By James Durso
When Russian troops surged into Ukraine on 24 February, numerous faith-based groups in neighboring countries, originally involved in providing protection to women and girls in danger of being trafficked to the sex trade, found themselves in the refugee rescue and assistance business.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, more than two million refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighboring countries since February 24th, making it the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. As nearly all men 18-60 are staying in Ukraine to fight the Russians, most of the refugees are women and girls, and many are being targeted by human traffickers. They tend to target young women, ages 16-24 for prostitution, preying on their desperation and naivety, offering rides to supposedly “safe” locations.
It has taken a war to cast a light on a long-standing problem in this region, a poor corner of Europe that offers few prospects even in peacetime.
One U.S. faith-based group, Roads of Hope, based in Fairhope, Alabama, and its local church partners in Moldova, moved to the border region and started feeding hungry refugees within 24 hours of them first arriving in Moldova, transporting them to a camp or to houses scattered across Moldova, and providing refugees with accommodation and food in a safe place. Established in 2014, Roads of Hope’s mission, prior to the war, was support for Moldovan and Ukrainian orphans, and they remain committed to that cause while working tirelessly to accommodate the massive surge of refugees. According to Rev. Dr. Joe Savage, an Alabama pastor, former Dean at the University of Mobile and founder of RoH, the ministry exists to “Rescue orphans out of dark places, take them into safe homes, and provide them with better lives.”
Most of the refugee support is provided at 47 homes that were built by a German philanthropist, and are now operated by RoH and its local church partners, and other volunteers. RoH local partners staff each home with “house parents” and work with local authorities, while R0H raises funds for salaries, and supplies such as vehicles and fuel, medical care, clothing, food and school supplies. The group has also repurposed a children’s summer camp near the capital city, Chișinău, into a center for Ukrainian refugees, particularly orphans. That camp averages 300-350 refugees per day of all faiths – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – while the 47 homes house over 325 Moldovan orphans plus another 100 Ukrainian refugee orphans each day. Taken together, RoH is operating the largest refugee rescue operation in Moldova, and is a providing a critical service as the country has received over 104,000 refugees since the conflict began.
Successful faith-based groups partner with local organizations and are able to navigate the often times corrupt local bureaucracy and adoption process. They can also supplement insufficient local resources. For example, during the COVID pandemic, RoH raised money for laptop computers that allowed local orphans living in these homes to continue their education. Another example: In Ukraine children are turned out of orphanages when they are sixteen. In the Odessa region, many of the girls with no job skills are transported to Turkey where they are placed in brothels against their will. According to Dr. Savage, about 60% of orphaned girls are sex trafficked after leaving the orphanages and 20% of boys are labor trafficked. Tragically, 48% of orphaned boys and girls die before reaching their 21st birthday. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates there are 100,000 children living in orphanages in Ukraine. Today, as orphans flee the dangerous warzones of Ukraine, often abandoned by their former caretakers, they unknowingly become targets of sex traffickers looking for the most at-risk children to exploit.
Other American faith-based groups are also reacting to the refugee crisis and are on the ground including the Texas Baptist Men and the Reverend Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse international relief organization. Even individual churches, such as First Baptist Church, Robertsdale, Alabama and its, pastor, Rev. Jeff Copeland, are there providing shelter, food and safety to those who are in desperate need.
Groups like RoH are an asset to U.S. foreign policy and they don’t cost the taxpayer a cent. They raise their own money, and establish broad local networks that are acting as the shock absorber for poor countries in the region facing a massive influx of refugees, many missing their husband and father. In addition, they can work with local governments to stabilize the unprecedented situation before the arrival of the U.S. and European government disaster relief organizations and their contractors. The challenge for later-arriving government efforts is to effectively partner with the faith-based first responders who are helping set the conditions for a successful refugee effort and eventual post-war reconstruction.
*James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. This article was published at Real Clear Policy.