October 13, 2022
Editor’s Note: In late May, a team from United Methodist News, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries visited church refugee ministries in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and western Ukraine to share stories of the United Methodist presence in the wake of such tragedy and ongoing need.
Olena Koval said it is “providence” that brought her to the Hotel Hanul Fullton, a hotel and ministry center run by The United Methodist Church in Romania.
She’s from Kyiv and even before the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Koval had planned to relocate to Turkey, where her sister lives. But the war caught her off guard.
“The war came suddenly; I wasn’t prepared, didn’t have an emergency bag,” she said. “I grabbed my daughter, two T-shirts, two toothbrushes and my dog, and jumped in the car. I headed to Turkey, but Romania was on my way.”
After a night’s stay at a hotel, she began considering her next steps. In addition to possibilities in Turkey, other friends had invited her to stay with them in Bratislava, Slovakia.
“Those are two completely opposite directions from where I was in Romania — I was ready to flip a coin,” she said.
While running some errands, she accidentally scratched someone’s car while parking hers. The other driver noticed her car was from Ukraine and asked whether she had somewhere to stay. When she said she didn’t, he offered up an empty house he owned.
Once she had shelter, she began to think of what she wanted to do.
Koval is a therapist and ran a private practice in Kyiv. She had an idea to create therapy groups for women after seeing that none existed.
“I met a lot of women in places where kids were busy with activities, but I saw Ukrainian women who were quite upset. However, it wasn’t the place to talk to them about what was going on,” she said.
The same providence that kept her in Cluj-Napoca also brought her in contact with The United Methodist Church. She met Anca Beu, project manager for Asociatia Phoneo, one of the nonprofit ministries the church runs out of the Hotel Hanul Fullton. Beu offered space for the group sessions to be held.
In the beginning, Koval said, she focuses on crisis help, where she explains how the brain reacts to the kinds of stress the refugees have endured. But she said after the initial crisis is addressed, any issues they already struggled with come back to the surface. In addition to group conversations, she offers practices like art therapy.
“With the people already in group therapy, the chances for PTSD are less than for those who don’t have psychological help,” she said.
“Trauma is the hardest piece,” he said. “People are really fragile, but they may be hiding that fragility because they’ve had to for so long. They get to a place like this and they can let their guard down, and stuff comes back.”
Koval is now on Asociatia Phoneo’s paid staff. In addition to hosting the group sessions, the church created a space for her to conduct private individual sessions, where she works mainly with teens and adults. Since she’s not licensed to work with children, she wants to find counselors who are.
She hopes to create a group for teens as well, and is working to organize a community of Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking psychologists in the area to provide more help than she can alone.
“Teens are the most vulnerable group. They’re facing their own crises in their lives on top of the war, and so it’s double the stress,” she said.