Refugees Helping Refugees
- October 13, 2022
The Rudolph family couldn’t wait to celebrate their first Christmas in Ukraine. Their Christmas tree was assembled and trimmed, their gifts were purchased and wrapped, and presents from family and friends in the US had arrived in the mail. Emily and Mike’s two daughters were already counting down the days until December 25.
But within days everything changed.
Emily and Mike Rudolph are serving Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland to escape the war with Russia.
With Russia amassing hundreds of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border in anticipation of war, the Rudolphs had to pack four suitcases and leave the country for safety on December 18. Emily’s dream assignment as a missionary with World Venture—teaching musical theater to Ukrainian students at a Christian school in Kyiv—screeched to a sudden halt four months after it began in August 2021.
“Our family never got to open our presents,” says Emily, a 2002 graduate of Moody Bible Institute. “They’re still unopened in Kyiv.”
Soon the Rudolphs checked into a small apartment on the campus of Word of Life Ministries in Zgierz, Poland. Christmas was radically different from what they had planned, and for the next two months they waited and wondered what the future held for them.
“We prayed, ‘OK, God, what are You doing in our lives?” Emily says. “We were all in, but we didn’t know what we were all in to. We had periods of doubt.”
On February 24, 2022, God’s purpose for the Rudolphs came into dramatic focus. Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing millions of Ukrainians to flee their homeland, including teachers, administrators, students, and families from the Rudolphs’ Kyiv school. As refugees from Ukraine, Emily and Mike soon found themselves fielding urgent messages from Ukrainians seeking ways to survive amid the chaos of war.
“We learned that God had a plan to use us during the war all along,” Emily says. “It’s why God sent us ahead in December.”
‘We were like the weakest link’
As news of Russia’s invasion spread, Emily and Mike were flooded with texts, phone calls, and emails from staff and families at the Christian school in Kyiv. They turned en masse to the Rudolphs for assistance to escape the war and find shelter and safety in another country.
The problem was Emily and Mike felt ill-equipped to support them.
“We were still learning the Ukrainian language, we didn’t know the Polish language, and we were new to Poland,” Mike says. “People would ask us where to go and about border crossings. We had no idea. We were like the weakest link. But God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. He takes what we can offer and uses us as jars of clay.”
Directing families out of war
As a barrage of needs swept into their lives, Emily and Mike leaned heavily on God. They saw Him divinely equip them for a mission far beyond their means.
“Emily was on her phone nonstop for four days after the war started,” Mike says. “She was helping people make connections and get out of the country who didn’t have a car. A lot of them were scared to get out of their apartments because of the fighting. It was a nonstop effort to help people find their way here.”
The Rudolphs were especially grateful to direct dozens of families of students and staff from their school in Kyiv to Word of Life’s 20-acre campus in the first week of the war.
“The most intense part was the very beginning, helping moms with young kids from the school where we had served,” Mike says. “Emily was getting texts from moms who were really scared. We had many families come here with lots of kids. We had lots of other people come from all over the place, not just school families.”
Ukrainian refugees eating a meal in the cafeteria on the Word of Life campus in Zgierz, Poland.
Refuge for refugees
A couple of weeks into the conflict, Word of Life’s two-story living quarters overflowed with 140 refugees. Word of Life staff cleaned out the facility’s attic and lay mattresses on the floor to accommodate extra families. Once refugees reached the campus after a long and stressful trip through war-torn Ukraine and across the border, they leaned on Emily and Mike for support.
“People arrived here in a state of shock,” Emily says. “Some had been in a car for 4–5 straight days with their kids. A lot of moms were leading their families on their own because men ages 18–60 were required to stay in Ukraine for the war effort. They had been stuck in miles-long lines for days waiting to cross the border. When they got here they were exhausted. They didn’t have many possessions with them. They only had time to pack a few things.”
Despite their language limitations and relative unfamiliarity with Ukraine and Eastern Europe, Emily and Mike’s shared status as fellow refugees helped them empathize with the refugees staying at Word of Life.
“We had a sense of what the people were going through when they arrived here,” Emily says. “Our hearts grew so big for the Ukraine people.”
Campus mom and dad
Collaborating with Word of Life’s staff, in addition to guiding refugees to the facility, Emily and Mike began pitching in to help families acclimate to their new surroundings while also meeting a variety of needs both large and small.
“People would stay at Word of Life for about three weeks and then the Lord opened up a building for free in Czech. It was a hotel at no cost for families to stay there,” Emily says. “There are some families still here at Word of Life trying to get visas to go elsewhere. Some would stay for one night. Some would stay here for weeks or months.”
Emily leads a children's activity at Word of Life's campus in Poland.
Part of Word of Life’s ministry is offering English4Life (E4L) classes that teach English as a second language as a gateway to sharing the gospel. Mike and Emily each joined that endeavor as E4L teachers, introducing Ukrainians to Christ in the process.
“This last semester with women from Ukraine we have had people come from all over the country, women ages 20–25,” Mike says. “The women had undergone a lot of trauma. We became kind of a campus mom and dad to them.”
The Rudolphs have also assisted numerous young Ukrainian women in finding jobs and apartments in the Zgierz area to give them stability and an opportunity to earn a living outside of Ukraine. A few women decided to remain in Poland over the summer to work in Word of Life’s teen camping program. Emily and Mike also started weekly traditions, hosting Pancake Day on Saturday mornings and Mexican Night on Wednesdays. Emily invites Ukrainian women for coffee talks and lunch dates, making herself available as a sounding board during the most terrifying period in their lives.
“We’ve gained a lot of daughters in this time together,” Emily says. “We live on campus with them and have built a special bond. We’re being poured out for the sake of the gospel while investing in people. When the girls knock at my door and we sit and talk, I am able to share my testimony and share about faith and what God has taught me. I’m humbled by how God has used us.”
‘You feel their pain’
The special impact Emily has made on hundreds of refugees was especially evident on her birthday May 24.
“They all bought me flowers and sang to me on my birthday in the cafeteria,” Emily recalls. “They came in and sang with their whole hearts. I don’t know how to describe it. I had never been sung to this way my whole life. It reminded me of 1 Thessalonians 2. They’ve become part of our heart.”
Three of the young women that Emily was mentoring drove back to Kyiv in June when the Ukrainian military secured control of the region from Russian forces. Emily says she felt like she was losing three of her own daughters that day.
“You feel their pain and worry what’s happening to them,” she says. “One was so excited to be home and then a few hours later she texted us that there were explosions around her apartment and she was scared.”
Emily with one of the Ukrainian refugee women she mentors at Word of Life.
Three other young Ukrainian women are now residing in Zgierz indefinitely after Emily found an apartment for them near Word of Life. The Rudolphs are covering the cost of rent while the women work to gain a financial footing.
One of the women, Natasha, taught at an elementary school in Kharkiv, the city destroyed by Russia’s aerial assaults. Another woman, Polina, was hired by Emily and Mike to be a nanny for their 14- and 5-year-old daughters. The third woman, Ania, is an unbeliever who has expressed openness to Christ after reading the Bible and hearing the gospel for the first time during the spring semester of E4L.
“Thanks to Emily, with them so close by, we’ll be able to stay in touch and continue the sweet relationships that have developed over the last nine weeks of English4Life,” E4L Dean Lydia Duncan says. “Emily has been a big blessing to our staff and students because of her willingness to serve in whatever ways she’s able to.”
Back to school
After the war erupted, the Kyiv Christian school didn’t meet for a few weeks until administrators and teachers devised a plan to hold school online. This approach enabled students dispersed throughout Eastern Europe to resume their school years and connect with classmates and teachers in spite of the miles separating them. Emily was even able to direct the students in the school’s first online Zoom musical.
“School has provided students with some normalcy, structure, and meaningfulness in life,” says Angela Gladman-Robinson, one of the school’s teachers. “It has been challenging to switch to online learning, but Emily persevered in learning what she needed to support our students. She even managed our school's first online Zoom play, which was very entertaining!”
Emily also played a pivotal role in the lives of the students staying at Word of Life. She coordinated a kids musical theater club on the campus, organized pizza and movie nights and other activities to help create a sense of normalcy, and baby-sat children to provide much-needed breaks for their moms.
“In the midst of all this trauma and uncertainty, I wanted to help the kids function,” Emily says.
Sending relief and rebuilding churches in Ukraine
The Rudolphs’ commitment to Ukraine extends to Ukrainians surviving inside the country during the war. At the outset of the war, Emily and Mike established a Ukraine relief fund through World Venture. The page collects donations that pay for food, medicine, gas, and other critical supplies for Ukrainian residents and refugees. The relief fund also covers materials to rebuild churches, seminaries, and ministry training centers in Ukraine that have suffered damage at the hands of the Russian military.
Emily and Mike helped Word of Life collect resources for the Ukrainian refugees, most of whom only had time to gather a few belongings before fleeing Ukraine when the war began.
In the first four months of the war, the relief fund raised more than $1 million. For more information on the relief fund, visit https://worldventure.com/pproject/6440-902-good-sam-ukraine-relief-fund/.
“A lot of people in the States have responded in a wonderful way,” Mike said. “Within a week of starting the fund we had supplies crossing the border into Ukraine all the way to towns like Kharkiv where the fighting was worst. It’s a grassroots effort through a network of churches using private trucks and buses.”
‘It’s been a walk of faith’
As the war rages on and the Rudolphs face an uncertain future, Emily and Mike continue to offer themselves to God’s service wherever He leads.
“It's been a walk of faith,” Emily says. “We don’t know where God will want us months from now, but right now this is exactly God’s will for us. God has put the Ukrainian people in our hearts, and we don’t want to take them out.”
Moody’s influence in Poland
Emily, a native of rural Troy, Ohio, says she sees her training at Moody Bible Institute in constant action while she and her husband serve Ukrainians in Poland during the Russian war.
“I fell in love with Moody,” Emily says. “Even though I was afraid of living in a big city like Chicago, it was definitely multicultural and gave me a lot of opportunities through Practical Christian Ministries to experience serving Christ in the world and interacting with lots of different cultures, which has benefited my work in Ukraine and now Poland.”
Emily, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Educational Ministry, thoroughly enjoyed her four years as a Moody student.
“Everybody at Moody had a passion for serving Christ. It was in the DNA of the school,” she says. “It was truly gratifying interacting with fellow students there. We all had the same purpose of glorifying God and serving Him with our lives. I also made a lot of great friends there, and as a teacher, Moody emphasized teaching with a biblical worldview. Everything from math to science to recess, it’s all about God.”