American Faith sat down for an exclusive interview with Olga Ploskonna, a Ukrainian woman who, immediately following Russia’s launch of what it calls its “military operation” against the country, fled her hometown located outside of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city.
After delivering food and supplies to a refugee camp in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, a member of the American Faith team accompanied Olga from the camp across the Romanian border. A few days later, Olga graciously met us in a small coffee shop in Baia Mare, Romania, where she told us the story of her harrowing escape.
She had been away from her home for one month by this point, but the locals in contact with Olga insist it will not be safe to return for some time.
“My name is Olga Ploskonna. I’m from Ukraine,” Olga started, indicating her rural home village was located only 25 kilometers (about 15.5 miles) from Kyiv.
“Before the bombing started, normal life in my village consisted of raising families, planting gardens, keeping chickens,” she said.
“We have old families, young families, families with kids. We have a school there, a kindergarten. That’s normal life in our village.”
We asked Olga about her religious background.
“My parents are not Christians, so I came to the Lord through American missionaries from the International Mission Board (IMB) in 1996, when I was a student,” Olga said. “I lived in Lugansk at the time, in the Donbas region, territory occupied by Russia.”
She explained how the IMB missionaries ministered to Ukrainian students not by merely preaching to them, but by building programs the children enjoyed participating in, celebrating each other’s holidays, sharing cultural experiences, and sharing daily routines.
“While living together for two weeks like this, they would also share their faith,” Olga said. “It was completely different from going to outreach and just hearing a sermon. We became very good friends, and it was really amazing for me to see smart, good, young people loving the Lord. I could see that faith was alive for them. They loved the Lord. They loved the Bible. And you saw it in their daily lives. It was real. You could see it in their eyes. You could see it in their actions.”
We asked if there was anything Olga missed about Lugansk.
“A lot of my friends are still there. My family is still there. I miss my friends, my youth group,” she said.
We then asked about Olga’s husband.
“My husband and I have different nationalities and even speak different languages,” she said. I was born in Russia, in Siberia. And my parents are from Russia. They mainly speak the Russian language. And my husband is from the Kyiv region and he speaks Ukrainian. In our family, I would speak Russian and he would speak Ukrainian, and we didn’t have any problems!”
Olga explained she is an English teacher by occupation, running her own business, while her husband is a biologist working with genetically modified organisms (GMO).
We asked about Olga’s hobbies.
“I like drawing. I’ve taken design courses, mostly on interior design. I don’t have any imagination, but I want to learn!” she joked.
We asked what a normal day looked like in her village before the bombing. She described how in the morning, she would have breakfast with her husband, after which he would have to travel about 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) to his place of work in Kyiv. Olga would do some housework before going to work at the school, where she taught three groups of students, finishing her lessons at 7:30 pm.
“Half of the day I spent at home, half of the day I spent at school,” she said. “We used American programs to teach the children English. They would come and do their work while we supervised and helped the kids as needed. We would work for two hours, then break. And do that with three groups per day.”
Then we asked Olga about Russia’s attack near her village on February 24th.
“We heard the bombing Thursday morning around 5:00 am. I woke up to get a drink of water, went back to bed, and heard a ‘Boom!’ I didn’t understand it was a bombing at first,” said Olga. “But my husband realized instantly. We got to the phone and saw all of the messages saying the war had started.”
“There was a military base about five kilometers (about three miles) from us, and another one in another direction about seven kilometers (over four miles) away,” she went on to say.
“We saw when the rocket hit the oil reserves, all of the fire. The smoke went over our house.”
“We heard bombs all the time.”
Olga described the oil reserve fire going by the next day as a “miracle” because there had been a similar fire at the oil reserve several years prior that authorities could not stop for two weeks.
When we asked Olga when she and her husband decided to leave her village after the bombing started, she said they remained until the following Saturday.
“We saw buildings in nearby cities completely collapsed from rocket strikes. We saw houses completely destroyed.”
We asked what Olga was feeling when the attack first happened and she realized what was happening.
“Everything froze inside,” she remembered. “Even while we were traveling through the mountains coming here to Romania—I’ve always loved the beauty of the mountains. They’re my favorite thing to see. The views coming here were just amazing. But even surrounded by those beautiful mountains, I could not feel them in my heart.”
“But after getting away from the war, I feel like God is now renewing my spirit. The next morning after the journey, I felt like the Lord was near.”
We asked Olga what the journey from her hometown to the refugee camp was like.
“It was tense. And it was long because even though the distance was only 300 kilometers (over 186 miles), it took us two days to cross.”
“There were many posts set up because of the war that we had to wait a long time to get through. The lines were long and moved very slowly. At one post, we had to wait four hours to enter the city on the other side. We also had to spend one night at a campsite,” Olga said.
She went on to say she and her travel companions were “amazed” how in some villages, especially in western Ukraine, local villagers would set up tables with food and drinks for refugees fleeing the war.
“They handed us bags of apples and sandwiches. We were just crying. It really touched our hearts,” she said.
We asked what Olga would do if she could be back at home now.
“We would plant potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes. We need food!” she said. “We need food by the end of the summer.”
We asked how many of Olga’s students’ families’ decided to flee.
“A lot,” she said. “And many of the parents are asking us to continue to work online, which is difficult because we need to pull ourselves together first in order to refocus and be able to accomplish the task of teaching. We know it would be so good for the kids to set their attention on something other than the war, to feel normal again. In preparing for that, we counted how many children had left. About 30 kids have left their villages because of the war, only seven of the families have decided to stay.”
“I text some of the families, ‘How are you?’ but it is very difficult to keep in contact. I wish I could hug them.”
We asked Olga if there were any questions she believes needed to be answered about the conflict.
“I wonder about the feelings of the Russian people, what’s going on in their minds. I also wonder why God would allow this to happen. But I also understand that He is in control, that He has a plan. It’s under his control. It’s not out of his control for even one second.”
We asked if there was anything else Olga would like to communicate to the world about her situation.
“I want to say: thank you very much for praying, for the prayers coming from all over the world. We really feel the prayers and support. That’s a big thing. We are very encouraged by all the support we are receiving.”
“I feel overwhelmed by all this help.”
“I would also ask that people around the world be ready to continue supporting those fleeing from this war because it’s not over yet. The most difficult part will be when the war finishes and we have to rebuild everything that has been destroyed. Kindergartens are destroyed. Churches are destroyed. That’s where we will need the most help.”
Finally, Olga wanted to let our readers know that her story, difficult as it has been, is, according to her, still “not the worst” compared to those of other refugees.
“My story is hard, but I would consider mild compared to other stories I’ve heard about people from Mariupol, Kharkiv, and other parts of Kyiv,” concluded Olga. “I would say my story is not the worst.”