Ukrainian Kids I Met at Church Camp in Lithuania

Ukranian, Lithuanian and American children take a team photo at Ruta Christian Camp. Photo by Michael Nicodemus

July 13, 2023
By Michael Nicodemus, POL Contributor

I was sitting on a porch swing at Ruta Christian Camp in Moletai, Lithuania with another American counselor, Jesse, when “Anna”, a petite 8-year-old Ukrainian girl, came over and started pushing the swing. I asked Tomas, a Lithuanian counselor who spoke both English and Russian, to translate. 

I asked, “where are you from?” – “Kharkiv”, “is your mother in Lithuania?” – “da” (yes). “is your father still in Ukraine?”, – “mertvy”. Tomas’ face changed. He translated simply, “dead”.

Kharkiv, Ukraine is located near the Russian border about 300 miles east of Kyiv. The city was targeted early in the 2022 invasion and the attacks have not ceased. Last week BBC News reported that 43 people including 12 children were injured when Russian forces shelled a residential building. 

I learned that “Anna”’s father was killed in the “Donbas War”. According to the BBC, the Donbas War began in 2014, after Russia seized the autonomous peninsula of Crimea to Ukraine’s south on the Black Sea. Next, Russia attempted to claim the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk including the city of Donbas. 

“Anna” has no memory of her father. Her mother remarried. When “Anna” fled Kharkiv with her mother and brother, her step-father stayed behind to join the Ukrainian defense. 

“Anna” shows off her craft.
Photo by Tomas Dambrauskis

“Anna” smiles a lot. She enjoys the games, crafts, and songs of Ruta Christian Camp. One of the traditions that she loves happens at meal-times. If someone gets caught with their elbows on the table, the kids pound the table and sing, “Get your elbows off the table, (kid’s name)”. The offender must then run around the mess hall holding hands with another camper.

Whenever the pounding began, “Anna” would jump up and run to see the guilty party. One day, I was sitting at a table with other American and Lithuanian counselors and “Anna”. She looked at me with a huge grin and deliberately put her elbows on the table. I took the hint and started the song. She was so happy as she ran around the mess hall! She got “caught” two more times that week.

“Anna’s” brother, “Igor”, was also at camp. He is twelve-years-old with a talent for sports, especially football (soccer). I had met him briefly last year, at which time he spoke no English. This year, his English had markedly improved and he could manage some conversation. He seemed a little too serious for his age, and protective of his little sister, but none of this would indicate the horrors he and his sister have had to endure in their young lives.

Ruta Christian Camp is a Church of Christ Camp in Moletai, Lithuania on Lake Bebrusai. This year was the 25th anniversary of the camp. There are typically three weeks of camp: a week for teens, family camp, and the week mentioned here for children from 8-13 years old. This year, the teen camp did not occur due to lack of funds and volunteers.

“Igor” with a cookie he decorated.
Photo by Drew Broussard

The camp is modeled after and mimics the structure and traditions of an American church camp. Part of the appeal of the camp for the Lithuanian children is that it provides the children with opportunities to improve their English in a fun and spiritual environment. This year’s children’s camp took place from June 26 to July 2. Of the sixty-two campers, ten of them were Ukrainian refugees.

Nine-year-old “Taras” came from a small village near Kharkiv that was occupied by Russian soldiers a year ago. After the village was liberated, he fled to Lithuania with his mother while his father stayed behind to work and take care of his grandmother.
One day at camp, the kids were asked to name a place that they love. Most said “Camp Ruta”, but “Taras” named his grandmother’s garden, which he helped to tend. He told the others that he missed being there with her and that he doesn’t know when he will return.

Most of the Ukrainian children were brought to the camp by the Kaunas Church of Christ. The Kaunas church has provided housing for over 30 Ukrainian women as they find jobs and get settled. They have a community center where the Ukrainian children learn English, Lithuanian, and about the bible. More information about that work can be found here. Because of the camp’s limited housing and mental health services, there were more than 40 Ukrainian kids from the Kaunas Church of Christ who were unable to attend.

Fellow camp counselor Lewis shared the following:
“I walked in one night to check on the boys and make sure they were settling down. One complained about allergies and the need to run what I thought was an air purifier. When I plugged it in, “Marko” begged me to turn it off. Since all of this was in a language that I didn’t know, any queries on my part were too slow, and he started sobbing. Not a bratty sort, but a desperate one, the one you hear when your kid wakes up from a nightmare and there’s nothing you can do to fix it except hold them. As soon as the plug was out, I sat next to him and cradled his head, as any parent would do for their kid. He finally settled down and got ready for bed, getting tucked in.”

“Taras” adds his handprint to the camp banner.
Photo by Michael Nicodemus

The Kaunas community center provides a child psychologist/counselor. Several of the other Ukrainian children have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One child would become frightened every time he heard or saw a plane. They reminded him of the missiles that flew over his home in Ukraine.

Twenty-nine year old camp counselor “Ivan” is also a refugee from Odessa. Health issues prevent “Ivan” from joining the fight against the Russians. His parents and his sister’s family still live in Ukraine. His brother was killed in the Donbas War.

“Ivan” joins the campers for morning calisthenics.
Photo by Michael Nicodemus

“Ivan” was a truck driver.  One day, he stopped at a gas station for coffee, but after leaving his truck, he felt a strong urge to climb back inside. He said that “my arms wanted to reach for the coffee, but my legs pulled me out.” The pull to leave was so strong, he left without coffee. Four minutes later, that gas station was bombed. 

In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Ukrainian flags fly in equal number as Lithuanian flags. The support for Ukraine and the condemnation of Russia’s actions have been fervent since Russia first began conquest of Ukraine and remain strong. There is support for Ukraine across Europe, while many Americans either have forgotten about the war or just do not care.

If you would like to support Ruta Christian Camp, you can mail a check with “Ruta Christian Camp” on the note line to:
Gateway Church of Christ
445 Creighton Rd.
Pensacola, FL 32504

You can also give online: Select “Ruta Christian Camp” from the “Fund” dropdown menu.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has created a website for those who want to donate funds to help his country: United 24.