This reflection is in the words of Margaryta, whose full name is not used for security reasons.
Before the Russian invasion, our Mennonite Brethren church in eastern Ukraine had meetings to prepare us for evacuation. When the invasion happened, our luggage was packed. Twenty-one of us traveled together.
We couldn’t believe the war started for real. Almost every day, we looked for where to go. There was a huge stream of people evacuating who needed a place to stay, too.
Sometimes it was very sad for our team, and we just sat down and cried. Other times we just laughed because emotions were too much.
We started to pray to God to show us a building in western Ukraine where we could be together. One of our leaders got a call from a friend who knew a friend in the United States who had friends in Zakarpattia who had a house. They let us stay there.
When we came in February 2022, we realized it was not comfortable or fancy. It was hard to accept that the toilet was outside and there was no heat on the second floor. But we were all together for eight months. Then my mother, sister and I moved into our own place.
It took me half a year to recover a little bit. I think all those moves made me feel weak. I could not sing in the church I started to attend. My body and soul needed to refresh.
During this time, we started to deliver Mennonite Central Committee-supported food packages to other displaced families through the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine. As we talked to those families, and I understood that my pain was not so big or so much as in some other people.
God helped me understand that there is a mission, even in these circumstances. I have a bachelor’s degree in physical rehabilitation and a master’s degree in ergotherapy. I started to have a huge desire to open some kind of ministry with my profession to help people refresh.
My leader told me to think about it and pray about it.
I always liked horses. I sat on a horse for the first time when I was 12. It was an ordinary walk at a leisurely pace, but at one point the rhythm increased and the horse trotted several paces. Those emotions of joy cannot be described in words.
I started to go to church and gave my life to Christ. I realized a horse is not just an animal. Horses can help restore strength and emotions. Interaction with God’s creation can offer positive emotions.
Later, when I was in university, I was able to ride horses, but only a few times a month because it was very expensive.
As I started to think deeply about what my ministry would be in western Ukraine, I knew riding therapy connected with massage could create big changes for the physical body.
I drove around looking for stables. I took more lessons at the first one I found and learned how to care for horses. Teachers showed me how to put children on horses and other skills I needed to combine physical therapy with horseback riding.
In October 2022, I went to shelters where supervisors gave me a list of children who needed rehabilitation. I paid to give lessons using the stable’s horses with money I made giving massages to people who had back problems. Some of my friends donated money to help. MCC began to support the project in February 2023.
Many children in Zakarpattia hide in their hearts deep suffering, including pain, fear, loneliness and rejection. Each rehabilitation session aims to restore emotional, physical and psychological health.
When a child is in the saddle, it inspires and helps a child to concentrate on new opportunities. The movements of the horse send impulses to the brain and then to the whole body to refresh the muscles.
Children tell us what they are feeling. Often they talk about what they had to leave because of the war. They talk about a pet that died. Most children miss their dad, because men tend to live elsewhere to earn money or protect property. They talk about everything terrible they saw.
Sometimes children don’t want to get up from the massage table. They want to stay longer. Sometimes parents ask if I can give them a massage, too. I feel joy when I’m working with the children, especially when I can see results. And I like to make emotional support for parents. Sometimes I offer prayer support.
I dream of making my own rehabilitation center where other approaches could be used and other kinds of clients served.
My traumatic experience created the starting point for this kind of service, because I needed it. My experience helps me understand people and serve them.