had left the faith completely.
The same turned out to be true on the ground in Moldova, where Scurtu spent a month and a half buying and delivering items to refugees.
“I’ve seen volunteers in Moldova who were not active in the church, but we’re working together,” she said, adding that there are about 10 active members in her own congregation.
A onetime missionary to Ukraine spent a week driving her through Moldova’s cities and country roads (“I’m not a good driver,” she confessed) delivering aid, with the help of a Cumorah Academy student from Wales.
“I’ve always had somebody,” she said, “by my side.”
Her most memorable moment came when she learned mothers at a center had run out of a certain brand of Ukrainian baby food. Their infants — some as young as 5 months — were refusing everything else.
Normally, finding Ukrainian products would have been no problem. But the fighting had disrupted supply chains. Scurtu looked everywhere, including online, finally securing what she’s convinced were some of the very last boxes in all of Moldova.
When she and her helper presented their findings to the women, they wept.
Not content to remain in Moldova, Scurtu and the Welsh student spent 10 days in the Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod, a major western hub for internally displaced Ukrainians along the border with Slovakia. While there, they bought boilers and shower cabins for centers housing migrants who otherwise were left to search the city for publicly available bathing facilities.
In addition to providing funding for aid, the international Latter-day Saint network has allowed Scurtu and those working alongside her to connect family members separated across country lines.
“Everyone knows the church is very international,” she said. Because of this, she has received messages from refugees with no affiliation with the faith seeking help.
In one case, she helped find Czech members willing to host a Ukrainian man’s wife and children who otherwise would have likely wound up on a cot in a gymnasium. In another instance, she placed a woman and her 2-year-old son with a Latter-day Saint family in Germany.
Scurtu worries about the fate of her own country. Just this week, mysterious explosions rocked a pro-Kremlin region of Moldova, igniting fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to invade it next.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I’m always panicked.”
Still, she said, her faith has given her “so much strength and hope that God will take care of this.”
Welcoming refugees in Poland
Wade and Lorraine Richardson, a senior missionary couple from Oregon, had been in Poland for barely a month when Ukraine came under attack. The next day, they received word there was going to be a call that night with Latter-day Saint leaders across Poland, and they were to be on it.
They learned that the church had created a council composed of local, mission and area authorities tasked with overseeing a response to the already forming refugee crisis within Poland.
Now, two months later, Wade said the effort can be put into three phases.
“The first phase, getting them housed, fed and rested,” he said, “was the easiest.”
The council posted phone numbers, staffed by area members, on the church website for Ukraine that anyone could call for assistance.
Some refugees who call are Latter-day Saints, but many are not, the Richardsons said, including the family members they were focused on helping at the time of the interview. In their case, a Latter-day Saint relative had given them one of the phone numbers, instructing them to call it the moment they arrived in Poland.
“The relative told them this is my church,” Wade said. “My church will help you.”
Regardless of the refugees’ membership status, the steps are the same. Wade and Lorraine locate them a place to stay before stocking them with the basics.
In the beginning, the couple used their own credit card to make purchases.
“We knew we’d be reimbursed,” Wade said. “That wasn’t the problem.”
The issue came in trying to put entire property leases on their card.
To get around this, they have since opened an account with a Polish bank that the church keeps funded.
“Now I can go anywhere,” he said. “I can order any service.”
The second phase, “acclimating to Poland,” has been trickier, he said, partly because the Polish government took some time setting up its own response and providing direction on how to access services.
Hardest of all, however, has been the final phase: “becoming self-reliant.” From learning to speak Polish to landing a job, the process is slow and difficult, made all the more challenging by the fact that many refugees are unsure whether remaining in Poland is the right choice for them.
The Richardsons are stationed in the north in a popular summer tourist destination known as Gdansk. Removed from the front lines, it has become something of a way station for refugees to rest and develop plans for the future.
Local Latter-day Saints have played critical roles in supporting the refugees, mainly women and children, especially when it comes to navigating Polish government services.
“We’ve got members here who remember Russian tanks in the street during the occupation in the ‘90s,” Wade said. “And it’s amazing to watch them swallow their fears and step up and befriend these refugees and do whatever they can to help them.”
Lorraine said they are doing all they can to “provide not only for the refugees’ financial needs, but their emotional needs.”
Group dinners facilitated by Google Translate, outings to castles and other sights, and game nights have created a sense of “real camaraderie,” she said, “even with different cultural backgrounds and different languages.”
Bridging the language gap
Among those members the Richardsons have come to rely on is Elizaveta Gladun (Cezary Gladun’s daughter-in-law).
Half-Moldovan and half-Russian, Elizaveta is the only native Russian speaker in the area’s small congregation. A reporter for Thomson Reuters, she is also fluent in English.
“I’ve mostly been helping with translation,” she said.
Much of what she has seen in terms of refugee response has unfolded between individual members reaching out to one another and taking initiative.
“Members,” she said, “were messaging each other like, ‘Hey, I know that this person is coming tomorrow. Can he sleep at your place?’ Things like that.”
In places like Krakow, where the numbers of refugees are much higher, the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse has been turned into a shelter, she explained, able to house 100 to 120 people.
Elizaveta was not shy about the challenges facing the work of supporting refugees in Gdansk. Echoing the Richardsons, she said many of those arriving have a difficult time coming up with a plan, with some holding out hope that the war will come to an end any day and they will be able to return home. It’s understandable, she said, but difficult to know what kind of rental to obtain or whether to sign up their children for school.
“That’s one of the main problems,” she said.
Nevertheless, she has been buoyed by the community she’s felt with those refugees who are members of her faith, a sense “that we are from the same big family.”
Dieter Uchtdorf applauds Saints’ efforts
During the address, he told listeners he was “deeply impressed” by their support for refugee families.
“What I hear about your sacrifice, generosity and kindness,” he said, “fills my heart with joy.”
Earlier in the month, Uchtdorf also visited Ukrainian refugees in Poland, instructing them to trust God to “make things right in the end, as he always does.”