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‘My faith helped me to leave’: The story of Ol'ha and her autistic son fleeing Ukraine

by Kelly Valencia
Ol'ha and Lubomyr.png - Banner image
L' Arche UK

The invasion of Ukraine has affected millions of people and resulted in incomprehensible levels of destruction and suffering. 

However, for thousands of Ukrainians, the decision on whether to flee, join the fight or stay at home has been particularly hard to make.

“We did not go to the shelter. It was not possible with my son to be in a limited space. He is very active, maybe hyperactive sometimes, it would not be possible.”

“I felt guilty I could not bring my son to safety.”

Ol'ha Kyrylyuk is an English teacher at a university in Kyiv. Her son, Lubomiyr, is 30 years old and has severe autism. In those words, Ol'ha echoes the situation of millions of people with disabled relatives in Ukraine.

According to the European Disability Forum, there are 2.7 million people with special needs in the country. Of these, a quarter of a million have intellectual disabilities, making them extremely vulnerable to the conflict.

Listen to Ol'ha's and Lubomyr’s story and the role that faith has played in their journey out of Ukraine, here:

A few weeks before the Russian invasion, Lubomyr’s mum Ol'ha fell down some stairs and broke both her ankles. The injury effectively made her house-bound and she relied on her niece to bring her food parcels.

Having not recovered from her injury when the conflict started, and with Lubomyr unable to cope with being in a crowded shelter, Ol'ha’s only option was to move a mattress to the hallway to avoid any potential shelling.

“The first day was terrible. I could not stand up, I could not get up. We were recommended not to switch on the light in the evening but it was very difficult to stop Lubomiyr from [doing] that.

“On the 7th March I heard a very loudly explosion not far from us, and then we moved to our hallway for prayer [prayer room]. I shut all the doors and I felt frightened because we were in silence. We did not hear external sounds. And I thought: ‘if something happens to us, nobody would know we were here’.”

Shortly afterwards, Ol'ha decided to flee Kyiv.

She received a phone call from the Faith & Light community, a Christian organisation that supports disabled people in Ukraine, offering her and Lubomyr two spaces in a mini bus that was leaving Kyiv towards the west of the country.

When they arrived, Ol'ha was offered another a ride to safety, this time across the border into neighbouring Poland. They are both now staying in accommodation funded by Catholic charity Caritas.

For Ol'ha, it was her faith that gave her the confidence to step into the unknown.

“My faith helped me to leave. In no direction, no destination, I didn't know where I was going. I was led by my faith really.”

Faith and the fellowship and support she has found in the daily online prayer meetings that both Faith & Light, and international disability charity L’Arche, have been hosting since the conflict started.

Every evening, around 80 people from across the world gather on Zoom for an hour to encourage one another and pray for peace. Ol'ha attends every day without fail.

They worship, read the scripture together and pray, reciting the “Jesus prayer” which is well-known in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The prayer is traditionally repeated 33 times.

Richard Keegan Bull attending the online prayer meeting

For Richard Keegan Bull, a member of L’Arche UK, attending the meeting and praying with them has been “quite moving”.  

“The conflict is scary for anybody but probably a lot more scary if you don't really understand what's going on.”

National leader of L’Arche UK, John Casson has also been joining the meetings.  He told Premier how it all started.

“The L’Arche communities in Ukraine started to meet together in the evening, because they couldn't be together during the day. And they started invite the rest of us around the world to join them.

“So we hear their updates. We hear how they're laying down supplies and weaving camouflage nets. And we sing and we pray together and encourage each other by showing that the world isn't just full of hate. It's full of love when we're together.”

L’Arche is helping people like Ol'ha and her son Lubomyr with food, shelter and visa applications.

“We're helping by praying showing solidarity together every night. And we're also beginning to get ready to host people who have to leave Ukraine who have special disabilities needs and need particular places to live and be supported and we want to be ready to open our doors to that as well.”

It is uncertain when the millions of people displaced by the war will be able to return to their homes. Until then, Ol'ha’s prayer is that the angels continue to watch over her and her son.

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