By Laura McKillip Wood
Natasha Reimer watched the video flash across her screen, horrified at the view of devastation and death in Ukraine. Lives lost, homes destroyed, orphans created.* She closed her laptop and dropped to her knees. “God, what will become of my people?” she cried. “What can I do to help them?” She prayed this same prayer every night for weeks.
Years before, Natasha had attended Kentucky Christian University and eventually earned a master’s degree in diplomacy and international development at University of Kentucky. Although she made her home in the United States, her heart was in Crimea, Ukraine, where she was raised and her parents still lived.
Natasha had worked with Mulberry International since the early 2000s, focusing on ministry to orphans and foster children in Crimea. When Russia occupied Crimea in 2014 (subsequently annexing it), most Americans left for more stable areas. She and Jody Hesler, who helped start the organization in the mid-1990s, did not want the ministry to end just because the Americans funding it left. They grieved for those who faced homelessness after the destruction of their villages along the border with Russia. Jody offered to change Natasha’s role to become executive director of the ministry and challenged her to find a way to keep it afloat during those uncertain times. Natasha agreed to pray for 30 days and determine where God was leading her.
The Situation in Ukraine
In the 1990s and early 2000s, after the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine became an independent nation again, missionaries and relief workers flooded into the country. Some works they started flourished, but many depended on Americans for leadership and funding. With Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, those Americans left, and the ministries struggled. Additionally, when Russian forces occupied areas along Ukraine’s eastern border, fighting destroyed villages, and a 13-mile-wide stretch of land labeled a “buffer zone” was created. According to Natasha, “1.8 million Ukrainians are displaced.” The hostilities have now lasted longer than World War II. “Imagine your house blown away and you don’t have adequate clothing. The cold . . . makes it unbearable. People freeze to death.”
The world initially reacted with horror to what Russia did to Ukraine. Organizations distributed basic humanitarian aid to people living in the rubble. Eventually, however, these organizations moved on to work in other areas of the world. There are now only enough resources from international aid organizations to help about 1 million of the 3 million people who need it.
“I’ve never seen anything in my life like this—the poverty, absolute despair, and awful conditions are unimaginable,” Natasha says. “We’ve been to some homes that are basically condemned housing with a dirt floor. No running water, no sink, no bathroom, and people have been living there for years with small children. They just try to survive.”
Mulberry International’s Ministry
During Natasha’s month of prayer and discernment in 2014, she realized God had opened a door for her.
“My first answer was a hard no, but I was praying, and God said, ‘This is your chance.’” She accepted the role of executive director of Mulberry International and got to work.
Mulberry expanded its focus from Crimean orphans and began working with ministries in areas in Eastern Ukraine. The organization currently works in the city of Mariupol, near the border with Russia, and the villages around it. Many internally displaced people have settled in substandard housing in Mariupol. Mulberry supports a variety of ministries there, all completely run by local Ukrainians who want to help those who have been displaced.
“We have partnerships with the local churches,” Natasha says. “They are the hands and feet of the ministry and provide local oversight and church support. We provide the financial resources.” Any local organizations who want to partner with Mulberry International must be run by Christians, and they must already be actively ministering, she says. Mulberry also provides zero-interest loans to people who create sustainable employment for the unemployed and who want to use their businesses as evangelistic tools in addition to meeting physical needs.
“We have a dairy farm, repair shops, a bakery, a pottery shop, and poultry farms for families in the war zone. All of this is on top of the actual church work being done in the area.”
All the while, Mulberry International has maintained its focus on orphans and disadvantaged children.
“We are the primary financial supporter of Good Samaritan Children’s Home, which hosts about 30 kids [ages] 6 through 18.” Mulberry also works with abused, neglected, and abandoned children, at-risk families, and foster and adoptive families.
Expanding the Work
In September 2021, Natasha traveled to the buffer zone near Donetsk, where fighting between Russia and Ukraine began seven years earlier. During the worst fighting, homes and towns in the buffer were destroyed.
No one is supposed to live there anymore, but people still do. Natasha’s dream is to expand the work of Mulberry into the Donetsk region. She has contacts in the churches and knows healthy ministries there that already work with displaced people. Mulberry International is raising funds that will allow these ministries to work more effectively and reach more people.
On her visit, Natasha saw “sacrificial, hardworking, honest Ukrainians who were faithful with a little and could be given more.” She is excited about what God is doing and happy that Mulberry can partner in that work.
She also realizes the danger is not over. In November, Russia moved more forces to the border, leading many to speculate military action might be imminent. Natasha’s heart aches for the wonderful people she knows there.
“When I’m there, grandmas come up to me and kiss my hands and thank me. I just think to myself, I don’t deserve this. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time, helping those people in the name of Jesus is what it’s about.”
To learn more about the work of Mulberry International, visit http://mulberryinternational.org/
*This article was written in December 2021. On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Over the next several weeks, Laura McKillip Wood wrote articles about how Christian individuals and organizations in Ukraine were persevering during wartime. View them in the news section of this site, christianstandard.com/category/news.