The first call woke Marek Olah up at midnight – it was his brother, telling him to get the church community center ready because he was coming to pick up Ukrainian refugees at the border. Olah started making calls and people showed up looking for blankets and mattresses before the 60-person bus arrived.
“I was very surprised and touched,” said Olah, pastor of Sabinov Apostolic Church, a Roma congregation of about 300 people in eastern Slovakia. “After COVID, we were all kind of… well, this situation with Ukraine woke us up.”
His church members “have been very hospitable and compassionate, even crying with people. Teenagers buy food, women pray with people, a man used his savings to buy jackets for everyone.
Another Roma apostolic church in Pavlovce nad Uhom, Slovakia, just 20 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, was quickly overwhelmed by refugees. Pastor Marek Gombar has asked the church in Olah for help. Other churches sent food and clothing.
Eventually this led to an informal network of 11 Roma and non-Roma churches from Slovakia, the Czech Republic and England coming together to serve refugees. Together they bought a building in a town near the church of Gombar for a storage area, living quarters and, in the future, another church.
Christianity among Roma is flourishing in places like Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, all key outposts for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine. The crisis in the region calls for the fruits of this Christian growth.
“It’s a way to show the real and strong love of Jesus,” said Dimitar Angelov, director and founder of the Youth Mission Network, a nonprofit organization that trains Roma youth in Bulgaria. Immediately when war broke out, Angelov began looking for ways to help, eventually coming into contact with a Ukrainian woman in his area who was coordinating humanitarian aid.
Roma pastors and their congregations have expressed a desire to help all refugees out of Christian compassion. However, the situation required another motivation, as information circulated about Roma and other non-white refugees facing discrimination at borders and in processing centers. Before the war, 50,000 Roma lived in Ukraine, according to official figures, but estimates by intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations put the number at eight times higher.
“Roma have many experiences of not being welcomed,” Olah said. “And that’s what happened to some Roma at the border; they were pushed aside and not treated on an equal footing with other Ukrainians. This is why we, as churches, intervened, because we do not want these families to suffer just because they are Roma.
Over the centuries, Roma in Europe have often been marginalized in political, social and religious spheres. Despite improved laws and social policies, crises like COVID-19 and war reveal the deep-rooted social fears and suspicion towards Roma that are still endemic in Eastern European societies.
Even in Christian circles, Roma Christians are often left behind.
This reality influenced how Angelov introduced himself to his Ukrainian contact in Bulgaria. He said, “We’re doing this because we’re a Christian organization and we’re doing this for the glory of God, and oh, by the way, I’m Roma and I’m proud of it. No matter what we hear, bad comments from your people or from my people, we are here and we will help you. And don’t forget, I’m Roma.
Roma refugees move on
Reports of unequal treatment among Roma refugees emerged from Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova, the Czech Republic and Poland. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe with the highest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita, including Roma refugees.
After rising tensions and complaints, the Moldovan government reached an agreement with Roma community leaders to separate ethnicities, promising quality facilities. However, Roma refugees, along with Azerbaijanis and Uzbeks, have been placed in substandard facilities and currently face significant challenges, according to a report released in early March by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC). after visiting three reception centers in Moldova.
Victorina Luca, a Roma Christian lawyer from Moldova, estimated that 70% of Roma refugees do not have passports, although some do have birth certificates. Roma have been called the most undocumented group in Ukraine, with discrimination and bureaucratic obstacles preventing them from obtaining official identification. But as refugees, they need these documents before they leave, which most want to do. According to Luca, no documents means no free transport to the embassy.
“Most are here without money. They walk to town or take the public bus but get kicked out because they can’t pay,” said Luca, founder of the Roma Awareness Foundation and Romano Patrin radio station in Soroca, Moldova.
To obtain documents, the refugees have to queue every day for two or three weeks, alongside thousands of ethnic Ukrainians. “And then the embassy says, ‘We can’t document you because you never had any papers. So people are stuck.
While a few thousand Roma refugees want to stay in Moldova until the end of the war, according to Luca, the majority are trying to move further west to Europe, where they have relatives.
Luca converted to Christianity at the age of 14 thanks to a radio program and was the first in her family to finish her studies, although the people of her village tell her: “Your mother, your grandmother mother and your great-grandmother never graduated. She went on to graduate from Central Eastern University in Budapest and New York University and now uses her position to advocate for her fellow Roma, including the recent influx from Ukraine.
“When you give your life to God, he can take you out of a desert and place you on the mountains of his glory,” she said. “God has transformed my life into his glorious light to shine upon the world.”
Ministry to Roma Refugees
In this scenario, when government resources are eclipsed by the vastness of need, churches play a key role. Pastor Ionel Cocos and his wife, Anka, who run five Roma churches in central Romania, suspected societal attitudes would be a factor in how Roma were received. When they heard about neglect, they turned their attention to Roma refugees.
Image: Courtesy of Ionel Cocos
“When the war started I was so shocked and cried, I just wanted to do something,” Cocos said. “I spoke in my church; we have started to gather offers and also international partners.”
A friend put him in touch with a Roma church in Edineţ, Moldova, where Pastor Sibiriak Farfacari and his wife, Tatiana, run four churches in Roma communities. They took in large numbers of Roma refugees, even taking in an extended family with a young girl whose parents were killed while fleeing Mariupol.
Ionel and Anka Cocos now travel to Edineţ every two weeks to buy supplies for the church.
The ability of Roma Christians to move between cultures and languages is a key gift in this crisis. Gombar, the pastor from Slovakia, is part of the government response team, and his ability to speak Romani with the refugees is invaluable. As soon as the government learned that his church served refugees, they began to refer most Roma to him.
“They called Marek and said, ‘You have to come get this family,'” said Shane McNary, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field staff member who has worked with Roma for 17 years in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “Marek kept trying to figure out where they were and eventually found they were sleeping in the woods. There are a lot of these stories, and it still happens.
Roma support is also being sent inside Ukraine. Gypsies and Travelers International Evangelical Fellowship (GATIEF), the missionary arm of French Life and Light Fellowship, delivered five large relief trucks to thousands of Roma trapped in different cities.
Give what you don’t have
The distribution of goods can present other types of challenges within Roma churches themselves, particularly in poorer contexts. Gombar has a long-standing relationship with three Roma churches in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, just 20 kilometers from his church. He is bringing aid to them from Slovakia so that they can distribute it to the refugees in their churches.
Disagreements arose, however, when it seemed that one church was getting more help than the others. Others have been accused of “feeding their own people” instead of the refugees. A Roma refugee who had fled better-off circumstances in eastern Ukraine was shocked to see such abject poverty – and yet it was the communities that served him. Gombar made a pastoral visit to help churches resolve disagreements and also to warn them of the difficulties of crossing the border and becoming refugees.
“They are doing the best they can in the midst of overwhelming need and poverty,” McNary said after visiting Ukrainian communities with Gombar. “They are always ready to help when they hardly have enough themselves.”
Gombar said the situation revealed different levels of maturity in his congregation.
“Some people saw the need, and they came immediately and wanted to help. Other people have come and seen the need, but there is a struggle within them because they have the same needs and they see all the supplies for the refugees,” he said.
“Do I go to church to help the refugees when I myself am hungry? I am very strict. No, you can’t eat anything, not even chocolate, because chocolate is for children. If you are here to serve, then serve.
In Moldova, the Farfacari also faced the lack of resources, trusting in God to provide for the daily needs of the 250 people who passed through. One day in early March, they held a prayer meeting at the church to ask God to send help.
That day, Cocos phoned her from Romania, and a few hours later they were together in a grocery store buying ten carts of refugee supplies.
“It’s wonderful when God answers your prayers,” Cocos said, “but it’s even better when you’re the answer to someone else’s prayer.”
Melody J. Wachsmuth is a writer, researcher, and missionary based in Zagreb, Croatia. His next monograph is a study on Roma Pentecostals in Croatia and Serbia.