By Michael Cleverley
Yuki Funakoshi with a group at the Refugee Center in Poland where he served this past summer
Yuki Funakoshi learned about the war when he got off work around 10 p.m. on February 24. For about the first two days of the war he was filled with dread. He didn’t know whether his family or friends were okay.
“When things happen you don’t really know the full picture,” Funakoshi said. “So you assume the worst.”
Funakoshi is a fifth year Ukrainian Cedarville University student. He went to Poland with Send International, a Chistian non-profit missions organization, to serve Ukrainian refugees this past summer.
“I did a lot of things, it differed from day to day,” Funakoshi said. “One of the big ones that I did was just going to the main train station where everyone’s coming from Ukraine.”
The station is their first stop outside Ukraine.
“We would hand out essential things like toiletries, food, clothes in a blanket and things like that,” he said. “I would translate a lot, because a lot of Polish volunteers, Americans, Canadians and British people wanted to help, but have a language barrier.”
He went to the Ukrainian embassy to hand out gospel tracts and do personal evangelism. Long lines of people waited to get everything completed to stay in Poland.
Funakoshi grew up in Odessa, a port city in the South of Ukraine along the Black Sea. His parents are Japanese nationals who decided to become missionaries to Ukraine around 1994. They saw an opportunity for missions work there shortly after the Soviet Union broke up, since Ukraine was a dominantly atheist country.
When Russia invaded, Funakoshi’s parents decided to stay and serve.
“They’ve done a lot of children’s ministry,” Funakoshi said. “In many parts of the country, including Odessa, the public schools have shut down. So, they’re providing extra curricular things and a place for kids to be able to study and do homework at the church.”
His parents also drive out of the country to places like Romania to buy food and other supplies they distribute in remote villages. They use these opportunities to share their faith with others and hand out Bibles and tracts.
Funakoshi visited his parents during the summer for about five days. He returned to Odessa to see what it was like. According to Funakoshi, the city is in better condition than other cities closer to the border and the Russian military.
“It hasn’t been attacked as badly as those that are more eastward, like Kharkiv or the Donbass and Donetsk Luhansk area,” Funakoshi said. “It never was actually encircled by the Russian military. They have to get close to fire artillery. There’s still a threat, because there’s attacks happening from drones and missiles, maybe once a week, twice a week.”
Back in April, a rocket hit an apartment half a mile from where Funakoshi lived in Odessa. Funakoshi said it felt surreal when he saw the damage during the summer. He used to walk by the apartment every day. About 10 people died in the attack, including a mother and her newborn baby.
Russia views Odessa as a strategically valuable city. If they can take Odessa then they cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. They also may want to use Odessa and don’t want to damage the infrastructure. Funakoshi said the attacks are probably meant to scare people rather than destroy the city. Funakoshi said that there was fear among the people there that, if the other cities closer to the Russian border were taken, they would be next.
Alisa Berss, a freshman Ukrainian transfer student, was also pessimistic at the beginning of the war. She’d seen the videos of Putin talking about all the things they would do when they invaded. Berss was in Kyiv when the war started and could hear the explosions from her window.
“My mom, she was so strong,” Berss said. “She was so calm, and was like, ‘Hey, we have God in our hearts. He gives us the promise of eternal life, so you don’t have to be scared about this. If you die, you will have your life and every good thing. I didn’t have this hope that I would survive, but glory to God everything was okay.”
Berss, her mother and her brother left Ukraine and traveled to Lithuania. Her father had to stay in Ukraine because of the mandate that bans Ukrainian men 18-60 years old from leaving the country.
They had to travel through Poland to reach Lithuania. While they were traveling, a family in Poland gave them food. Their friends also helped them find the cheapest route to Lithuania by bus, because it’s expensive to travel directly from Ukraine to Lithuania.
“I think I trust God more than I trusted him before because I saw a lot and I was like, ‘Wow, God, thank you’,” Berss said.
Berss said that, as the war went on and Ukraine did better than expected, she was encouraged and her perspective began to become positive. During the summer, Berss realized how strong her country was and that they could successfully fight back against Russia.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “But we do believe that we will have a victory. Because we have this bravery in our hearts.”
Michael Cleverley is a senior Journalism major with Asian Studies and intercultural communication minors and a writer for Cedars. When not studying or working on a story for Cedars he likes to write, knit and hang out with friends.