Darkness fell in an instant. One minute, children sang along with a video projected on the church wall. The next, the power was off.
Quickly, the children pulled out cellphones and flashlights. One connected a string of Christmas lights to a battery. Music played on a battery-operated speaker, and singing resumed.
The children, in a program run by Mennonite Central Committee partner Fire of Prometey, sang in the semi-darkness until someone got the generator running a few minutes later.
In Ukraine, a nation at war, life is disrupted but goes on.
In December, I visited MCC’s partners in western Ukraine. I saw how people have adapted, though their lives are upended.
War-damaged infrastructure leaves people without power for hours every day. School programs were on hold for months, classrooms turned into shelters. Families had to pick up their lives in an instant, leaving everything behind.
Huddled against the chill
We went with an MCC partner, the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine, to visit a shelter it supports with food packages and emergency supplies MCC ships to Ukraine.
I walked down the gray, industrial hallway, through a large black door into Olga’s room. (For security reasons, I’m not using full names.) I noticed the bright squares of MCC comforters on her bed, a stark contrast to the gray blankets and walls.
Olga told me she and her family fled their home in Kryvyi Rih.
“In the first week of the war, we slept in the basement,” she said. “In the winter, it’s very cold, so we understood that we would not be able to stay there for a long time.”
One day they had an hour’s notice to evacuate. As alarms rang, they packed everything into their car and started a nine-day journey across the country in search of safety.
Though the shelter where they live now feels safe, it can be cold, especially when the power is off. Electricity is often cut in rolling blackouts to manage damaged infrastructure. Olga told me they use the MCC comforters to cuddle up with the children.
I usually see the comforters at the start of their journey at a Canadian warehouse. Now I saw them on the other end, laid on beds, where they keep children warm.
“In my childhood, my grandma was doing this patchworking,” Olga said. “And it’s so special for me because when I saw that [this blanket] is handmade, it was so dear to my heart.”
Learning in the dark
At a two-room school in Uzhhorod, run by MCC partner Blaho Charitable Foundation, the power was shut off, which meant the heat was, too. I found a room full of students, bundled in toques and winter coats, looking at the board with only the light that came through the windows. I smiled as I watched them answer questions, coming up to the board to show their work.
The school provides education to Roma children. Roma are a European ethnic group that faces significant discrimination. They often have lower levels of education, a problem that school founder Eleanora, a Roma woman herself, wants to change.
“Education is very important for Roma children, because if a person is educated, he or she is perceived differently,” Eleanora told me.
At the beginning of the war, the school closed to provide shelter for Roma families fleeing violence. With two small rooms and no access to running water, it’s hard to imagine the building serving as a home. But Eleanora told us it was better than the alternative. Roma people faced discrimination before the war, and it became even worse after the Russian invasion.
“Roma people weren’t accepted. They weren’t given shelters to live,” she said. “They were just sleeping on the floor, just outside on the street with small children.”
Eleanora knew they needed a better and larger space. They were able to rent a former restaurant and hotel that can house about 150 people, both Roma and other Ukrainians.
Why, I asked, was it important to keep the school going?
Eleanora seemed surprised. Children and families had been asking when they could come back. And since the western part of the country was relatively safe, why shouldn’t they reopen?
“I understood there would be no missiles coming here or rockets or bombs,” she said.
So there the students were, learning in the dark.
Uprooted again and again
At a different shelter, which used to be a hospital, the power was out, too. A clothesline full of drying laundry indicated it was now home to many people.
Inside, the only light trickled through stained-glass windows. A group of residents came to meet us, many wearing coats and hats indoors.
Many had been displaced multiple times: first in 2014 when the Russian military invaded Crimea, again in February 2022 when the all-out war began and again when their first shelter, a school, needed to reopen.
Food packages from the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine are a ready form of support.
I met Oksana, originally from the Donetsk area, who shares a room with her mother and another woman. After working in the summer picking blueberries, Oksana looked for other work, but there aren’t many jobs available. Food packages she receives help make ends meet.
“If not for this support, it would be harder,” she said. “The money we receive from the government just covers very minimal things.”
AMBCU staff and volunteers hauled bags of food up the stairs in the dark. As they handed out the packages, the power came back on. People cheered and quickly went to turn on washing machines or cook food.
Life goes on
After our partner visits wrapped up, it was time to drive back across the border to Slovakia to begin the trip home. It was a long wait in the car at the crossing. While the temperature was above freezing, with the car turned off I started to get cold.
Not surprisingly, once we got up to the border itself, the power was cut once again.
We waited probably half an hour or more before the generator came on. As we stood outside the car while border guards searched it, I bounced back on forth on my feet, trying to warm up my numb toes.
I knew this short journey and moment of cold were only the very smallest taste of what winter is like for the millions of displaced people in Ukraine. Living without regular access to heat and electricity makes for a long, hard winter. Living with the danger and uncertainty of conflict makes it even harder.
But I know the people of Ukraine will carry on. They will find ways to make it through the war. Even in the dark.
Emily Loewen is marketing and communications manager for Mennonite Central Committee Canada.