By Marv Knox
An attempt to help resettle Ukrainians in western North Carolina has prompted a halting-but-hopeful learning experience for both the refugee family and the Cooperative Baptists trying to assist them.
The Bochevars—Kate and Peter and their 16-year-old son, Daniel, and 9-year-old daughter, Eliza—have been living with distant relatives in Arden, N.C., about 10 miles south of downtown Asheville, since fleeing Ukraine this spring.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Kim and Marc Wyatt, who help resettle refugees through CBFNC’s Welcome House Community Network, learned about the family when Kate Bochevar completed an online form on the Welcome House website in late May.
The Wyatts, based in Raleigh, alerted CBF ministers in the western part of the state about the Bochevars. Stuart Lamkin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Weaverville, became the de facto coordinator of regional response when he read the Wyatts’ email and reached out to the Bochevars.
“I sent an email to the mother—introduced myself, assured her of our prayers and asked how we could help,” Lamkin recalled. “Kate and I started emailing back and forth, then speaking on the phone. We progressed from a connection to a relationship.”
In broad strokes, Lamkin learned the Bochevars’ story: They lived in Irpin, a suburb on Kyiv’s northwestern edge. Irpin is next to Bucha, which gained international notoriety when Russian forces slaughtered civilians and left their bodies in the streets. The family experienced the firsthand trauma of war.
They fled their home to save their lives. Although Ukrainian law required men younger than 60 years to remain in the country to fight the Russians or help in the country, Peter was eligible to leave because of a medical condition, and Daniel had not reached the military-mandatory age of 18.
“When the bombing started, they stayed in their Baptist church (where Peter is a deacon) with other church members; then they stayed with Kate’s parents,” Lamkin reported. “When they fled, they passed through Romania and Moldova to Switzerland, where they learned about the possibility of immediate access to the United States. They flew to Tijuana, Mexico, crossed the border, and traveled to Arden to stay with Peter’s cousin. Now, nine people live in a three-bedroom apartment.”
In their conversations, Kate Bochevar described their basic needs—a vehicle, housing and maybe a laptop or tablet so Daniel could complete his school year online.
Lamkin set up a get-acquainted dinner in the Cooperative Baptist Student Fellowship (CBSF) campus ministry house at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, which could be the Bochevars’ home for the summer. Participants included CBFers from that part of the state, including members of First Baptist churches of Black Mountain and Weaverville.
Gennady and Mina Podgaisky, CBF field personnel who ministered in Kyiv for two decades and have been stranded in the U.S. because of the war, also attended.
“With all the trauma this family had been through, it was beautiful to watch the Podgaiskys care for them and to have holy conversations around the table,” Lamkin said.
Through those conversations, the Podgaiskys—whose ministry involves counseling individuals and families—learned the depths of the Bochevars’ trauma, Mina Podgaisky noted. For example, even though Mina and Gennady said they lived in Kyiv, Kate repeatedly asked them if they knew Kyiv. Even though they spoke to her in Russian, her native language, she answered in English.
War trauma manifests itself differently, depending on how it is experienced, Mina said. The Podgaiskys were in the United States on a regularly scheduled visit when the war started. They have felt the anguish of not being able to return home and to minister directly to people they love, she explained. But the Bochevars heard the bombs and saw the devastation directly and fled for their lives.
“When you leave after the war started, you have different losses than those who left before,” Mina said.
The Podgaiskys got to know the Bochevars even better a week later, when they met at the Podgaiskys’ Black Mountain home.
“Kate is in denial. She doesn’t believe she’s here and can’t believe she’s not here for just a little while,” Mina said. “She doesn’t like anything here. Everything here reminds her of what she has lost.”
For example, the Bochevars turned down the opportunity to live this summer in the UNC-Asheville campus ministry house, even though, “when you have lost everything, this is like a castle,” Mina explained.
“The Bochevars are facing a big lump sum of losses,” she added. “We went through (Kate’s) grief with her, helped her name her losses—material, relational, role and identity. Her hands were clinging so tightly to her losses, there was no space for anything new. We listened. We helped her fingers open one by one, naming the losses—church, home, job, schools, friends and family.”
“When we opened those fingers and named those losses, we named opportunities to fill the void. There are many CBF people here trying to be their friends. They won’t speak Russian, won’t do the same things in the same ways. It might be a little weird, but they’re still trying to be friends.”
Mina explains, “I said, ‘There are many good things in America. Not everything is good. So, you choose what is good for you. Experiment. You will discover some things are very, very good.’”
Meanwhile, the CBF folks who want to help them are attempting to be available and faithful.
“We’re trying to figure out what kind of relationship with them would be most helpful and let them give us pointers,” Lamkin said. “We don’t want to be the pushy Americans who come on too strong and insist they let themselves be helped in the way we want them to be helped. This is slower than some of us might be inclined, but that’s OK.”
“We’re definitely in the preface to whatever the Bochevars’ story might be. Maybe the story will have only this one chapter, but it might go on for some time. We’re honored to be a part of it.”
Marv Knox is the retired founder of Fellowship Southwest and a former longtime journalist. He lives in Durham, N.C.