‘The only place I’ll go is Robertsdale’: Family of 5 uses church partnership to flee Ukraine

Executive Editor
Posted 8/2/22

On Sunday, they held their first worship in the newly expanded sanctuary. On Thursday, war started.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Vitalii Krokhmal and his wife, Ira, didn't know how …

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‘The only place I’ll go is Robertsdale’: Family of 5 uses church partnership to flee Ukraine


On Sunday, they held their first worship in the newly expanded sanctuary. On Thursday, war started.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Vitalii Krokhmal and his wife, Ira, didn't know how long it would last or how dangerous it would get in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, a port city southwest of Odessa that lies on the southwestern shore of the Black Sea's broad, shallow Dniester River estuary.

Ira didn't want to go. She didn't want to leave her hometown and her husband of nine years, but the couple didn't want their young children — ages 3, 6 and 8 — to be in danger or become scarred from the memories of war.

She packed one suitcase. Vitalii's wife and children were gone in one hour.

He stayed to support their church, a Baptist congregation for which he serves as deacon, and they started seeing the need immediately. Two weeks in, Vitalii got a call from Jeff Copeland. The First Baptist Church of Robertsdale pastor was in Moldova, ready to help.

They started bringing food to Vitalii's church from Moldova with manpower and funding from partner churches in Moldova, throughout Europe and in Robertsdale and Tuscaloosa. They made 400 food bags the first. Then 600. Then 800, 1,000, 1,400.

By the time Vitalii arrived in Robertsdale a month ago, they were handing out 2,000 bags of food a week.

"It's a big need because people lost their jobs," Vitalii said.

He described his hometown as similar to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, resort towns that sit on the Black Sea. Even though the area has been safer than other cities targeted by Russian troops and missiles (they still see them flying overhead), people lost their jobs in droves when tourism slammed to a halt. Diapers and gas are hard to find.

Copeland recently left FBC Robertsdale to work fulltime for a nonprofit he started, Kingdom Bridges, which supports Ukrainians by forming partnerships with churches for ministry and other outreach efforts. He and Josh Lilly, interim senior pastor in Robertsdale, led several mission trips to Ukraine and Moldova in the late 2010s.

After the trips stopped during the pandemic, the invasion hit closer to home for the rural church community than others who simply watched the events unfolding in a foreign land on TV and in headlines.

"I felt very led and torn up about them being over there. I felt we needed to do more than send money," Lilly said. "I spoke with my wife, and I said I need to help my friends."

He and Copeland traveled to Moldova in March. They met Vitalii five or six times at the border, loading up a van with food and taking time to pray. They partnered with a church in Europe to get an 18-wheeler so they can transport more food and other supplies as needed.

"One thing I love about their church is they're feeding people physically and spiritually," Lilly said.


Meanwhile, Ira and the kids had been staying with a pastor in Moldova. Lilly saw them several times. But that church started to fill with refugees, and they were told they needed to find somewhere else to stay.

They had only one connection outside their hometown.

"She told Vitalii, 'The only place I'll go is Robertsdale,'" Lilly said.

Ira had a tourist visa, but the kids didn't, so Lilly helped coordinate their trip through a humanitarian parole. There were no flights leaving Moldova because of safety reasons, so they went to Romania to fly to Amsterdam, to Mexico City, to Tijuana then California. They finally landed in Birmingham.

FBC Robertsdale covered their flights. Rita Evans, a congregant and single mother, offered her house to the family of five. She works at the county health department and drives them to doctor appointments.

"They're not just praying or sending money," Vitalii said. "They're actually on the ground, and it's really valuable.

"I also went with Pastor Jeff (around Odessa) to other churches, and when people saw an American pastor who was actually there, it was a big encouragement to them."


The separation weighed on the Krokhmals. Ira was home with the kids 24/7. She could overhear the oldest, Oleg, pray at night for the war to stop. Praying from a house that has someone else's family photos on the wall.

Vitalii's learned English because of his time spent in Alabama and Robertsdale in 2017 on a youth minister training program to learn how local government operates in America. That partnership is what continues today.

"He's a deacon. They're doers. They love Jesus and serve people. He is very torn. He knows he needs to be with his family, but it's hard to think about what it's like back home," Lilly said.

From their temporary home in Robertsdale, Vitalii swipes through hundreds of photos of their efforts in Ukraine. Photos show people lining up for food, wrapped in winter coats. They show the church distributing bulletproof vests to soldiers who never received their own. They show a new basketball court a local congregant funded full of kids playing. Playing amid a war.

"We are not thinking about anything," he said, using his hands to form blinders like a racing horse, "but they're thinking about life. They say so what there's a war? Youth have to have a place to play."

Rooms built for Sunday school classes now stock cans of food, diapers, water and 1.5 tons of frozen chicken that couldn't be transported when the port closed. Donated vehicles transport older residents because gas is expensive.

The mayor tells people to go to their church. A Facebook page has spread throughout the city. Some arrive and wait overnight for food.

"Going was the hardest decision. We need people there to be at the church, but it's hard for Ira to have three kids alone," Vitalii said. "Pastor Jeff was still here, so I went home with him. I'm ready to go see my family."


He left the church and the rest of his family. Only men with young children can leave the country. One brother fled to Germany with their 2-week-old, but his parents and another brother remain.

The Krokhmals are reunited — Vitalii also entered with a humanitarian parole — but they hope to return home someday. Return to their city with "bad roads, good people," to their neighborhood with the houses built close together, to the house with the kitchen cabinets they remodeled through the night before a group arrived for Christmas from Robertsdale a few years ago.

That's not to say they aren't grateful.

"We love Alabama. Best state ever. It's the only state we know, but still best state ever," Vitalii said.

They're grateful for the people who and churches that have sent money and resources, even people, to help them and their fellow Ukrainians. It's hard sometimes for people to know if their donations are used as advertised, but Vitalii said it gets to them. And they need more.

"The longer [the war] takes, the less information you get outside of [the area impacted], and it becomes ordinary," he said.

He said that's what happened when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.

"It was their problem," he said. "We need it to stay in the news. It's war, and people are dying right now. Every day they're sending missiles."

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